[Mythbusters] First, A Flag. Now, A Moustache. What Will South Koreans Whinge About Next?

In the last two months of 2019, two South Korean complaints — allegedly based on the period during which Korea was under Japanese control (1910-1945) — attracted international attention, until Carlos Ghosn grabbed foreign media eyes by jumping bail in Japan and fleeing to Beirut.

 

One complaint garnered foreign sympathy, most notably in the form of an opinion piece by Alexis Dudden, professor of history at the University of Connecticut, published in The Guardian under the title “Japan’s rising sun flag has a history of horror. It must be banned at the Tokyo Olympics.” 

 

The other complaint was aimed at the moustache worn by Harry Harris, the United States ambassador to South Korea, which some Koreans claimed reminded them of the same history: Japanese control over Korea.  

 

Both complaints reappeared again in January, but the two storylines received contrasting responses. The flag story, aimed exclusively at Japan, was taken as a largely legitimate Korean grievance. Complaints about the U.S. ambassador’s moustache, on the other hand, were seen as ridiculous, even racist.

 

 

An Opening Worthy of the Onion

 

Dudden begins her Guardian piece with a ridiculous analogy:  

 

Imagine if, at the opening ceremony of the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, the stadium were filled to capacity with fans waving the American Confederate flag. A similarly hurtful scene could become reality at the Tokyo Games next summer, if the Japanese “rising sun” flag is on display.

 

Her statement as phrased first demonstrates that she does not know what “an American Confederate flag” is. The Confederacy did not have a single official flag. At least three different designs were in common use. This is then coupled to an analogy that makes no sense whatsoever.

 

The war between the Union and the Confederacy was basically an internal U.S. matter. Confederate flags and the many monuments to Confederate military leaders sprinkled around the U.S. have some meaning in terms of the domestic U.S. debate over slavery and its pervasive influence on contemporary American society. But without advisories, most foreign visitors to a 2028 Los Angeles (LA) Olympics would not recognize a Confederate flag if someone waved one in their face.

 

 

Bloody War Flag? What About A Bloody National Flag?

 

Dudden argues that the Rising Sun Flag is not Japan’s national flag, but rather a war flag, and because it is “used to make a particular political statement in Japan today,” it should be banned. 

 

But, in fact, most uses of the flag are not political. As is noted in the article itself, the flag is widely used for completely innocuous purposes. And, if flags used for political purposes are to be banned, that would logically require most national flags to be banned.

 

There is also a small matter of our Constitution: Article 21. Freedom of assembly and association as well as speech, press and all other forms of expression are guaranteed. On what legal grounds would the Japanese government ban the Rising Sun flag? There is nothing in the Constitution that mandates that the Japanese government cater to the alleged sensitivities of Koreans, Americans, or anyone else.

 

In the U.S., display of Confederate flags or derivative designs faces the same issue. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that prohibitions violate the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, although you have no right to insist that a state government put such a design on your vanity auto license plates. Monuments to the Confederacy are common in parts of the U.S., and major U.S. military posts are named for Confederate military leaders.

 

Dudden seems to think that Japan has Korean-style “freedom of expression,” where you can be arrested for writing about what is being said on social media, as Seoul did to former Sankei Shimbun Seoul Bureau chief Tatsuya Kato, reporter, or taken to court like the scholar Park Yu Ha for writing an academic book that discredits some of the widely-believed Korean mythology surrounding the comfort women.

 

And, what about the case where someone waves the flag used by the Asahi Shimbun, the favorite newspaper of domestic and foreign liberals and leftists? It is strikingly similar to the Rising Sun flag. [PHOTO 1]  Indeed, foreign nationals have been known to comment about “Japan’s war flag” on cars and buildings, when in fact they were looking at the Asahi Shimbun flag. 

 

 

For it’s part, as of this writing, the IOC has said that it sees no problem with the Rising Sun flag. That has also been the case with FIFA. It removed an Instagram photo of Japanese fans waving the Rising Sun Flag, but has otherwise done nothing.

 

The Japanese government might want to appeal to Japanese fans for self-restraint on this issue, but there would seem to be little or no grounds for a ban with the force of law. Self-restraint was in fact called for in 2008, for the Peking Olympics.

 

 

Who is Offended?

 

According to Dudden, “South Korea is not the only country where the flag causes offense.” She goes on to admonish the IOC to “educate itself before concerns and calls to boycott the games spread to China, Singapore, the Philippines, or Myanmar, where millions of people suffered similar violence under the rising sun symbol.”

