Are Korean and Japanese related? The Altaic hypothesis continued..

See here for the first part.

A very brief history of the Altaic hypothesis and the Finnish connection.

The Altaic language family was initially proposed during the early 1850s by Finnish scholar, founder of Finno-Ugric studies, M.A. Castrén (1813-52). He himself expressed caution on whether genetic ancestry between the languages could be established. Early on the Altaic family (sometimes referred to as Tartar) was also considered to include what is now treated as the Uralic language family (comprising the Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic branches) however during the first half of the 20th century, the lack of tenable cognate vocabulary led to the distinction of Uralic and Altaic as two separate families; in the 1970s, Pentti Aalto (1917-98) resurrected the Ural-Altaic hypothesis but his assertion was primarily based on structural rather than lexical similarities. The Uralic languages do possess similar grammatical features to the Altaic languages so it is still possible, and at times useful, to discuss in typological terms a Ural-Altaic complex.

The most famous name in Altaic studies, certainly in relation to Korean, is another Finn, Gustaf Ramstedt (1873-1950). Foremost a specialist in the Mongolic languages, though with an extensive command and knowledge of many other, Ramstedt actively acquainted himself with Korean whilst working at the Finnish embassy in Japan between 1919-30. Aside from writing the first English language grammar of Korean (1939), Ramstedt did most to systematically incorporate Korean into the genetic Altaic hypothesis through the comparative method (as opposed to merely speculating on structures and look-a-like words in their modern shapes) and it is primarily his quite seminal albeit tentative and imperfect work, beginning with a short paper Remarks on the Korean Language (1928) and culminating in Studies in Korean Etymology (1949) which has formed the basis for postwar Korean scholars and popular history writers up until today. It was, incidentally, in the former publication that Ramstedt proposed the linguistic homeland of the Altaic languages to have been located, according to his estimate some 4,000 years ago, around the Khingan mountain range (興安嶺) in western Manchuria as opposed to the Altai mountains after which the language family was originally named.

Slightly proceeding Ramstedt, another pioneer scholar whose 1914-16 work is often relied on by Korean Altaicists, is Japanese ethnographer Shiratori Kurakichi (白鳥庫吉 1865-1942); having studied in Europe Shiratori was influenced by Heinrich Winkler’s (1848-1930) Uralaltaische völker und sprachen (1884) and from as early on as the 1890s he had proposed Korean as a member of the Ural-Altaic family, however, in contrast to Ramstedt, his hypothesis was explicitly based on grammatical similarities rather than sound correspondences (the crucial determinant in the comparative method). Ramstedt and Shiratori are certainly not the only scholars to have contributed to the Altaic discourse but relating to Korean, their works have remained by far the most representative and influential.

Are Korean and Japanese related?

Once more: typologically yes, but genetically not so much at all. Attempts to include Japanese in the Ural-Altaic family began as early as the 1850s but, for the same reasons as Korean, were not very successful.

Conveniently for the nationalist sensitivities of Korean Altaicists today, Ramstedt did not so emphatically associate Japanese with the core Altaic languages as he did Korean. Having mastered Japanese sooner, he did in fact explore Japanese-Altaic connections as early as 1924 (“A Comparison of the Altaic Languages with Japanese”) previous that is to focusing on Korean; at this early stage he also took the view that Japanese and Korean were genetically related but his final position seems to have been that he regarded Japanese a distant relative to proto-Altaic (what might be termed “para-Altaic”) whilst Korean he considered an early branch within Altaic. Studies in Korean Etymology (1949) thus includes some suggested genetic cognates with Japanese and Ryukyuan (the language of Okinawa genetically related to Japanese), but far fewer than for Tungusic, Mongolic or Turkic languages.

Perhaps more than with the core Altaic language families, modern Korean clearly exhibits a close structural similarity with Japanese but still only a relatively tiny amount of shared vocabulary: certainly not enough to posit them as genetic cousins split from a common ancestor. Modern (Sino-)Japanese, therefore, is best regarded as belonging to the Japonic language family which also includes the Ryukyuan languages of Okinawa.

