‘The Japan-South Korea Identity Clash: East Asian Security and the United States’


Brad Glosserman and Scott A. Snyder, The Japan-South Korea Identity Clash: East Asian Security and the United States, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

As we approach August 15, the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, when Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s unconditional surrender, the world waits with bated breath as Prime Minister Abe Shinzo carefully crafts a statement reflecting on Japan’s views of the war. Abe’s framing of Japan’s past will decisively shape not only popular morale in the nation during a time of economic downturn and uncertainty, but it will also critically shape the future of Japan’s relations with some of its most important partners, including the United States, China, and South Korea. All the while, animosity between Japan and South Korea has flared to new heights in the past three years with the rise of right-wing politics, ultra-nationalism, and controversies over Japan’s deployment of Korean sex slaves during the war. In this context, Glosserman and Snyder’s book is a timely and much needed analysis of the state of diplomatic ties between Japan and one of her most significant neighbors.

The book grapples with well-known questions among international relations (IR) specialists: Why is it that Japan-South Korean diplomatic relations are so fraught over historical issues, despite interlocking security interests and a shared background as “fellow Asian democracies and successful market economies with common values”? (5) What will it take for the two countries to reconcile national wounds over a tormented colonial past in order to advance mutual interests in rebuilding their faltering economies and protecting themselves from the shared threat of China and North Korea? And what is the US role in mediating conflict between the two?

The authors argue that their major contribution to this topic is their unique incorporation of public opinion data from a diverse range of sources including the Pew Research Center, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the Asia Barometer, the World Values Survey, as well as a host of domestic governmental and media surveys in South Korea and Japan. They note that the failure in the field to consider how mainstream attitudes affect public policy is a critical flaw given the prominence of domestic views on national identity and pride as a major driving force in shaping diplomatic relations. Thus, to properly understand why Japan and South Korea are at a standstill, the authors argue that rather than focus exclusively on macro-level changes and the behavior of significant political actors, it is imperative to understand the mutually influential relationship between the public and politics.

Analyses are grounded in the perspective that public perceptions constrain political actors from acting pragmatically towards economic and security interests in both South Korea and Japan. The authors state, “In democracies, public opinion influences the policy direction of leadership through elections or through withdrawal of support for particular national policies, but it can also be a lagging indicator, at least by demonstrating (or exposing) public satisfaction with government policies and perceptions of how the government is managing relations with its neighbors”. (18) A methodological approach that links public views to the behavior of elite actors, they argue, will allow scholars to more effectively understand how and why national identity issues continue to powerfully restrict cooperative diplomatic relations.

Three major sections organize the authors’ arguments. The first two empirical chapters analyze how national identity views have shaped domestic and foreign policies in South Korea and Japan, respectively, by utilizing public polls and interview data. The authors investigate the implications of these national trends within the context of the changing dynamics of Japan-South Korean relations in the next chapter. Finally, the book concludes with two chapters analyzing the US role in facilitating harmonious Japan-South Korea relations, and offers bold policy recommendations for moving forward in establishing harmonious trilateral relations to advance mutual interests in Northeast Asia.

Whereas foreign policy experts to date have primarily focused on examining how state institutions act to protect national interests, the authors propose a framework that looks beyond mere instrumental factors. They emphasize how “‘national identity,’ as revealed by values, beliefs and resulting social systems, provides an equally compelling basis for cooperation”. (20) Ultimately, the book argues that America can lead the way in facilitating reconciliation by acknowledging its own central role in perpetuating “identity-related wounds between Japan and South Korea that have yet to heal,” including its responsibility in the atomic bombings of Japan and “its failure to tie up loose ends surrounding the postwar settlement, especially as it relates to questions of disputed sovereignty and conflicting maritime claims”. (172)

Diagnosis of the Problem: Bridging Public Views to Foreign Policy

I approached this volume from the perspective of a qualitative sociologist with limited background in IR, whose recent focus has been a grassroots ethnographic study of the Korean minority community in Japan. My current project analyzes the surge of hate speech demonstrations organized by extreme Japanese right-wing groups against third- and fourth-generation Korean ethnic minorities, many of whom have descended from forced labor migrants during the colonial regime. Japan-South Korean diplomatic tensions over atrocities committed during the war and colonization of the Korean Peninsula play a palpable role in shaping the everyday lives of the Korean minorities I study. Past ethnographic studies on grassroots communities such as the Koreans in Japan have suffered from a malaise similar to what Glosserman and Snyder find in the field of IR. Whereas IR specialists have focused almost exclusively on elite actors and macro-level changes in foreign policy, ethnographers such as myself have by and large devoted our efforts to the study of grassroots-level activities at the expense of appreciating the impact of diplomatic relations. In particular, in my field, there has been a lack of understanding of how broader social forces beyond the domestic realm can assert pressure on the state to address the interests of the ethnic minorities in achieving social equality in Japan.