 

This is stunning in terms of its lack of logic. The IOC does not control what the people of China, Singapore, the Philippines, or Myanmar do, nor does it control their governments. 

 

Moreover, China has in fact welcomed a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense warship flying the rising sun flag. The Philippines has welcomed a Japanese naval flotilla. Myanmar (aka Burma) was one of the Asian countries where the idea that Japan was fighting a war to liberate Asia found a receptive audience.

 

 

Forced Labor and Cannibalism

 

Possibly sensing that her argument to this point is weak, Dudden launches into a laundry list of factoids that in some vague way are apparently intended to justify banning the rising sun flag, including a bizarre reference to (alleged) Japanese cannibalism. 

 

Similarly unrelated are her false claims about an alleged lack of “reparations for any of those who were enslaved and imprisoned” by the Japanese. The 1965 settlement between Japan and South Korea did in fact include money that was intended to cover payments to individuals. That the South Korean government used the settlement funds provided by Japan for industrial investment is not the responsibility of Japan.

 

In the case of China, Japan provided substantial direct and indirect aid that was reparations in all but name. This is described in some detail in China and Japan Facing History by Ezra Vogel (Harvard University Press, 2019) and numerous other sources.

 

 

 

Drawing a Moustache on History

 

Shortly after the Guardian published Dudden’s screed, British newspapers, including the Daily Mail, the Independent, and the Telegraph, reported yet another South Korean whinge: the moustache  sported by retired U.S. admiral in charge of the Pacific Command, now U.S. Ambassador to Seoul Harry Harris. South Koreans have complained that it reminds them of moustaches worn by Japanese military officers during the era in which Korea was part of Japan.

 

The moustache story sprang to life in mid-January, with stories in a wide range of English language news media, including CNN, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Guardian, and Stars & Stripes.

 

Most articles noted there might be an element of racism in the Korean complaints. Harry Harris was born to a Japanese mother and an American father in Yokosuka, Japan. Even some Korean commentators noted the racial aspect of Korean complaints, and went on to quote the observation by Harris: “There are many Korean independence leaders that have moustaches, but no one seems to focus on that.”

 

In fact, one of South Korea’s most revered independence fighters sported a moustache — An (Ahn) Jung-geun, who in 1909 assassinated Hirobumi Ito, former resident-general of Korea and four times prime minister, in protest against the pending annexation of Korea. Seoul now honors him on a postage stamp that, if anything, makes his moustache an even more prominent feature. 

 

Another famous, or more properly infamous, Korean with a moustache is Hong Sa-ik (1889-1946), who was executed by the American military for his alleged role in atrocities committed against prisoners of war by prison guards under his command. He was one of a number of Korean volunteers who rose to the rank of general in the Imperial Japanese Army. 

 

Racism aside, the real issue with the Ambassador’s moustache may be that it reminds South Koreans of their collaboration with the Japanese.  

 

As for shaving his moustache to placate South Korean snowflakes (my words, not his), Harris has said, “I’m not sure — you would have to convince me that somehow the moustache is viewed in a way that hurts our relationship.”

 

I would suggest doing nothing, but if he thinks he must do something, he should adopt the moustache style associated with Salvador Dali.  No Japanese governors of Korea, and no heroes of the Korean independence struggle, had anything comparable.

 

 

Conclusion 

 

As an historian, Dudden should know that Seoul’s opposition to the Rising Sun flag is very recent. References are hard to find before 2009. Complaints started to appear only after a 2012 incident in which the alleged rising sun design on Japanese soccer uniforms was raised in the context of a controversial decision against a South Korean player.

 

In other words, South Korean opposition to the display of the Rising Sun Flag has essentially no relation to what Japan did during the 35 years it controlled Korea (1910-1945), and everything to do with contemporary South Korean politics and nationalism. 

 

So too for South Korean whinging about Ambassador Harris. A detailed commentary on this issue by a Korean journalist writing in Japanese notes that the moustache issue flared up after Ambassador Harris expressed U.S. displeasure with President Moon Jae-in for his granting of blanket permission for any and all tourism to North Korea, something that is essentially sanction busting.

 

Author: Dr. Earl H. Kinmonth

 

1 Comment

  • The problem with these so-called history profs of something other than their own native country is that too often, their extremely poor understanding of their own history, in Alexis Dudden’s case American history, gets exposed in the most embarrassing manner. Her drawing a parallel between the Confederate flag and the Rising Sun flag more than exemplifies this point. She probably thinks the Civil War was fought between two different races or ethnic groups that spoke an
    entirely different tongue, one group with mustaches and the other group sporting a ponytail.

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