Be wary of the ‘Seikanron’ descendants

Joint Project between the Northeast Asian History Foundation and The AsiaN

*Editor’s Note: Security in East Asia is swaying in a rough sea. North Korea’s nuclear crisis has been highly elated amid existing territorial disputes and deep-rooted conflicts between nations in the region. South Korea, China and Japan, the countries directly involved, are all looking for a new order in the process of power shift. In search of sensible solutions for historical conflicts in East Asia, The AsiaN and the Northeast Asian History Foundation have jointly featured a column series by experts on current issues in East Asia. The contribution series of  in-depth analyses, insights and strategic solutions will be provided in four languages including English, Korean, Chinese and Arabic.

[Expert Column Series on Current Issues in East Asia] ⑤ Be wary of the ‘Seikanron’ descendants

If I cannot even know my changing self from morning to night, how much more difficult must it be to understand the Japanese people? There is a saying that close neighbors are better than distant relatives. I do not think this proverb suits the Korea-Japan relationship. Even though both countries have received much Confucius influence and the people have similar appearances, the two countries are like oil and water; they do not mix well together. Both nations look down upon one another with belittling expressions such as “jjokbari” and “chosenjin.”

Last February 17, in Tokyo’s Korea town, a large-scale anti-Korean demonstration took place. On February 22, an event commemorating Takeshima Day was enforced. Senior government officials of vice-minister level were dispatched to encourage the event.

Far right-wing activists ripped the Korean flag and stomped on it while yelling, “Get rid of Koreans in Japan.” One activist, Suzuki Nobuyuki went so far as to stating, “Takeshima is our land. Kick out all the Koreans living there.” The descendants of Seikanron (meaning ‘conquering Korea’), advocated by Saigo Takamori (1827-1877), seem to be going to extremes throughout Japan. We should keep an eye on this phenomenon.

“The Japanese have a tendency to act weak in front of the strong and to despise the weak.”

This familiar phrase was used by Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964) and is widely known. I believe this is a straightforward way of describing the Japanese character. Words like “honne” and “datemae” are examples that express the clear duplicity of the Japanese people. “Honne” means coming from truth and “datemae” means just for show. Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), author of The Chrysanthemum & the Sword, discovered the Japanese character’s tendency toward duplicity after studying and analyzing their behavior.

– Japanese are uniquely polite, but can also be haughty and arrogant.
– Japanese troops are in perfect order like robots, but soldiers can be openly disobedient.
– Japanese like to grow chrysanthemums (peace), but worship the sword (war).

Japanese history is one of collapse after flaunting its power and carrying out its ambitions. During Japan’s 700 years of military rule, it has become second nature for Japan to keep the sword up front. And when expanding its power, Japan desired to take over its neighboring countries. Japan’s Seikanron-based actions left a deep scar on Korea, one difficult to heal.

The Chronicles of Japan (Nihon Shoki) is an example of distortion and fabrication. They made up the fact that Empress Jingu conquered Koguryo, Baekje, and Silla while being pregnant. Like this, Seikanron does not stop at the legendary age, but continues to Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598)’s attack on Chosun.

In his book, Japanese Intellectuals and Korea, Han, Sang-il describes how the Seikanron followers such as Yamagata Aritomo (1838-1922) and Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901) perceived Chosun.

Yamagata Aritomo is the one who initiated the policy to expand to the main continent during the Meiji Era and he spread the theory of expansion to ensure Japan’s safety and interests. Thus, he argued if a country was to maintain its independence, it was not sufficient to protect its sovereignty, but needed to defend its area of safety and interest. He believed that Japan’s lifeline was Chosun and this became the basis of the conquering Chosun ideology, Seikanron.

Fukuzawa Yukichi, who appears on the Japanese 10,000 yen bill is called a national hero in Japan. He had much ambition to conquer Chosun as he rationalized that it was “civilized Japan’s” duty to protect “little uncivilized Chosun.” Even though he is revered as a sage in Japan, to Koreans, he is a great villain who was behind the logic to invade Chosun.

Intellectuals in late Chosun were buried in the lie of Fukuzawa’s ‘Chosun’s independence’ philosophy and Korea fell into the bottomless pit of colonization for 35 years. One sighs at the naivety of the enlightened party around 1884, many of whom were Fukuzawa’s disciples such as Lee Dong-in, Park Young-hyo, Kim Okgyun and Seo Gwang-beom.

There were many who proposed to reconcile with Japan and make plans for coexistence for peace in Northeast Asia. Ahn Jung-geun sought a peaceful path for Korea, China and Japan in his unfinished essay written in prison, “On Peace in East Asia.”

“Let’s put the headquarters of the Eastern Peace Conference in Lüshun, establish a joint bank and use a common currency. We can make a joint army force with the youth of the three nations, learn about each other’s languages, and strengthen friendly, brother-like relations.”

A few months before Sun Wen died from liver cancer in 1925, he made a famous speech in Kobe on ‘Great Asianism.’

“The Japanese people must carefully decide whether they will lead the way of Western might or be the shield of Eastern right.” (Shiba Ryotaro, translated by Seo Seok-yeon, Study on Japan and the Japanese people, Revolutionist Sun Wen’s Perception of Japan)

There are some conscientious Japanese who understood Chosun’s plight. Yanagi Muneyoshi (1889-1961), a spokesperson on behalf of the Korean race, criticized Japan’s wrongdoings and pleaded for Korean’s independence. He is assessed as a model of conscientious Japanese intellectuals who emphasized the friendship of Korea as a good-neighbor.

Mathematician and a critic on civilization, Kim, Yong-woon (1927-present) raised the “view of coexistence of cultures” and pursued harmony between the three countries: Korea, China, and Japan.

“The three countries Korea, China, and Japan share Confucian values and a culture of Chinese characters. My goal is to expand on the universal values of these cultures.” (Korea, China, and Japan’s Histories Tell of the Future) He aimed for education and cultural exchange, which could lead to co-prosperity, through proposing the establishment of the ‘Asia University.’

But, is it possible to peacefully coexist with Japan as Japan is quick to call out a military government whenever the chance presents? One feels even more suspicious when observing duplicity in the Japanese leaders’ conduct as they pulled the strings of the Takashima Day event. Japan looks upon itself not as an aggressor, but as a victim of war. Japan insists its history of attack and plunder is the result of a self-critical viewpoint of its history, but on the other hand, it freely interprets and distorts its history.

No matter how many times the “weakling” shouts, “let us overcome conflict and hostility and go the way of peace and harmony,” it is nothing more than empty echoes to the one who goes forward, relying on the power of the “sword” and disregarding conversation. Before discussing harmony and co-existence, we must first grow our power like the emerging China of G2 in order to prevent Japan from behaving rashly.

Baek Am Park Eun-Sik (1859~1925) presented a very clear solution.

“Ahn Jung-geun often addressed us citizens vehemently on the importance of uniting together. How can our fellow countryman forget this? Oh! Ahn Jung-geun is holding a knife in his hand and protecting us right and left.” (Kim, Sam-woong, A Critical Biography of Ahn Jung-geun)

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