Given the lack of dialogue between the fields of IR and in-depth analyses of grassroots phenomena, this book makes an important theoretical contribution to our understanding of what might facilitate reconciliation between South Korea and Japan. Yet, despite its ambitious objective, the book, in my opinion, is weakened by methodological shortcomings in rigorously incorporating interview and survey data to accurately represent the state of public perceptions in particularly Japan.

In their chapter on “Japan’s Identity Crisis,” the authors aggregate findings from a wide range of public polls and survey data to analyze mainstream Japanese attitudes on national identity and pride. In stark contrast to widespread perceptions around the world that a surge of nationalistic chauvinism has taken over Japan, the chapter argues, to the contrary, that:

Japanese are proud of their country and their culture, but that pride does not equate with nationalism or chauvinism. Rather, it is a sense of belonging to a distinct group. Japanese are conservative in the traditional sense of the word, meaning status quo oriented. That conservatism is evident in the continuing overwhelming support for an egalitarian society and the call for state action to make that ideal real. (52)

Glosserman and Snyder paint a somewhat optimistic picture of Japanese attitudes towards foreign policy in Northeast Asia. They note how Abe has been “firm without being belligerent,” sending special envoys to Seoul and Beijing as a sign of good will, and how, despite Abe’s right-wing tendencies, such trends are not reflective of a shift in mainstream Japanese views. (58) Ordinary Japanese are more interested in domestic issues rather than foreign policies towards its neighbors, the authors argue.

This somewhat sanguine outlook on current Japanese national identity is based on empirical analyses that I find questionable on three accounts. First, in providing an explanation for various attitudinal trends found from survey data, the authors often relied on interviews. But not only was it unclear as to how many there were and in what context the interviews were conducted, but also there was often a lack of strong consensus as to how the interview quotes presented explained their findings from survey data. The opinions of bureaucrats, scholars, and ordinary citizens were combined in an ad hoc manner to shed light on mainstream trends; thus, leaving the reader with a lack of confidence in the credibility of the authors’ assertions. Second, there was a similar lack of contextualization in the treatment of the diverse range of survey data used. For the most part, the sampling populations of surveys conducted by sources as diverse as Mainichi Shimbun and Pew polls were indiscriminately inferred to reflect the attitudes of a generalizable population of Japanese citizens. While an aggregation of survey results is not problematic to triangulate findings, or, in other words, to provide rigorous evidence from several independent sources to support a common outcome, it is troubling when the same approach is used to provide a more comprehensive understanding of different facets of a complicated phenomenon. Third, this problematic treatment of survey data is exacerbated by the lack of analysis as to how attitudes differed according to demographic factors such as age, socioeconomic status, education, and gender. Instead, results were presented with the assumption that Japanese views were not significantly affected by differences in background.

Since Abe’s return to power in December 2012, specialists on Japan have expressed widespread concern over his highly publicized efforts to deny the historical veracity of Japan’s legacy in institutionalizing systems of sexual slavery during the war, his promotion of history textbooks that have covered over many of Japan’s war atrocities, and his largely successful initiative in stifling media and scholarly criticisms of his administration. It is hardly a coincidence that the past three years have also seen the growing prominence of extremist hate groups targeting Korean minorities in Japan, such as the Zaitokukai, the abbreviated name for Zainichi Tokken o Yurusanai Shimin no Kai (Association of Citizens against the Special Privileges of Foreigners in Japan), which has a burgeoning membership of over 15,000 Japanese.

While there is much debate on the extent to which the Abe administration and extremist right-wing groups such as the Zaitokukai are reflective of mainstream views, my own field research has pointed to disturbing similarities in the ideological stance of extremists and ordinary Japanese. Certainly, most Japanese do not approve of the blatant expressions of hate and racism by Zaitokukai; however, interviews with local Japanese who consider themselves “open-minded” have demonstrated striking trends of perceptions that Korean views of war atrocities are fictitious and exaggerated for self-serving nationalistic purposes. Growing anxiety over Japan’s economic future in light of its rapidly aging society and shrinking population of able workers has caused many tax-paying Japanese citizens to share the core concerns of the Zaitokukai that the Korean minorities in Japan are draining the nation of its resources as undeserving recipients of social welfare benefits. Paranoia over the deceptive and swindling tendencies of Koreans both at home and abroad was echoed in the numerous popular anti-Korea books that topped bestseller lists on Amazon and major bookstores in Japan.

While public poll data do, indeed, provide important insight on mainstream perceptions and attitudes, this type of data, by itself, does not provide sufficient understanding of how politics are connected to and influenced by everyday perceptions of ordinary Japanese. Perhaps, most concerning is the theoretical perspective undergirding the book that political actors are largely constrained by public perceptions. Recent research points to considerable evidence that the direction of power and influence is reversed in the case of Japan and South Korea. That is to say, Abe has, reportedly, engineered a “fundamental shift in the balance of power between his administration and the news media, using tactics to silence criticism that go beyond anything his predecessors tried and that have frustrated journalists”.1 Vocal critics of the Abe administration, such as television commentator Koga Shigeaki, have lost their jobs, and supporters, such as the new chairman of NHK, have found their way to the top of prominent media outlets. Journalists in fear of suffering consequences similar to those encountered by Asahi Shimbun have since cut back on critical, investigative coverage of sensitive political issues.

