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BOOK REVIEW | ‘Anti-Japan Tribalism: The Root of the Japan-Korea Crisis’ by Lee Young-hoon and others



Since its publication in November 2019, the book Han-nichi shuzoku shugi: Nikkan kiki no kongen or Anti-Japan Tribalism: The Root of the Japan-Korea Crisis (Bungeishunjū) has quickly become a bestseller. As of the date of this article, it has sold approximately 400,000 copies. 


This is the Japanese edition of the book under the same title in Korean, Pan-Il chongjok chuŭi, with a slightly different subtitle: “The Root of the Crisis of the Republic of Korea.” It is authored by six South Korean scholars led by Lee Young-hoon. Lee is a former professor of economics at Seoul National University and current president of the Naksungdae Institute of Economic Research in South Korea. 


Since its July 2019 publication, the Korean edition has sold 110,000 copies, a huge number for a scholarly book in South Korea, making it a social phenomenon. The book encompasses many critical issues in modern Japan-Korean relations, ranging from Japan’s colonial policies in 1910-1945, to wartime Japan’s mobilization of Korean men and women, to the 1965 Japan-South Korea normalization treaty, to South Korea’s territorial claim of Tokdo or Takeshima. 


Although I have spent years studying Korean history, reading about the extent of anti-Japanese distortions in Korean history narratives, as exposed in this book, was an eye-opening experience.




Taking On the History Lies Propagated in Post-war Novels


Lee begins his chapters by introducing the award-winning and bestselling historical novel, Arirang, authored by Jo Jung-rae in the 1990s.


The novel graphically depicts Japanese policemen’s summary executions of Korean farmers who resisted the authorities’ confiscation of land, and comments that 4,000 such executions took place during the Japanese land survey of Korea in 1910-1918. The novel’s portrayal of Japan’s brutality was widely circulated through creating movies, monuments, and even a French version.


Jo Jung-rae was not alone, however. Beginning in the 1980s, Sin Yong-ha, a renowned South Korean historian and sociologist, claimed that the Japanese land surveyors had driven Koreans out of farmland by holding “a surveying instrument in one hand and a pistol in the other.”


South Korean public schools have taught students that the Japanese colonial government used the land survey to plunder 40% of Korea’s agricultural land.


All these accounts were fabrications. In the 1990s, after his careful study of primary sources, Lee began publishing his findings that the Japanese colonial government had always operated according to the law and never conducted summary executions.



South Korean society and academia did not receive his criticism well, and many called him “pro-Japanese” — an insult in South Korea. 


Another prevalent lie propagated in South Korea is about Japan’s plunder of Korean rice that allegedly caused food shortage in Korea. The book’s coauthor Kim Nag-nyeon, a professor of economics at Tongguk University in Seoul, points out that Koreans in fact exported rice to Japan proper for large profit, and imported cheap Manchurian grains for domestic consumption. He adds that the modern Japanese legal system, firmly transplanted in colonial Korea, protected property rights for all, and the Korean economy continued to grow until 1945. 



Correcting the Record on Korean Wartime Laborers


Even more publicized today are the lies concerning Korean laborers in wartime Japan.


As seen in South Korea’s Supreme Court order of 2018, Koreans believe that wartime Japan, from 1937 to 1945, conscripted Korean men to labor in dangerous Japanese coal mines and construction sites for little or no wages. In reality, as discussed by Lee U-yeon, the book’s coauthor and researcher at the Naksungdae Institute of Economic Research, Japan’s better wages and employment opportunities attracted 100,000 to 200,000 Korean workers each year through the 1930s and the early 1940s. Moreover, there was little wage discrimination during the war, when Japanese companies were in need of Korean workers. 



Koreans were conscripted for only eight months from the autumn of 1944 to the spring of 1945. Besides, the postwar Japanese government’s grant of $300 million USD to the South Korean government, following the signing of the 1965 normalization treaty, included compensations for damages received by wartime Korean workers, as pointed out by Ju Ik-jong, another coauthor of the book. 



Addressing the Comfort Women Issue


The most damaging distortions of Korean history of the colonial era concern “comfort women,” wartime prostitutes who serviced the Japanese military abroad. 


According to the Korean master narrative, imperial Japan forced 200,000 to 300,000 women, largely from Korea, to work as “comfort women” under brutal conditions. But Lee Young-hoon thoroughly refutes this myth through his in-depth research.


He traces the history of Korean “comfort women” all the way  back to the Chosǒn dynasty (1392-1910), when women of the lowest social class were assigned to sex work for government officials and foreign guests, while upper-class women were required to maintain Confucian chastity. Ironically, the “sage king” Sejong (r. 1418-1450) introduced an early version of “comfort stations” that serviced military men at frontiers and remote locations, and this system lasted till the end of the 19th century. 



When the Japanese took over Korea, they abolished the class system, but transplanted the Japanese licensed prostitution system, modeled after European precedents, in Korea in 1917. As the Korean economy grew in the 1920s and 1930s, the licensed prostitution employed an increasing number of young Korean women to cater to Korean customers.


Korean recruiters and brothel owners often paid advance money to heads of households, usually fathers, so their daughters worked under contract to pay off the debt. Korean brothels prospered in China and Manchuria, and many of them became “comfort stations” to service Japanese military men exclusively, upon the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937. 


