The feud has escalated between South Korean novelist Jo Jung-rae and a group of academics who refuted his anti-Japan work.
Jo Jung-rae, one of the foremost novelists in South Korea, has made claims that Japan “massacred’ between three million and four million Koreans during the era of Japanese imperialism. His anti-Japan novels are imbued with a level of hatred most Japanese would have a hard time imagining.
A group of academics including Lee Young-hoon, former Seoul National University professor and author of Anti-Japan Tribalism (Bungei Shunju Ltd, in Japanese and Korean, 2019), a bestseller in both Japan and South Korea, has responded, calling Jo an “insane and hateful novelist.”
The feud worsened when Jo recently attacked Lee by calling him a “new type of traitor.”
Counterattacks from the Lee Young-hoon Faction
It all started on October 12 when Jo, at a reception to commemorate his own 50-year literary career, called Lee Young-hoon “a liar,” adding that he was “a betrayer of the people and a new type of traitor to the country.”
In his most representative anti-Japanese novel Arirang (Iwanami Shoten, Japanese and Korean, Vol. 1, 1994), a 12-volume series selling 3.5 million copies, Jo describes in graphic detail scenes of Japanese police officers brutally killing Koreans — accounts that completely have no factual ground. At the October 12 reception, Jo declared that the scenes were “objective and historically accurate descriptions based on precise materials, largely consisting of materials issued by the National Institute of Korean History and books written by people with forward-thinking awareness.”
In response, one of the authors of Anti-Japan Tribalism, the historian Ju Ik-jong, director of the Syngman Rhee School where Lee Young-Hoon is president, released a video on the Syngman Rhee YouTube channel entitled, “Jo Jung-rae: The emergence of a fascist — lies and insanity.”
The counterattacks had begun.
In one of his novels, Jo wrote: “In 1944, Japan forced Korean laborers to build an airport on the Chishima Islands. After it was completed, 4,000 of them were locked inside an air raid shelter and slaughtered.”
The counterattacks addressed this story, producing detailed records of persons from the Korean peninsula working in Hokkaido around the same time, including an itemized statement for retirement money, letters that proved allowances made for persons who died or were injured in accidents, and a payment slip for an artificial arm.
In the video, Ju Ik-jong asserts: “These materials were kept by the persons concerned or their families for over 60 years, and have been submitted to the Korean government. Laborers worked in the coal mines, received retirement money, and returned to their homes. Why would Japan need to massacre 4,000 Korean laborers in the first place?”
Ju goes on to demand that Jo “take responsibility for his criticisms of Lee.”
These historical materials are stored in a collection of photographs of a government agency established under the Prime Minister's Office of the Roh Moo-hyun administration.
For instance, an itemized statement of the retirement money paid to a Korean laborer who retired from the coal mines in November 1944 shows a record of ¥608 JPY, a figure 10 times the ¥60 JPY salary of a Korean bank worker at the time. If a worker died in a coal mine accident, family members could be brought over from Korea for the funeral.
There was also a letter stating: “I am sending the allowance for bereaved family, group life insurance and retirement money. Please send back a receipt.”
There was a written notice to a laborer who had lost his right hand, reading “1,200 yen will be paid as an allowance for an artificial hand. If this amount is insufficient, you should claim the actual cost.”
Jo’s Huge Popularity in South Korea
Lee’s response to Jo’s “traitor of the people” accusation is as follows:
Jo’s accusations came right out of his inner psychological world and are nothing particularly new. The history of anti-Japan tribalism is depicted in detail in Jo’s novels. I criticized Jo in a 2007 paper entitled, “Jo Jung-rae — historical novelist of hatred and an air of madness.”
Until now, he has ignored me. His remarks coming now just go to show that the anti-Japan (historical viewpoint) stance in his books has become less and less compelling.
Aside from Arirang, Jo has recorded phenomenal sales totaling 14 million copies of his epic novels, such as The Taebaek Mountains (Haenaem publishers, available in English, 2001). There are three literature museums in South Korea dedicated to Jo's works, including the Arirang Literature Museum (Jeollabuk Province), that are popular destinations for school field trips.
Jo’s anti-Japan historical views are said to have predominated in history and literary societies. Lee addresses this point as follows:
Jo’s “Arirang” was praised for its literary value and has had great commercial success. South Korea’s literary society had all the volumes translated into French in hopes of it getting the Nobel Prize in Literature. But the huge number of pure fabrications make it impossible to call it a historical novel. This type of tribalism will not be chosen for an international literature award. But it has had a major impact in Korea.
Where is the Controversy Headed?
At the October 12 reception, Jo labeled South Koreans who had studied abroad in Japan as “Japan sympathizers,” and called for “the conviction of 1.5 million Japan sympathizers.”
Waves of criticism ensued on social media sites, calling Jo’s remarks “outdated nationalism.” They pointed out that President Moon Jae In’s daughter had studied in Japan, and challenged him to name “just who these 1.5 million Japan sympathizers are.”
Jo made his counterarguments on a radio program, continuing his tirade on “Japan sympathizers” over a period of several days.
However, this battle of words did not extend to any criticism or examination of the veracity of Jo’s fabricated claims of a history of brutal killings by the Japanese.
Ju Ik-jong explained the likely reason for the silence, noting:
In South Korea, criticizing an anti-Japan stance is taboo. Opposition is strong and also pervades the media. You can write, “Jo Jung-rae’s tribalism” vs. “Lee Young-hoon’s revisionism,” but you wouldn’t enter into a discussion of historical facts. That’s the limit to which the South Korean media would go. They lack the courage.
(Find access to the column in its original Japanese here.)
Author: Ruriko Kubota, senior staff writer, The Sankei Shimbun