By contrast with Korean, Ryukyuan shares a great amount of its basic vocabulary with Japanese and this is what a genetic relationship should look like.

To elaborate a little more, there are two primary processes through which languages are made or evolve: divergence and convergence, the former representing genetic division, the latter aerial contact. Where languages have diverged or split from one another, they will retain the same basic vocabulary; where they have converged they will possess different basic vocabulary but share other secondary vocabulary. These processes are not mutually exclusive and rarely occur in isolation (except in the neat case of uninhabited island settlement), so even as a language is diverging it will most likely at once be converging with others.

Being an island nation the Japonic languages had to have been taken there at sometime and simultaneously something has to account for the typological affinity with Korean. Given Koreanic seems to have been situated in its peninsula homeland for as far back as we can go, though certainly not forever, the most reasonable explanation is that for a significant period of time the two language families co-existed in close proximity on the Korean peninsula, at which time the Japonic language was typologically “Altaicized” and spread to the Japanese archipelago and Ryukyu.

Based on methods of internal reconstruction, linguists are generally agreed that, unlike the Altaic languages, proto-Japonic was a monosyllabic language, that is similar to southeast Asian languages and Old Chinese which are termed typologically as “Sinic” though genetically they were distinct; “Sinic” is not the best term as it implies the dominance of Chinese which at this early date would not have been the case. What is likely though, is that Japonic had continental origins from whence it crossed to the Korean peninsula and later on to the Japanese islands.

The migration of Japonic to Japan may be archaeologically identified with the bronze-iron age Yayoi period (c.300BCE-300CE) which shows both a distinct break and replacement of the prehistoric Jomon culture. By the end of this period, close material connections are known to have existed between the Gaya states on the south of the peninsula and the Japanese isles; additionally there is the now politically sensitive ethnonym of the Wa/Wae (倭 왜) which turns up in early sources such as the Gwanggaeto Stele (廣開土王陵碑 erected 414CE) and may have originated on the peninsula or been based on Tsushima island, independent of any nascent Yayoi polity then establishing itself in Japan proper.

It is during this early stage that Japonic spread across the Honshu island, pushing the Ainu people northwards, and also to the Ryukyu islands. Meanwhile the Japonic left on the peninsula (termed para-Japonic) further interacted with Koreanic whilst becoming itself the dominant language of Baekje, a kingdom historically well attested as having close links with, and even direct involvement in, the establishment of the Yamato dynasty (based in the Kinki region of modern Japan). During this period and in particular following the overthrow of Baekje, there was a further and indeed final migration of para-Japonic speakers, people of Baekje, who brought their closely related Japonic language but with a greater number of Korean loanwords, whilst also leaving Japonic loanwords on the peninsula, which account for what otherwise appear as genetic cognates between Korean and Japanese today. The proof for this explanation is that the Koreanic influence is predominantly found in Old Central Japanese, in the homeland region of the Yamato dynasty, but less so in the dialects which had spread further east and not at all in Ryukyu (Vovin 2010:240)

The evidence for the relationship between Baekje and Yamato is so strong that it has even been acknowledged by the current Japanese emperor,  Akihito (although that linked article is quite wrong in suggesting that Japan’s peninsula heritage or Akihito’s lineage is ethnic “Korean” because the very point is that those people did not remain on the peninsula to become Korean), but it is not a topic otherwise popular with the race-based nationalist ideologies of either the two Korean states or Japan today. For the Koreas this is related to post-colonial sensitivities and for Japan, it would undermine their colonial rhetoric of historical superiority and kokutai (國體) myth of exceptionalism pertaining both to race and language which has never been fully revoked.

Whilst on the peninsula para-Japonic would also have influenced Koreanic and perhaps have formed a substrate over which Koreanic ultimately expanded and gained some of its distinctly non-Altaic traits such as pitch accent and honourific speech levels.

