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Japan-South Korea rift

South Koreans grapple with convention-busting bestseller on Japan

Book forces an uncomfortable reassessment of attitudes toward neighbor

A Japanese man offers free hugs to support South Korean people who attend an anti-Japan rally in Seoul.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- Progressives in South Korea are feeling increasingly uncomfortable with a bestselling book, "Anti-Japan Tribalism," which challenges a number of broadly accepted interpretations of Japan's colonial rule of the country.

"I've come to kill him!" shouted a man in Seoul on Dec. 18 as he assaulted the book's co-author, Lee Woo-yeon, a research fellow at the Naksungdae Institute of Economic Research. Lee was leading a demonstration demanding the removal of a statue of a young girl set up in front of the Japanese Embassy as a symbol of the "comfort women."

An elderly man in a dark hat and sunglasses suddenly began punching Lee. Police officers guarding the site prevented the situation from getting out of hand by restraining him. Lee complained that he had been injured, and both he and the man who assaulted him were taken to a police station in a patrol car.

Most of the people gathered outside the embassy when the incident occurred were not Lee's supporters, but progressives there to confront him. The moment was captured on YouTube. Lee was surrounded by a hostile crowd and barraged with questions. "He's trash!" shouted one.

Lee is co-author of "Anti-Japan Tribalism." Every Wednesday, protesters gather in front of the embassy to demand an apology and compensation from the Japanese government over the comfort women. Lee believes the comfort women were not forcibly taken by authorities to work as prostitutes. Lee began holding counter-protests nearby on Dec. 11, calling for the removal of the statue and an end to the weekly demonstrations.

South Korean police restrain a man who attacked Anti-Japan Tribalism" co-author Lee Woo-yeon in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on Dec. 18. (Photo by Sotaro Suzuki)

The publication of "Anti-Japan Tribalism" has sent shock waves through South Korea. Armed with documentary evidence on Japan-South Korea issues, including the comfort women, wartime laborers and the dispute over who is the rightful owner of Takeshima (called Dokdo in South Korea), the book takes on South Koreans' shared understanding of the two countries' troubled history.

Many South Koreans who have seen the book have condemned it from the outset. The reaction is perhaps understandable. It begins with a provocative prologue that states: "South Korea is a country of liars."

"Garbage" was how Cho Kuk, who resigned in October as South Korea's justice minister over a scandal, described the book in a scathing criticism on Facebook in August. A male university student who is learning Japanese said with a scowl: "The contents are too extreme."

"But Anti-Japan Tribalism" has elicited other reactions with its use of historical facts and data that challenge views of Japan long taken for granted in South Korea. "I'm confused at the differences with what we have been taught until now," said one woman in her 50s.

Lee Woo-yeon heads to a police station after he was attacked in Seoul on Dec. 18. (Photo by Sotaro Suzuki)

Progressives, who have strong anti-Japanese views, are particularly wary of the book.

"For the first time since the end of colonial rule people are coming out by name and describing themselves as 'pro-Japanese,'" said Kang SungHyun, a professor at Sungkonghoe University, at a symposium on Dec. 13, highlighting the consternation of many on the left. The term "pro-Japanese" is used to describe Koreans who cooperated with Japan during the colonial era and their descendants. It carries the whiff of "traitor" about it.

Kang was referring to an incident in July in the northwestern city of Ansan. Four people in their 20s and 30s spat on a statue of a young girl in front of the local train station similar to the one in front of the Japanese Embassy. When someone intervened, they resisted, shouting in Japanese. That initially led to suspicions the vandalism was committed by Japanese people, but all those arrested by police were South Koreans.

Demonstrators gather every Wednesday in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. (Photo by Sotaro Suzuki)

The four ended up visiting former comfort women, getting down on their hands and knees to apologize. But in a subsequent TV interview they said things such as, "Leftists are politicizing the statues of the young girls and fanning anti-Japan sentiment," and "We want to learn from Japan's past modernization."

Lee Young-hoon, a former Seoul National University professor, and other co-authors of "Anti-Japan Tribalism" have released online videos of lectures paralleling the book that have attracted many views. People sympathetic to the opinions they express have used them to create their own versions on YouTube, spreading the message further.

"With the appearance of platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, a network of historical revisionists is rapidly spreading," Kang said. "If we ignore this trend, the network will likely become even more active."

But does "Anti-Japan Tribalism" paint an accurate picture? Weekly Chosun, a magazine published by Chosun Ilbo, a conservative newspaper that is South Korea's largest by circulation, has carried a series of articles by researchers and journalists on themes such as Takeshima, the comfort women and the role Japanese colonial rule played in South Korea's modernization, aimed at refuting the arguments in the book. Lee Young-hoon has countered these critics, while acknowledging some of their points, sparking a lively debate.

And while many progressives dismiss the arguments presented in the book as "disgusting," some feel their rebuttal falls short. "There are many people whose views have changed after reading the book," co-author Lee Woo-yeon said. "That's why it has sold 130,000 copies in South Korea."

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