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Great Minds Don't Always Think Alike: Anti-Japan Tribalism on the Long and Steep Path to Change

Dr Lee Wooyoun discusses the best seller "Anti-Japan Tribalism" highly acclaimed for its academic rigor, the reaction of Korean leftists, and the Korean public.



Dr Lee Wooyoun, a co-author of "Anti-Japan Tribalism."

In 2019, a 413-page scholarly book published in South Korea triggered a shock wave across the Peninsula. The book, Anti-Japan Tribalism, co-authored by Dr Lee Wooyoun and four other renowned economists, contested the conventional wisdom on Japan's colonial policies in Chosun. All of the authors empirically scrutinized primary records. They then concluded that much of the existing historical literature and discourse on the colonial era was either inaccurate or deliberately fabricated.     

With more than 130,000 copies sold, the book quickly became a bestseller. A Japanese translation released four months later sold 200,000 copies within a few weeks. For a publication that outright challenged South Korea's long-established and adhered-to beliefs, the book's popularity among Korean readers was unexpected. Perhaps even unprecedented.

But for the authors, this phenomenon was foreseeable. These scholars have, for decades, worked to promote bias-free and empirical research. Notwithstanding many obstacles, they were certain their arduous and down-to-earth efforts would pay off someday. The book emerged, therefore, at a tipping point. 

Earlier this month, JAPAN Forward sat down for an interview with Dr Lee Wooyoun, one of the co-authors and researcher at Naksungdae Institute of Economic Research. Four years after the book's release, Lee reflected on the experience in a candid conversation.

Excerpts follow.

Why do you think Anti-Japan Tribalism resonated with so many readers in South Korea, despite many contentious chapters?

Many people think the book was an overnight hit. But that's furthest from the truth. Our academic journey began many years before this publication with Dr Lee Young-hoon as our commander. So, there is a more sophisticated and foundational reason behind the success. 

Take a look at our country now. Hundreds of thousands of people are visiting Japan every year, primarily for tourism purposes. South Koreans are innately fond of Japan and the Japanese people. But until our book, their fondness was confined to consumption, meaning visiting Japan, buying Japanese products, and so on.

Cover page of "Anti-Japan Tribalism" (©Kyobo Book)

I believe there were many "shy" critics of "anti-Japan tribalism" hidden within South Korean society. In historical context, anti-Japan tribalism denotes views and interpretations of our colonial history predicated on a sense of ethnonationalism and anti-Japanese sentiment. Our book offered these "shy" Koreans the moral courage and scholarly backbone to reject such a one-sided, leftist-originated making of our history. Many were already fed up, and we simply helped them rise to the forefront. 

Your main contribution to the book was on Japan's labor mobilization policies. Can you tell us about your discoveries? 

Yes. I argued that contrary to popular belief, Chosun laborers weren't dragooned or enslaved by the Japanese authorities. These young and able-bodied Chosun men began traveling to Japan from 1939 onwards, seeking better wages and markets. 

Labor mobilization occurred in three phases. Between 1939 and 1942 Chosun laborers were hired via regular recruitment. From 1942 to 1944, local government, administrative agencies, and the police actively sought laborers in the Korean Peninsula. Finally, from September 1944 to about four months before the end of the Pacific War, the Japanese government issued a labor conscription edict. While the decree did mandate many Chosun workers to relocate and work in Japan, it observed all legal procedures.   

Lee Wooyoun delivering a speech on Japan's labor mobilization issue at the UN Human Rights Council. (©UN Web TV)

From early on, I contested the term "forced conscription," frequently used by mainstream South Korean media and even authoritative academics. The word conscription, by definition, is an involuntary act. To add the word "forced," therefore, is merely intended to implicate Japan of illegally seizing Chosun's labor force. It's a made-up, nonsensical terminology.     

More crucially, though, I uncovered that Chosun laborers weren't discriminated against compared to their Japanese counterparts. Chosun people were paid fair wages, had adequate living conditions, and were positioned in tasks according to their skills. This is also true with the Sado gold mine. In fact, historical records reveal that Chosun laborers occasionally brought their families along to the Sado mine.      

Despite your ground-breaking studies, mainstream academia seems reluctant to acknowledge or cite your work. Why? 

I know that most mainstream academics, including those researching the labor mobilization issue, have read our book. But none have openly countered or cited our work in their publications. We invited some of our critics to debate in open forums, yet no one has risen to the occasion to this day. 

I can only speculate on the reason, but here's my take. If academics acknowledge the existence of empirically driven counterarguments, they are bound by scholarly practice to respond in one way or the other. You can either reject them through rebuttal or accept flaws in your theory and amend it. The third option, of course, is to ignore the counter-argument entirely and basically treat us as ghosts. 

Mainstream academics here tend to explore Chosun's colonial era through the structure of Korea vs Japan and oppressed vs oppressor. Since the 90s (when anti-Japan sentiment reached its peak under President Kim Young-sam), we have worked to dismantle these frameworks and introduced scholarly publications that challenged conventional historical narratives. However, no established academics have ever adequately addressed our work. This illustrates the incompetent and decaying culture of South Korean academia. 