Today it understandably remains ethnic anathema for Koreans to consider that a non-Koreanic language, particularly one ancestral to Japanese, was ever spoken on the peninsula, least of all by one of the celebrated Three Kingdoms, albeit the least popular one! The sensitivity originates in particular from the Japanese colonial era (1910-45) claim that early Yayoi contact with the Gaya polity (named Mimana in Japanese) and misidentification of the Wa/Wae people as “Japanese” was evidence of an ancient Japanese presence on and control over the peninsula; thus Koreans feel compelled to refute the notion that there was ever any relationship between early Korean and Japanese polities even when objective reasoning and historical sources tell us that the direction of cultural and linguistic influence would have been from the peninsula to Japan rarely the opposite direction. One might expect Korean nationalist rhetoric to happily reverse the 20th century colonial argument and claim Japan had once been an ancient colony of Gaya and/or Baekje, but rather the thrust of modern Korean historiography has been to emphasize homeogenous origins and maintain territorial and ethnic integrity over any desire to lay claim on Japan; where they exist, Korean irredentist urges are directed towards former continental territory in southern Manchuria.

Shouldn’t the earliest recoverable layer of the surviving Japanese language be from the Jomon period, prior to the Yayoi or Baekje influx?

Not if the Yayoi and Baekje migrations pushed to the margins and otherwise replaced wholesale the indigenous languages such as occurred to the Celtic languages during the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain. Indigenous Ainu, for example, (which may not have been related to other Jomon languages) was not absorbed into Japonic but displaced by it; this was a gradual process and Ainu was in aerial contact with Japonic from an early period as it has preserved some loanwords from Japonic in their earlier shapes.

Wouldn’t it be better to refer to the Japanese language family as “Baekje-ic” rather than Japonic?

Or perhaps “Kudara-ic” as a compromise, Kudara being the Japanese name for Baekje and therefore, arguably, closer to its original name. But, no, because language families tend to be named after their surviving representatives; hence Koreanic is not “Sillaic” because it is the people who self-identify, internationally, with the ethnonym “Korean” rather than Silla, who are the attested speakers of the modern language. This can be misleading in more complex language families such as Mongolic where Mongolian was only one branch of a very widely spoken language family which included other major branches, identified later, such as the Khitan language of the Liao dynasty predating Ghengis Khan. Similarly, individual branches of a language family tend to be described in relation to the more, or earliest studied, attested branch and named as “para” languages; consequently the Khitan language may be termed “para-Mongolic” and, quite separately, the dominant language of Goguryeo may be proposed as “para-Jurchenic” but this should not in any way be misunderstood at implying linguistic or ethnic subordination. Thus the language which was left on the peninsula to constitute itself as a separate branch of Japonic, can be termed para-Japonic.

I still need more convincing..

Compelling evidence for the non-genetic nature of the relationship between Koreanic and Japonic has been produced by the Russian-American scholar Alexander Vovin. Aside from the depth of his knowledge, particularly on the side of Old Japanese, one significant aspect of Vovin’s work is that for a long time he was himself an adherent to the Altaic hypothesis inclusive of both Koreanic and Japonic. The motive of his study published in 2010, Koreo-Japonica, had initially been to substantiate the genetic relationships, but in the process he instead confirmed the opposite. The results of his exhaustive examination of 347 proposed Korean-Japanese cognates ultimately rejects 261 of them as being problematic according to the comparative method, it identifies 75 as definite loans leaving only eleven as “possible”, which were further whittled down to just six that “seem to be impeccable in the regularity of their phonetic correspondences”. (Vovin 2010:237) These were words for “fire”, “to fill [with water]”, “to hold/take”, “crane”, “field” and “melon” which do not strongly represent basic vocabulary items. The ratio of loan words to cognates, meanwhile, overwhelmingly bespeaks of aerial interaction.