Similarly, in South Korea, despite democratization and laws granting freedom of the press, the state continues to hold significant sway over major media. During the Lee Myung-bak administration, for instance, the president appointed two of the five commissioners of the Korea Communications Commission (KCC), with the National Assembly choosing the remaining three. Consequently, the heads of prominent media outlets, including Korea Broadcasting Station (KBS) and Yonhap Television Network (YTN) were replaced by advocates of Lee’s thinking, and more than 180 journalists were penalized for writing critical reports of the administration.2 Such powerful control over media perceptions of governmental policies in South Korea and Japan not only call into question how autonomous public polls and opinions are, but also raise suspicions over the credibility of domestic news and survey data to gauge popular attitudes.

Policy Recommendations: The Role of the United States in Building Trust in Northeast Asia

Despite uncertainty over the utility of domestic poll data, the book opened my eyes to a potential pathway to restoring trust between Japan and South Korea. The notion that the United States could lead the way in repairing tensions over historical memory between South Korea and Japan, thus, bettering the conditions and livelihood of Korean minorities in Japan, was one that I had not previously considered. Certainly, my fixation on Korea and Japan (to the exclusion of their ally) is a tendency that is quite common among the social activists in my field site, Osaka’s historic Korean ghetto, which first took shape under the colonial regime. A pessimistic atmosphere of despair towards the Abe administration, which has turned a blind eye towards the suffering of the former colonial subjects, pervades the Korean community in Osaka. At the same time, interviews with mainstream Japanese in the area reflect deep seeds of resentment and exasperation towards their unfair portrayal as the “bad guys” of the war. Even a mere mentioning of the “comfort women” controversy with local Japanese has often spiraled into defensive diatribes against Asahi Shimbun, which published a faulty portrayal of the issue, as anti-Japanese (hannichi).

To argue, however, that historical memory over war atrocities has been wielded as an easy tool with which political actors emotionally manipulate the masses is not only too simplistic but also quite cynical. My experiences in the field have led me to believe that these issues have become such a hotbed of emotion because the Koreans wish to be granted the space within society to mourn the loss of their ancestors, and the Japanese, who have also suffered tragic losses, feel trapped by their portrayal as the perpetrators when they actually feel that they are the losers and victims of the war, as well. I can vividly recall one particular interview, in which a highly educated Japanese woman took the risk of potentially offending me, an American researcher, by asking me a series of challenging questions: “What about all the innocent civilians who died after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? What about all the innocent babies who were born with defects because of residual nuclear radiation? Weren’t you taught at school that the bombings, even though they had terrible consequences on our country, had been necessary to end the war?” At the time, I assuaged my guilt by telling her that I had learned about the atomic bombings and the various tragic ramifications it had on Japan as a child, and that in addition, as a college student, I had visited the Hiroshima War Memorial. But I continued to grapple with the woman’s earnest questions in the back of my mind even after our session had ended. I had difficulty coming to grips with the fact that as a product of the American public education system, I had learned to rationalize the horrible tragedy of the bombs with the subsequent demise of a fascist regime.

As my involvement in the field deepens, I come to learn not only of how deeply intertwined the United States has been in the painful history of the Korean Peninsula and Japan, but also of how every regime has been involved in covering up unflattering incidents from the past. The Jeju Massacre of April 3, 1948 is a perfect illustration of this. Every year in the Korean enclave in Osaka, the Korean minorities, the vast majority who have migrated from poor villages on Jeju Island, commemorate and mourn the loss of their ancestors from this tragic episode, which until only recently, had been covered up by the South Korean government. I remember listening to an elderly Korean man speak of his village being burned down and pillaged by South Korean and American soldiers, fearing his mother and sisters might be raped along with many of the women in his hometown. The perpetrators here were fellow Koreans and the Allied Forces, but by collectively mourning the losses of this unfortunate historical incident, there was a sense of healing and catharsis that fell upon the people who sat quietly wiping away their own tears in the tightly packed auditorium that day.

Imploring Koreans to focus on the future, while depriving them of a space to commemorate a painful past, is not only unrealistic but also inhumane. But at the same time, grieving the past by constructing a simplistic narrative that casts the Japanese as heartless fascists is not only inaccurate but also unjust. Within such an emotionally fraught context, I believe that trust and reconciliation between the Koreans and Japanese can be advanced by the United States not by acting as a bystander or moral police, but by taking responsibility for its deep entanglements in past atrocities in the region and by apologizing to both nations in hope that Japan and South Korea will follow suit. While IR specialists may have a different view of how realistic or feasible this approach is, it is a sign of desperation of the people at the center of deepening distrust and even animosity that solutions once considered “out of the box” now must be taken seriously.

1. The New York Times, April 26, 2015.

2. Stephan Haggard and Jong-sung You, “Freedom of Expression in South Korea,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 45, no. 1 (2015), 167-179.