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Monday, May 28, 2001


Progress made in how Japan sees Korea

The latest instance of textbook controversy has reminded me of the changing descriptions in the entry on Korea in different editions of a well-known Japanese-language dictionary. Reports have it that the South Korean government was so upset by a certain textbook that its protests brought on a diplomatic crisis.

The dictionary is the "Kojien," by Iwanami Shoten. It was initially compiled in 1935 by the lexicographer Izuru Shinmura, but the first edition of the dictionary as we know it today did not appear until 1955. Containing 200,000 words, the "Kojien" apparently became the model for all other lexicons of similar nature, and its publisher has since produced a new edition every 11 years on average. The latest, published in 1998, is the fifth.

I first noticed the changing descriptions in entries, as well as the deletion and addition of entries, in the "Kojien" after the first edition I owned fell apart and I acquired the second edition, published in 1969. While checking on some birds, I was startled to see an about-face kind of change in the entry on "tsugumi" (thrush). The first edition pointed to the thrush's importance as a game bird, adding that its "meat is delicious." The second edition made no culinary reference, saying instead, "In the past it used to be captured in great numbers with bird-nets as a food source." Evidently Japan's great age of pollution, during the 1950s and 1960s, had taken its toll.

I was drawn into definitional changes, however, when I came upon the following description in the subentry on "Chosenjin" (Korean person) within the entry on "Chosen" (Korea) in the first edition:

"Said to be a race that came into being through the blood-mixing of the Tungus, the Indonesians and the Japanese. Their skin is pale yellow; in average height they are taller than the Japanese and shorter than the Manchurian tribe. They are extremely brachycephalic and constitutionally feeble. The slits of their eyes are long, and many have a thin beard."

Could it be possible for an island people to provide a basis for the formation of a race on a continental peninsula? Doesn't common sense tell you that it's probably the other way round? "Brachycephalic" may be a correct anthropological term, but "extremely"? Is it possible to characterize an entire race as "constitutionally feeble"? When it comes to "the slits of their eyes," etc., I had hardly to remind myself that my compatriots were described as "slant-eyed" by Europeans. But Japanese emphasizing that facial feature in describing a neighboring people who, at least to an ordinary person's eyes, look about the same? Racial contempt for Koreans was palpable.

I was immensely relieved to find no such entry in the second edition. I also noted some other differences in the descriptions of Korea. Chief among them are Japan's invasions of Korea at the end of the 16th century. In the first edition, the military action is called "Chosen Seibatsu"; in the second, "Chosen Shuppei." The difference between seibatsu, "conquest" or "subjugation," and shuppei, "sending an army," is great.

The two subentries say different things as well. In the first edition, there is no mention of the trouncing of the Japanese naval forces by a Korean admiral during the first invasion, as there is in the second. The addition of a reference to the naval defeat makes clear why Japan was forced to agree to a ceasefire. Without the reference, the reader is left to wonder: Why did Japan have to withdraw after "a series of victories"?

I don't have the third and fifth editions of the "Kojien," but I do have the fourth, which was published in 1991. And comparing the second and the fourth, I can report that Japan's historical sensitivity toward Korea may have changed far more markedly during the intervening 22 years than during the preceding 14 years. Most remarkable is the addition of three subentries.

The first of these is "Chosenjin Gyakusatsu Jiken." The subentry says: "An incident in 1923 in which as a result of the rumor that Korean residents rioted during the Great Kanto Earthquake, several thousand Koreans were massacred by vigilant groups, the army and police."

The second brings us closer to the textbook controversy. The subentry, "Chosenjin Kyosei Renko," reads: "During the Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War, Japan forcibly took more than a million Koreans to Japan proper, Sakhalin, and Okinawa, and subjected them to forced labor. Some of the women were turned into comfort women for the Japanese military."

The last item is "Chosen Tsushinshi." The description says: "The embassy the Korean King sent to the Edo government. From 1607 to 1811, 12 missions came to Japan to congratulate shogunate succession and for other purposes."

If the changes made on the thrush are a tiny indication of the lexicographer's growing awareness of the environment and wildlife, the changes made in regard to Korea in Japan's leading dictionary should give the South Korean government heart. Yes, many such changes tell us how much of history-writing is based on the expedience of the moment, but these are at once significant and dramatic.

I think, in particular, of the Korean embassy to Japan during the Edo Period. Consisting of 400 people on average, the embassy was an extravagant affair. The Tokugawa government gave utmost courtesy to the Korean visitors. Ordinary folks dressed up to watch the procession. Scholars and poets vied for an opportunity to interview members of the embassy to discourse in Chinese, albeit mostly in writing, in the belief, which was correct, that Koreans' command of that language was far superior to their own.

In fact, during the Edo Period, Korea was the only country that maintained a formal diplomatic relationship with Japan. But as a result of a historical blackout that started in the second half of the 19th century, even now most people continue to believe that Japan, during its isolationist period, traded only with the Dutch and Chinese. But at least major Japanese dictionaries today have an entry on the subject.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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