In other areas, when analyzing Korean and Japanese personal pronouns, for example, the only possible cognate Vovin identifies is Middle Korean first person “I” na (나 still used today) attested in Western and Eastern Old Japanese, but crucially not the other Japonic branch of Ryukyuan; another word for “I”, wa, meanwhile is found in all of the Japonic dialects and not Korean, indicating that wa is mostly likely the Japonic word for “I” whilst na is a secondary borrowing from the language carried by the 4th century Baekje influx (Vovin 2010:65). It should be noted, however, Vovin regards the Baekje language to have been Koreanic with a Japonic substrate; so he considers the peninsula Japonic to have existed as a dominant language only previous to the emergence of the Three Kingdoms which, while not impossible, is perhaps less convincing when considering the nature of the close political relationship maintained between the Baekje and Yamato elites up until Baekje’s mid 7th century demise.

To give another example, in the case of demonstrative pronouns, modern Korean and Japanese share a similar system of i~ (이), geu~ (그) and jeo~ (저) with Japanese ko~, so~ and a~ (“this”, “that” and “that over there”), but Vovin points out they “seem to have been functionally much more different in earlier times than they are now,” indicating once more aerial convergence rather than genetic divergence. And, further, the words themselves are not genetically cognate.

Is the genetic Altaic language hypothesis completely dead?

Not entirely and there are still a few advocates. The main point to consider is that after decades of intensive effort and high level scholarship from both sides of the debate, the Altaic theory remains unproven, both in terms of the genetic relationship between the core languages and the relationship of Koreanic and Japonic, either to each other or to the others, and today a greater number of historical linguists specialized in typologically Altaic languages stand against rather than for it.

There is instead the view that more can be achieved working on internal reconstructions and establishing the nature of relationships, whether genetic or aerial, between some of the individual Altaic language families before expending further efforts on the “long range” Altaic question.

One of the most emphatic arguments used by proponent Altaicists is that any of the Altaic languages in question are notably more similar to one another than modern Greek appears to Swedish, yet Greek and Swedish are accepted as being part of the same genetic Indo-European family; therefore it should not be so unreasonable to postulate the certainty of an Altaic language family. I know neither language, but assuming Greek and Swedish are as different as they say: if only those two languages and no other intermediate Indo-European language were known then, indeed, it surely would have been impossible to establish the Indo-European family and any such hypothesis would have to have remained unproven, as is the circumstance of Altaic. In fact the situation with Indo-European is, apparently, the opposite in that there are too many attested languages and whilst their genetic affinity is more certain, untangling the knot of secondary areal interactions between them is a real challenge.


An only slightly more considered response to the video “Endangered Japan: Book 1: A Cultural War”


Response to the “preface”

If, in 2013, you are feeling culturally threatened, attempt to imagine how Koreans might have felt when their country was made into a Japanese protectorate in 1905 and fully annexed in 1910.

Appreciate further, how critically endangered they actually became when under the 1938 Naisen Ittai (内鮮一体) policy of forced assimilation they were made to adopt Japanese names and Korean language was entirely banned.  Today, Japanese culture is faced with nothing even remotely on this scale; the biggest threat by far to Japanese ethno-cultural identity is, in fact, Westernization and its own shallowness but this video does not discuss the topic.

Apple iPhone vs Samsung Galaxy

Ignoring the fact that Apple iPhones are not Japanese. The argument of design is just an excuse for the rival companies to gain an advantage in the market place. Most cars have very similar designs, as do laptop computers, planes and tea cups. The idea of originality is false and it is absurd to claim it in a generic object (where Apple invented neither the telephone, the computer, nor buttons nor rounded corners).

The Samsung Galaxy is obviously “inspired” and derivative of the Apple phone design but so initially were many Japanese products of Western invention.