In 2020, Professor Yuji Hosaka wrote an entire book critiquing Anti-Japan Tribalism. He countered that Chosun laborers were disproportionately given more dangerous tasks in mines. What's your take? 

Anyone who has visited an underground mine and knows the dangers associated with mining labor will notice the flaw in Professor Hosaka's argument. Underground mining is fundamentally a team effort that requires both skilled and unskilled labor. If a disproportionately large number of Chosun laborers — often unskilled due to lack of experience — were only positioned in dangerous tasks, it would be at the risk of all laborers, including Japanese. No sane company is going to take such a chance.

Dr Lee Wooyoun (front center) visits the Sado gold mine with a group of Japanese academics and intellectuals. (©HARC)

Many people, even academics, often misunderstand this point. As much as 90% of Chosun laborers worked inside the mine, which indeed carried more dangers. But this proportion is purely among the Chosun laborers. In totality, 70% of underground miners were Japanese.   

Likewise, the distribution of various assignments was predicated on maximizing productivity. Miners usually worked in groups of 10–20 with a blend of skilled and unskilled workers. The actual extracting process required more dexterity than collecting the content and transporting it. Thus, Chosun and Japanese laborers had to work hand-in-hand to boost productivity and ensure workplace safety.       

Professor Hosaka also rebutted that Chosun laborers were forced to save more money than Japanese laborers and many couldn't reclaim their outstanding balances. He argued this constituted ethnic discrimination.

First off, Professor Hosaka is not an expert on the labor mobilization issue. And I carefully surmise he's never consulted primary records on where wages were being deducted and how the laborers spent their salary. 

Historical records indicate that only about 10-20% of Chosun laborers' total wage was deducted for mandatory savings. True, the Chosun people were ordered to save more money than the Japanese. Yet this has nothing to do with ethnic discrimination, but everything to do with differences in lifestyle. 

Apart from 5-10% of Chosun laborers, many moved to Japan alone and settled in company-owned dormitories free of charge. Besides paying for affordable meals provided by the company, they had no other major expenditures. On the other hand, the vast majority of Japanese laborers lived with their families off-site. For obvious reasons, they required more cash at their disposal. 

Let's assume there were overdue payments, which actually did exist near the end of the war. These issues were already dealt with in post-war settlement and compensation. First by the Japanese government through the 1965 Treaty, second by the Park Chung-hee administration, and more recently under the Roh Moo-hyun administration. In the post-war era, these self-proclaimed forced laborers were compensated on three separate occasions for the exact same labor. And yet, they still demand monetary reparations from Tokyo. 


Did the authors face any backlash or resistance? 

Yes. My colleagues and I faced a fairly strong backlash. A month into publication, Cho Kuk, former Senior Secretary to the President for Civil Affairs, publicly reprimanded our book and called us "pro-Japanese collaborators and traitors." In 2020, Song Young-gil, then a political heavy in the Democratic Party of Korea, lodged a defamation suit against Dr Lee Young-hoon, the lead author.

I personally experienced a fair share of reprisal myself. In July 2019, a leftist activist Baek Un-Jeong barged into my office, called me by all sorts of vulgar names, and tarnished my reputation in front of his livestream YouTube audiences. He continued to exhibit menacing behavior until the authorities arrived. 

The same guy paid me a visit once again a few months later. And this time he threw eggs at me while I was organizing a rally opposing the comfort women statue in Seoul. At another rally, a guy by the name of Hwang physically assaulted me. He was charged and sentenced to six months in prison. 

Baek Un-Jeong harassing Dr Lee Wooyoun in front of Lee's office. Police are called to subdue the situation. (©Hwanggija TV Youtube Screenshot)

Left-wing politicians and activists are now utilizing the Fukushima treated water issue to stir another round of anti-Japan frenzy. Do you think anti-Japan tribalism will resurface? What are some solutions? 

I'm certainly concerned about the left using other diplomatic matters as a means to provoke anti-Japan emotions. Nonetheless, I doubt that their attempts this time will be successful enough to garner nationwide support. 

Under five years of Moon Jae In, South Koreans have suffered the consequences of unwarranted and ruthless anti-Japan tribalism. But it wasn't just Moon. Conservative presidents such as Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye also took advantage and employed "anti-Japan" as a means of political tool. Most people are now fully aware of the perilous ramifications of dragging emotions into the realm of diplomacy. 

Protesters in Seoul are opposing the release of treated water from TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi reactor. They gathered outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on July 7. (©Kyodo)

I would argue that fixing our K-12 textbooks is one of the most urgent duties. It certainly isn't a magical solution to all problems. But rectifying the distorted history in our textbooks is surely the quickest way to dismantle decades of anti-Japan tribalism ingrained in our society.   



Interview by: Kenji Yoshida

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