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.

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

  1. “This money never reached victims directly; the issue of apologizing is more problematic for both sides.” So silly. It was 2 times the budget. 2 times todays budget would be US$1 trillion. I would say difference of north and south korea.
    Can you view and comment?
    Other than that I think kim,park, seok silla rulers were japanese and people compiling did not want to die so left out, but left clue in hogong,pak, and kim. I think that’s why sogaya is blank too.

    • The oldest extant Korean historical texts (Samguk Sagi and Samguk Yusa) explicitly state that the Seok lineage of Silla rulers was from Japan (well, to be more precise, from some petty state located 1000 Chinese miles northeast of “Waeguk,” which is some part of ancient Japan). These same texts also state explicitly that “Hogong” (which may not have been the proper name of any single individual, but rather a title of some sort since the dates of various events in which Hogong is recorded to have been involved cover a span of time longer than than that of any human’s life) was originally a “Waein” (some sort of Japanese person). The authors of these Korean historical texts seem to have been in the dark regarding many details about the personages and events surrounding the founding of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, but I do not see enough evidence to support an accusation that they have intentionally obfuscated Japanese involvement in the founding of the Silla kingdom.

      However, in my humble opinion, the “Bak” lineage, to which the actual founding of Silla is attributed, may be a historiographic alter ego of Hogong; ancient Korean historians might have mistakenly separated the two. “Bak” is, of course, the native Korean name for the bottle gourd, which in Chinese is the “ho” of “Hogong.” (In other words, “Hogong” = “Sir/Duke Bottle Gourd” = “Sir/Duke Bak” ?= Bak royals of Silla.) If I am correct that the persona of “Hogong” is merely a historiographical fiction/error and it actually should be a synonym for the Bak kings of Silla, then there would be explicit textual claims of Japanese origin for two of the three royal lineages of Silla (well, “Wae” origin for Hogong/Bak at least, and some sort of para-“Wae” or central-to-eastern Japanese origin for Seok, the second Silla royal lineage). As for the last (and overall longest-ruling) royal family of Silla, the Kims, they are supposedly descended from a baby boy who was “miraculously” found in the forest of Sirim (“Primaeval Forest”)/Gyerim (“Chicken Forest”) by Hogong(?=a member of the Bak royal lineage) and presented to Talhae (a member of the Seok royal lineage). I suppose one possible interpretation of these historical records might be that an early proto-Silla was founded by someone from Wae (western Japan? Kyushu?), represented by Hogong/Bak Hyeokgeose, later to be usurped by someone from central/eastern Japan, represented by Seok Talhae, with governance of the country finally being invested in a family of native Korean stock (“from the primaeval forest”), represented by the Kims, whose ancestor had been “adopted” by the erstwhile Japanese rulers of Silla. Note that “Sirim” (Primaeval Forest) was renamed “Gyerim” (Chicken Forest) supposedly in commemoration of Hogong’s miraculous discovery there of the infant Kim Alji, as Hogong had been guided by the crowing of a rooster.

      Although Samguk Sagi and Samguk Yusa have presented this material as history, it is, to a modern observer, obviously some sort of mythological allegory that only hints vaguely at the circumstances surrounding the founding of Silla (and, by extension, Korea as a whole).

      • Also, in regard to the usurpation of early Silla of the Bak clan (from Wae/western Japan) by the Seok clan (from central-to-eastern Japan), note the legend of the property dispute between “Hogong” (which I consider to be simply one name/title for members of the Bak clan who had founded proto-Silla) and Talhae, the founder of the Seok clan in Silla. Although the Korean historical records generally have portrayed the transition from the Bak dynasty to the Seok dynasty as being a result of peacefully “marrying in,” there are also some anecdotes that suggest something more like a hostile takeover. Note the story about Seok Talhae’s claiming to be a metalsmith and that the property on which Hogong’s mansion sat originally had belonged to Talhae, and that Hogong had unjustly occupied the property whilst Talhae had been away; Talhae even planted evidence to trick a judge into accepting his fabricated tale. In any case, accepting the Samguk Sagi’s and Samguk Yusa’s identification of these people as Japanese, the Bak vs. Seok rivalry would be an internal Japanese dispute and not directly connected to the real natives (who I identify with the Kim lineage, and who seem to have gained self-government only later, after the dispute between the supposedly Japanese-in-origin Bak and Seok clans had been “resolved” through Talhae’s scheme).

  2. Pingback: Japanese Annexation of Korea week 4 | Ordened Chaos

  3. Andrew,

    You really shouldn’t waste time trying to refute Japanese nationalists and their largely illogical criticisms of Korea (or China for that matter).

    I do largely agree with what you say in the post, but have a few supplemental comments.

    Early on when they were first making cars, Hyundai used mostly rejected (or purchased) designs from Mitsubishi. They never really copied from Honda. It was Mitsubishi that was most willing to share design and technology with Hyundai (again, early on).

    Regarding yakiniku. It IS an appropriation of Korean bbq! The term yakiniku was popularized by Zainichi Korean bbq restaurants and associations in Japan and was chosen by them because it roughly was equivalent to “bulgogi” which is a native Korean word and thus didn’t have any Chinese characters to easily convert to Japanese pronunciation.

    Yakiniku, as the modern Japanese understand it to be, is a Zainichi Korean invention.

    Regarding “Sinocentricism stifling Korean innovation” I think the Japanese took it too far during the colonial era. Their argument was that since Korea “slavishly” copied from the Chinese and were their tributary for such a long time, Korea was a nation that didn’t really have it’s own sense of statehood. Thus, being dominated by Japan was just a natural state of affairs for Korea, or so they claimed. The Japanese put a sign on a tomb traditionally attributed to Kija stating that the Korean people’s first kingdom was established by a foreigner and thus “true” Korean culture didn’t really exist. Because of how the Japanese presented Kija’s tomb, it is rumored that the North Korean government destroyed the tomb.

    • “Yakiniku, as the modern Japanese understand it to be, is a Zainichi Korean invention.”

      The Japanese, however, all (or at least overwhelmingly so) recognize yakiniku to be a product of Korean heritage/origin/influence, and do not try to claim it internationally as a traditional part of “Japanese culture.” It is like how Americans recognize sauerkraut and bratwurst to be German foods even when Americans enjoy them in America. This is an important distinction between the behavior of the present-day Japanese and the present-day Koreans.

      “Thus, being dominated by Japan was just a natural state of affairs for Korea, or so they claimed. The Japanese put a sign on a tomb traditionally attributed to Kija stating that the Korean people’s first kingdom was established by a foreigner and thus “true” Korean culture didn’t really exist. Because of how the Japanese presented Kija’s tomb, it is rumored that the North Korean government destroyed the tomb.”

      The Koreans themselves have recorded in their oldest preserved histories that essentially all their early kingdoms were established by foreigners, either so ancient that the place of foreign origin is unknown (original Joseon — founded by the son of some “divine”/”heavenly”/”celestial” immigrant and a native “bear woman”), Chinese (several reincarnations of “Joseon”), some sort of minority (Tungusic?) ethnic group from China (Goguryeo and, by extension, Baekje), or Japanese (Silla, probably also at least some of the “Gaya”/”Imna” statelets).

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