Honda vs Hyundai

They both begin with “H”, a letter of the Roman alphabet. Apart from that they are cars and the above arguments apply; the car wasn’t invented in Japan. In English Hyundai gets pronounced as three syllables “hai-un-dai” which is entirely distinct from bisyllabic “hon-da”.  The original Sino-Korean word from which the name comes, hyeondae (現代 현대), meaning “modern”, in Sino-Japanese is pronounced gendai.

The Hyundai advertising using Japanese cultural imagery is less defensible – unless it was specific specifically targeting Japan as a market, but given the language appears as English in the pictures this doesn’t seem to be the case.  It’s almost as inexplicable as a pro-Japanese nationalist video arguing for the superiority of Japanese culture and its misappropriation by Koreans whilst using French music for its soundtrack.

Manga vs manhwa

Some Korean manhwa comics are highly derivative but this is hardly a major issue endangering Japanese identity. Whilst Japanese manga has always been popular in Korea (even though, or perhaps because, it was officially banned until 1998) Korea has its own very strong domestic market for comics, now mainly online, with plenty of originality and inspiration from Korean culture and society.  Despite this, manga is well known internationally whilst manhwa is not at all, to the point that I feel the urge to italicize the latter as a foreign word.

Again, although Japan does have a celebrated premodern tradition of popular style prints, it did not invent the comic book and, in particular, the ubiquitous large-eyed stylization of manga characters is well known to be directly “borrowed” from Walt Disney cartoons and cannot be found in Edo or Meiji era woodblock prints.

If less commercial than Japan, 18th Joseon, too, had its painters who produced genre folk scenes which could well be viewed as the predecessors to a modern comic book style.

chocolates, snacks and strawberries

These chocolates are clearly copied. Disgraceful and shocking; I wonder how the Mayans feel about this.

The video provides little background context for each individual case as often the Japanese and Korean companies may well have close connections with one another, itself a result of Japan’s colonization of Korea.


Are definitely not Korean!

Kimbap vs sushi

Kimbap was surely introduced, or innovated during the Japanese colonial era in much the same way, we could suggest, as tempura was introduced to Japan by the Portuguese. Koreans certainly already had rice, seaweed and crab meat; kimbap does not use sushi vinegar or wasabi so it tastes entirely different.  It even has itself an entirely Korean name, and not just the Korean pronunciation of a Sino-Japanese equivalent.

Koreans could well make the similarly pointless claim that yaki-niku (barbecued meat) is a Japanese appropriation of Korean style barbecue (samgyeopsal, galbi etc) which itself is better known internationally.

Cherry blossoms

Trying to claim cherry blossoms as a traditional Korean aesthetic, if any one does, is unsubstantiable; though Korea shares a similar climate to much of Japan and cherry blossom trees are found in many other countries around the world.

That some Korean scientist (or journalist) might seek to “prove” that Japanese sakura trees originated on the Korean peninsula is indeed somewhat petty and simply an attempt to get under the skin of Japanese nationalists.  But then again, Japanese nationalists did invade the Korean peninsula and apparently plant extra cherry trees there.  Either way sakura are as Japanese as kamikaze.


Is definitely Japanese, though many Koreans enjoy practicing it. Most Koreans who practice kendo accept its obvious Japanese origins.

Perhaps it might be compared to the fact that American baseball is practiced like crazy and enjoyed by both Japanese and Koreans, even by those who may not otherwise be very pro-American, just as cricket is enjoyed by many more Indians than British.

Haedong Gumdo

Is a modern Korean invention. The issue of Buddhist statuary shouldn’t not be pushed too far as it is historically documented that Buddhism was introduced to Japan during the 4th century primarily from the Baekje kingdom on the peninsula and the oldest relics and statues in Nara were crafted by Baekje artisans.


Are definitely Japanese.

Judo vs “yudo”

Judo is definitely traditionally Japanese, and 99% of Korean practitioners would admit this.

Aikido vs hapkido

Aikido is definitely Japanese but of relatively recent origin having been created by Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969).