Concluding that the Japanese “comfort stations” were extensions of the licensed prostitution operated in Japan and colonial Korea, Lee rejects the notion of “comfort women” as sex slaves, on the basis of women’s freedom to send money home and retire or move upon the completion of their contract. 


Lee estimates the total number of Imperial Japan’s “comfort women” to be around 18,000, based on the numbers of troops and contraceptives issued. He thinks that Korean women numbered approximately 3,600, a fraction of the inflated figures widely publicized today.


Importantly, Lee argues that Korean “comfort women” did not disappear in 1945 because the South Korean government placed their women in brothels dedicated to Korean and U.S. soldiers beginning in the Korean War. And they were called “comfort women” all the way to the 1980s. 



These “comfort women,” as well as other prostitutes in South Korea, were bound by debt and exploited under conditions worse than their predecessors. Lee’s study points to hypocrisy in feminists and human rights activists who turn a blind eye to tragedies of many women within the Korean peninsula.



Fundamental Problems in Korean Nationalism


After decades of fighting with Korean nationalist narratives full of lies and distortions, Lee concludes that something is fundamentally wrong in Korean nationalism.


Scholars outside of Korea have regarded Korean nationalism as “ethnic nationalism,” sustained by the belief in common ancestry and bloodline, since the Stanford University sociologist Gi-Wook Shin’s 2006 publication.  Lee’s quest goes much deeper.


According to Lee, Korean nationalism denies autonomy to individuals and forces them to submit to powerful leaders, who promote unchanging hostility to the neighboring state of Japan. He calls this nationalism “tribalism” to set it apart from nationalism in the West, where individuals’ independence and freedom are respected.



Korean tribalism, according to Lee, is reinforced by the Korean people’s worldview, which is deeply rooted in indigenous beliefs such as geomancy and shamanism. 


Geomancy, a pseudo-science of Chinese origin, has come to facilitate the Korean people’s attachment to the land, by presuming flows of energy through mountain ranges. Even more important is Korean shamanism that has constituted the substratum of the Korean psyche, despite the dominance of Neo-Confucianism in the Chosǒn dynasty and the popularity of Christianity and Buddhism in present-day South Korea.


According to Lee, Korean shamanism is materialistic and rationalizes dishonesty because it upholds no absolute god, no clear distinction between good and evil, and no heaven and hell for the dead. In the world of shamanism, the spirits of the dead retain their lifetime status, such as the rich, the powerful, or the poor, and hover in this world to cause harm to the living.


Following nationwide attempts to counter North Korean assaults and achieve industrialization from the 1950s to the early 1980s, South Koreans found the freedom to pursue material gains. Beginning in the 1980’s, this freedom extended to the creation of stories about their past that were favorable to their anti-Japan tribalism identity. It was from this period that the statues of Korean “comfort women,” who were allegedly defiled by barbarous Japanese troops, became an inviolable totem. At the same time, anti-Japanese activists, endowed with the authority of shamans, dominated South Korea’s relationship with Japan.






While this book enlightens many Koreans and Japanese, it infuriates those who subscribe to the stories inspired by anti-Japanese tribalism.


No comprehensive criticism of the book has emerged so far, although some reacted with political slander and reiteration of their views, such as insistence upon holding the Japanese government responsible for the mobilization of Korean men and women for the Pacific War.


What we need is a broad discussion of anti-Japanese tribalism and its many consequences, which, according to the authors, are threatening to destroy South Korea. Researchers in the two countries and beyond should also explore North Korea’s direct and indirect impact on the rise of anti-Japan tribalism.


An English edition of the book is required for these purposes.




Title: 反日種族主義 日韓危機の根源 (Han-nichi shuzoku shugi: Nikkan kiki no kongen) ( “Anti-Japan Tribalism: The Root of the Japan-Korea Crisis”)

Author: Lee Young-hoon et al

Publisher: Bungeishunjū, November 2019

Language: At the moment, the book is released only in Japanese and Korean.

To learn more: See this article and this article about the book.

To purchase the book: The book is available at many bookstores in Japan, or you can click here to purchase the book from Amazon Japan.


Author: Chizuko Allen 


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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. FronTierFrank

    March 4, 2020 at 5:55 am

    An excellent book review by a highly-qualified reviewer on the subject matter. This book will be one of historical significance in that a prominent, established scholar in South Korea and his colleagues have finally published a much-needed academic work on South Korea's irrational viewpoint of Japan's annexation period which has led to deep, long-lasting repercussions.

    As the reviewer notes, the original book has done very well in South Korea, and while an English translation would be invaluable, quite a few university libraries in the West have already shelved a copy of the original: https://www.worldcat.org/title/panil-chongjokchuui-taehan-minguk-wigi-ui-kunwon/oclc/1112360280&referer=brief_results

    The book will undoubtedly be universally recognized as the new benchmark in understanding modern South Korea's deep-rooted problems and how indispensable a new mindset that accepts objective history and values a constructive approach in dealing with neighboring nations, one that can lead to mutual prosperity. Professor Lee Young-hoon and his team should be congratulated for their unyielding courage and true patriotism that inspires a better future for their people.

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