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Japan-South Korea rift

South Korean bestseller attacking anti-Japan 'tribalism' stirs debate

Opposition says Moon's harsh criticism of Tokyo has effect of isolating nation

South Koreans chant during an anti-Japan rally in Seoul in August.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- A recent book has become an unexpected hit in South Korea by making an argument that is unpopular, even dangerous, in the country.

In "Anti-Japan Tribalism," Seoul National University Professor Emeritus Lee Young-hoon and four co-authors contend that the way South Korean governments handle relations with Japan is wrongheaded. The writers argue that instead of getting hung up on historical disagreements and painting Japan as a villain, the two countries would be better off finding ways to cooperate for mutual benefit.

Lee also takes issue with the way most South Koreans view these historical episodes. He parses historical data and comes away with the conclusion that the cases of Koreans who worked for Japanese companies during World War II and the so-called comfort women, were not as tragic as the Korean government and educational system portray them.

The book, released in July, is currently the No. 1 book in the politics and social affairs section at Kyobo Books, the country's largest chain of bookstores. It has uncovered latent demand for an unconventional take on history at a time when relations between the two U.S. allies are at their most rancorous in years.

Rulings last year by South Korea's Supreme Court sparked a trade dispute, in which both countries have instituted stricter processes for exports. A South Korean fighter jet conducted a patrol flight on Oct. 1 over islands controlled by Seoul but claimed by both countries. This follows Japan's downgrading of South Korea as a security cooperation partner in an annual defense paper in late September.

Lee argues that South Korean governments, including the current administration, resort to anti-Japan sentiment as a way of drawing attention away from their own lack of achievements.

"For Korean politicians, anti-Japan sentiment is the most convenient, low-cost, high-reward strategy for motivating their constituents," Lee told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Lee said the choice to use the word "tribalism" in the title, instead of the more conventional "nationalism," was deliberate.

"Nowadays in Korea, you see a lot of ostensibly anti-Japan actions, like boycotting Japanese restaurants or refusing to travel to Japan, when in fact those movements are hurting the Korean people who run those restaurants or those travel agencies. This is 99% emotional and it doesn't advance the interests of the nation in any way," Lee said.

A Realmeter poll published in mid-September showed 65.7% of respondents saying they are taking part in the Japan boycott, with 25.5% saying they are not.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. (Source photos by Reuters)

The book has no lack of critics. Several academics have written scathing reviews, arguing that the book's conclusions are based on misinterpretations of historical data and that Lee and his co-authors' conclusions fail to consider how Koreans suffered under Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

Seoul National University Professor Lee Kyung-mook said the book's historical claims are "untrue and distorted," adding, "People who have strong anti-Japan feelings will find this book hard to believe."

"Instead of scholarly arguments, the book's authors use too many biased, self-righteous and emotional claims," Hanyang University Professor Park Chan-un wrote in a blog post.

The political opposition has echoed some of Lee's claims, and is currently contending that the Moon administration's nationalistic appeals, and harsh criticism of Japan, will have the effect of isolating South Korea.

A screenshot of "Anti-Japan Tribalism"

The presidential Blue House has a Japanese language website that includes videos with titles such as "Japan has to be honest" and "Japan is the one that is rewriting history."

As part of its tit-for-tat jousting with Japan, South Korea withdrew from a military information-sharing pact with Japan in August. Some South Koreans voiced concern that scrapping the pact could damage the country's alliance with the U.S., as Washington has long advocated for closer military cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo.

The conservative opposition argues that, at a time when South Korea's economy is beset by low growth, now is the time to be seeking to cooperate with neighbors.

"The government is using this nationalistic framing to make it seem like we can't trust other countries, that we have to only rely on ourselves. Who does that leave us to work with, besides North Korea?" Park Sung-joong, a lawmaker for the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview at his office in Seoul.

"Instead of trying to integrate people with different viewpoints, this government is accusing anyone who doesn't agree with them of somehow being pro-Japan. Our party's position is that for Korea to prosper, we need to work with other, bigger countries. We need many partners," Park said.

Other South Korean scholars have faced severe consequences for disputing the conventional history of the colonial era. Yonsei University Professor Lew Seok-choon is currently the subject of a police probe over a September lecture in which he allegedly implied that comfort women worked willingly as prostitutes.

Professor Park Yu-ha faced criminal charges for causing "distress" to former comfort with claims made in her 2013 book "Comfort Women of the Empire."

Lee said he has received plenty of criticism for "Anti-Japan Tribalism" but has not retracted or diluted any of his claims.

He believes his criticisms are coming at an opportune time. "I'm not scared or worried," he said. "Our country needs to have a conversation."

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