Karate vs taekwondo

Taekwondo is definitely a modern martial art influenced by karate. Karate, as noted, however didn’t exist in premodern Japan, but originated in Okinawa which was formally an independent kingdom, under vassalage to the Satsuma domain from 1609 and only formally incorporated as a province of Meiji Japan in 1879.

Even in the mid 20th century, at the height of Japanese imperialism, karate was still considered of foreign origin to Japan as demonstrated in Akira Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata (1947) where it is presented as an unknown threat to orthodox judo.

Taekwondo, meanwhile, has evolved its own style and techniques distinct from karate and, therefore, we can best say it is about as Korean as karate is Japanese.

Taekkyeon did also exist in Korea as a martial folk sport and it is fair to assume Koreans knew how to kick things even before the Japanese annexation of 1910. To paraphrase Bruce Lee, as long as humans have two arms and two legs their fighting systems are all going to be relatively similar.

The broader argument of Sinocentricism stifling Korean innovation

You are largely correct that Japanese culture, from the Heian period until the 19th century, developed in a more idiosyncratic manner and flourished in relative, though far from complete, isolation; in fact Joseon Korea was the one country Edo Japan maintained diplomatic relations with throughout.

Korea, until the 19th century considered itself much more a part of the Sinocentric worldview but its sense of distinct cultural self-identity was also very much maintained. For example, the fourth of King Wang Geon’s famous Ten Injunctions (訓要十條 likely composed during the reign of Hyeonjong 1009-31), explicitly stated that Goryeo was not Tang China and it did not need to copy Tang institutions and dress; during the Goryeo period such works as Dongmyeong-wang-pyeon (東明王篇 동명왕편 the progenitor myth of Goguryeo), Samguk-sagi, Samguk-yusa and Jewang-un’gi were all composed and displayed a concern to record the peninsula’s history and folklore as distinct from China. Despite the usage of Classical Chinese and influence of Chinese learning which extended thoroughly also to Japan, Koreans continued to speak the Korean language and, even before the 1443 invention of the hangul script, devised systems to record Korean using Chinese characters, namely hyangchal (鄕札) and idu (吏讀) alongside a strong tradition of oral literature.

From the establishment of the Joseon dynasty, the ideological vigour of Sinocentricism was overtly enhanced by Neo-Confucianism (known in Korean as Seongnihak 性理學 “the study of human nature”) which was a neo-traditionalist ideology seeking to recreate the presumed Confucian utopia of ancient/legendary China to which Joseon dynasty Koreans considered themselves as much equal inheritors themselves, as contemporary Chinese. Thus the elite of Joseon Korea held aspects of ancient Chinese civilization as an ideal, in much the same way the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome have informed and inspired European art and philosophy.

That Joseon period architecture appears broadly similar to Chinese architecture (when photographed from specific angles) is similar to European countries all basing their architecture since the Enlightenment on Greek and Roman designs. At the same time, plenty of Korean architecture is entirely distinct including, the style of traditional Korean hanok houses and the early innovation of ondol underfloor heating; both the layout and interior of Korean houses is entirely distinct from continental architecture.

Seongnihak was created by the Song dynasty scholar Zhu Xi, but it soon fell out of popularity in China itself; in Joseon meanwhile it was later interpreted and innovated by major philosophers such as Toegye Yi Hwang (退溪 李滉 1501-70) who’s writings were highly regarded even in Japan. Seongnihak ultimately flourished more and for longer in Joseon Korea than in China so it is hard to describe its manifestation in Korea as purely “Chinese”.

In particular, with the overthrow of the Chinese Ming dynasty and establishment of the Manchu Qing in 1644, Joseon came to regard itself as the sole preserver of the lineage of ancient Chinese learning; it noticeably reduced contact with Qing China to a bare minimum of symbolic missions which is, more than anything, what retarded its development alongside over-adherence to Seongni-hak which had, over several centuries of domination isolated from the plurality of China, inevitably became reduced to a rigid dogma.

Returning to the video, the quote from Isabella Bird Bishop’s Korea and Her Neighbours (1898) is from the beginning of the book and represents only first impressions. Read to the end and you discover she very much warmed to the country, went to great lengths in describing its unique culture and was increasingly unimpressed by the actions of the Japanese.

Certainly, during the better part of the 19th century Seoul as a city failed to “modernize” which, albeit ironically, actually demonstrates its success at having staved off Western intrusions for significantly longer than Japan did.  Joseon society, by the mid 19th century, was in decline and many Koreans were fully aware of this.

Despite all this, the only pictorial examples of Joseon being similar to China presented in the video, are the robes of the king and architecture. As said, much Korean architecture was quite distinct from China (which of course had huge regional and diachronic variation itself) and for all the clichéd pictures of unique culture idiosyncratically developed in Japan (origami, bonzai trees etc), similar representative examples of distinctive cultural traditions can be found in Korea, including but not limited to: inlay decorated Celadonware sanggam-cheongja (象嵌靑瓷) of the Goryeo dynasty; buncheong-sagi (粉靑沙器) of the early Joseon period – a tradition which was wiped out on the peninsula but transferred to Japan during the Hideyoshi invasions of 1592-97 and there directly contributed to the development of karatsu-yaki (唐津焼); dal-hang’ari moon vases (달항아리) of the mid Joseon dynasty; Joseon dynasty paintings including the iconic works of Gyeomjae Jeongseon (謙齋 鄭敾1676-1759), Danwon Kim Hongdo (檀園 金弘道 1745-1806), Hyewon Sin Yunbok (蕙園 申潤福 1758-?) and Chusa Kim Jeonghui (秋史 金正喜 1786-1856); pansori epic storytelling, tuneful Korean folksongs, and musical instruments dating back to the Three Kingdoms period, including the geomun’go and gayageum zithers and daegeum transverse flute on which  sanjo “scattered melodies” (散調) improvisation technique was later innovated.

DSC00051c1080  DSC00264

낭구도 浪鷗圖 adjusted detail 김홍도_송하맹호도부분  월야밀회月夜密會 adjusted

Presentation of the Japanese colonial era

No doubt aspects of “modernization” and “development” were brought to Korea during this era. However, not a single one of these aspects were invented by the Japanese but had only recently been adopted into Japan itself, and they were already being introduced to Korea at the end of the 19th century even before it was annexed.

Schools, in particular, were being established by Western missionaries and Korea obviously had a long tradition of education previous to foreign incursions. A small number of influential Koreans were enabled to study in Tokyo but if not for Japanese colonialization they might have been freer to study in other countries as well and establish their own universities sooner as they did post 1945.

Imposed Westernization via Imperial Japan, was not a benign contribution!

I agree some Koreans privately benefited and profited during the colonial era, as described in Professor Eckert’s well known study but even for the most successful, they were to remain second class citizens in their own country vis-a-vis the Japanese occupiers. For Korea the country, meanwhile, the period of the Japanese empire was utterly disastrous, as it was in fact for Japan itself! Aside from the immediate thirty-five years of violent oppression and suffering, Japan ultimately took Korea to a meaningless, unwinnable war which directly led to its tragic division in 1945. For Koreans at the bottom of society the colonial era wasn’t necessarily worse than life had been during the late Joseon period but it certainly didn’t improve and became nasty in new ways.

Here, we can be informed by the first hand account of Frederick Arthur McKenzie (1869–1931) concerning Japanese rule in Korea circa 1920:

“To the outside, one of the most repulsive features of the Japanese method of government of Korea is the wholesale torture of untried prisoners, particularly political prisoners… torture is employed in many [detention] centres and on thousands of people. The Imperial Japanese Government, while enacting paper regulations against the employment of torture, in effect condones it…

The forms of torture freely employed include, among others:-

1. The stripping, beating, kicking, flogging, and outraging of schoolgirls and young women.

2. Flogging schoolboys to death.

3. Burning – the burning of young girls by pressing lighted cigarettes against their tender parts, and the burning of men, women and children by searing their bodies with hot irons.

4. Stringing men up by their thumbs, beating them with bamboos and iron rods until unconscious, restoring them and repeating the process, sometimes several times in one day, sometimes until death.

5. Contraction – tying men up in such fashion as to cause intense suffering.

6. Confinement for long periods under torturing conditions, as, e.g. where men and women are packed so tightly in a room that they cannot lie or sit down for days at a stretch.” (McKenzie, F.A. Korea’s Fight for Freedom, originally printed 1920, reprinted 1969, Yonsei University Press: Seoul pp8-9)

To say that most Koreans were happy during the colonial era in particular ignores the massive counter-evidence provided by the nationwide March 1st 1919 popular uprising which strongly demonstrated Koreans were not at all happy. The famously peaceful demonstrations were violently suppressed by the Japanese military whereupon those with a will to actively resist were forced to escape to southern Manchuria from where they waged continuous guerrilla warfare until the Japanese defeat.  Content people do not wage guerrilla warfare.

We can again quote from McKenzie concerning the argument that Koreans benefited from Japan’s rapacious colonial exploitation:

‘”The Japanese make improvements,” say the Koreans. “But they make them to benefit their own people, not us. They improve agriculture, and turn the Korean farmers out and replace them by Japanese. They pave and put sidewalks in a Seoul street, but the old Korean shopkeepers in that street have gone, and Japanese have come. They encourage commerce, Japanese commerce, but the Korean tradesman is hampered and tied down in many ways.” Education has been wholly Japanized. That is to say the primary purpose of the schools is to teach Korean children to be good Japanese subjects. Teaching is mostly done in Japanese, by Japanese teachers. The whole ritual and routine is towards the glorification of Japan.

The Koreans complain, however, that, apart from this, the system of teaching established for Koreans in Korea is inferior to that established for Japanese there. Japanese and Korean children are taught in separate schools. The course of education for Koreans is four years, for Japanese six. The number of schools provided for Japanese is proportionately very much larger than for Koreans, and a much larger sum of money is spent on them..’ (pp197-198)


Is both a lost cause for Japan and symbolic of South Korea’s post-colonial trauma. As a group of uninhabited rocks, it never “belonged” in any meaningful sense to either Japan or Korea and to say Korea’s occupation is illegal would ignore the greater illegality of nearly all of Japan’s actions up until 1945.

The fact is Japan accepted unconditional surrender in 1945 and was ordered to cede all of its colonial possessions: it is lucky, therefore, to have kept Hokkaido and Okinawa, and luckier still that it was not divided between Russia and America. Unfortunately many issues were never fully resolved because of the immediate onset of the Cold War and America’s hasty desire to rehabilitate Japan as an immediate ally against USSR and Mao’s China. This is the source for nearly all of the history and territorial disputes still outstanding.

Japan and Korea never fought a war against one another, but huge suffering was inflicted on the Korean people by Japan over which Koreans had no control.

The 1965 compensation payment by Japan unfortunately for the South Korea people, was a secret agreement negotiated with then dictator and former officer in the Japanese military, Park Chung Hee. This money never reached victims directly; the issue of apologizing is more problematic for both sides.

Concerning the motivation of the video on a wider level, regarding the genuine complaint of South Korean “plagiarizing” and its misappropriation of Japanese culture: in short, this is what happens when you colonize a neighboring country, impose a policy of forced cultural assimilation, only to be defeated in a larger war and have to withdraw and go into denial about recent history. Koreans never asked to be made so familiar with sushi and kendo: they were introduced into the Korean peninsula by the Japanese themselves. The fact that many Koreans, in spite of history, have adopted these items demonstrates the partial success of both Imperial Japan’s best and worst intentions.