For those of you not in Korea, you’ve probably never heard of Dokdo. Wikipedia has the scoop for you, and it’s pretty well balanced, but the bottom line is, Dokdo is a pair of rocks in the middle of the body of water that separates Korea from Japan. Dokdo is the subject of an ongoing territorial dispute with Japan. The issue flares up every so often, like a case of gout, and like gout, dominates life here for a while. Recently, the Japanese department of education announced that in new Japanese textbook guidelines, Dokdo is going to be described as Japanese territory. Korean media and a portion of Korean society is about to flip out.
Some out there think this is a godsend to Lee, to take the heat off him for a while. I think this is deeply mistaken: nationalists will be hating Japan, but I don’t think that’ll make them hate Lee any less. After all, Lee was the one who only a few months ago urged Koreans to “let go of the past” and move on so a better, more mature relationship with Japan would be possible. To many, the timing might not seem so accidental… I’ve heard some people draw a direct line between the two events, so it’s quite possible this will just lower Lee’s approval rating even further. Yet more, since he’s gone off on holiday now, in the middle of what lots of Koreans seem to consider a “crisis” with a South Korean shot dead in North Korea, and Japanese textbooks yet again in the news. (Yes, a short holiday by our standards, but not by those of the average Korean worker — it’s almost as long as the average worker’s yearly allotment of days off, and Lee did after all make a no-holiday pledge.)
But, okay, whatever, I don’t want to discuss all that. If you want to read foreigners ranting about it, there’s tons of foreigner virtriol online that sometimes outstrips even the most amibitious annoyances offered by Korean netizens on the subject. What I want to say is this:
Dear Korea… Please, please consider a better strategy. Please!
Personally, like many Westerners in Korea, I am so not up for a major round of Dokdo-ranting, Dokdo raving, Dokdo T-shirts, Dokdo posters in banks, Dokdo everything 24/7.
I really am not. It’s been a long enough, hot enough, humid and tense enough summer already, and I really don’t need random strangers wandering up to me to teach me about territorial disputes, or, worse, ask leading questions only to act all offended when I give the “wrong” answer. Regardless of the political significance of the issue to Koreans — and it’s their right to care about it if they want — I just find that the earnest rage and horror I saw in the last Dokdo flare-up a few years ago didn’t help.
Obviously didn’t help, given the current circumstances, though it seems that this is Korea’s standard response to the territorial dispute.
So I’m going to offer a little foreign perspective here. When Koreans get all earnest about Dokdo, it looks silly to people abroad. It looks silly because it looks like people in Korea are actually taking Japan’s claims seriously, instead of laughing at them or saying, “Yeah, right, go f*ck yourself,” to the Japanese government.
It’s a familiar response to me as a Canadian, because many Canadians have a similar national inferiority complex with regards to whoever is less peripheral than them within Canada or internationally. Lots of older Quebecois are all earnestly anti-Anglo-Canada; lots of people out West are all anti-Ontario; and even many Ontarians feel a kind of national inferiority to the USA (and, to a lesser degree in some areas, and a greater degree in others, to Britain). And when Canadians proudly declare, “We’re just as great as the USA!” or “Vancouver is a global quality city!” or, “Canada is the best place in the world to live!” it all but drips inferiority complex.
In Reflections of a Siamese Twin: Canada at the End of the Twentieth Century, Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul had this to say about the phenomenon:
Positive nationalism is a humanist movement seeking continual reform in order to improve the life of the community. This does include economic well-being, but only as a result of the more important elements — service of the public good, aggressive responsible individualism and culture. What I mean by that is culture in the largest sense, with language at the core of it being used to further the communication of the culture. In the practical terms of everyday life, culture is not about agreement, but about questioning. In other words, culture is not about solidarity, but about discussion and disagreements.
Nationalism, the public good, individualism, culture — we rarely put these concepts together. But if nationalism is not a metaphor for strengthening the well-being of society, it is nothing at all. Or rather, it has been reduced to the exploitation of emotion. And if individualism — in a democracy — is not the participation as a citizen in order to affect the public good, what is it but self-indulgence?
Negative nationalism usually identifies a defined national crisis as the primary problem which society must first deal with in order to save itself and thus make it possible to deal with other problems. The other problems are invariably said to be unresolvable because of the national crisis. But the national crisis is usually itself unresolvable in any real terms because it is based on abstract theories of identity or power. Negative nationalism cannot help but demote social reform to a lower level. It tends, in the normal process of political opposition, to end up as an anti-reform movement. (pg. 299-200)
If you look at Korean history, this is precisely how nationalism was built up here: Korea was modernized in a hell of a hurry, but at great expense to a whole teeming mass of individuals who are now living in increasing economic uncertainty. Development was harshly uneven, which is a part of why the southwest is so unrelentingly leftist and the southeast is complacently rightist. It even relates to gender issues: somewhere in the Yonsei university library is a book I need to track down — ooh, wait, it’s this one, which was also recommended by a commenter elsewhere! — which contains a chapter or two about how women’s groups in Korea during the Japanese occupation began to push for reform on women’s issues. They were, eventually, convinced to throw in with the greater nationalist movement on condition that their own policy complaints would be addressed once the bigger issue of Korean soevereignty was resolved, but of course, a new unresolvable existential crisis — the looming threat of communism in the North — served just as effectively as a cornerstone of South Korean nationalism, and also served just as effectively to sideline feminist reforms for decades.
Negative nationalism, in all these cases, caused people to make “sacrifices” for the sake of the nation which didn’t always work out to benefit “the nation” or to address whatever “problem” trumped personal concerns and individual (or even general, common) needs — partly because those national threats have been explicitly chosen to be practically unresolvable. It’s a rather toxic, agreement-enforcing way of shutting down societal dialogue so that the elites, or government, or big business, can get on with the business of doing whatever they do — and let’s be honest, money’s a big part of whatever they all do — while the masses are busy pointing at some distraction and shouting angrily.
So here’s my plea, to all you Koreans out there who are worried about Dokdo: Please, please try a different strategy. Stop being earnest. Stop being so sensitive about this. Stop letting this become the huge issue it becomes. This isn’t a national crisis, it’s a change in textbook guidelines made by political wingnuts in Japan.
Instead of getting worked up, laugh in their faces. Throw a little ballsy irony into the face of the Japanese government. Hold an international techno-rave part there, with DJs from around the world. (Or build a hotel there for politically conscious ajummas, as has been proposed. It’s got to be safer than sending them to Baekdusan.) Hell, why not install a little hi-tech Buddhist monastery? Spend the rest of the summer with student volunteers building it, habitat for humanity style, and then monks can live out there in three-month shifts. Put some shoulder grease into it!
Make videos on Youtube sarcastically asking whether those Japanese hardliners would perhaps like to have a little of North Korea to go along with the island? Or maybe some cherry blossoms ranges on disused mountains from Jeolla province as garnish? Chuck offensive cracks into their face about how Korean men had better lock up their teenaged daughters, considering what happened last time Japan started eyeing Korean territory. Make amusing, over-the-top translations from Japanese textbooks that reflect what you think is the Japanese government’s real mentality. Hell, make a satirical webcast of the Japanese government’s nefarious plans to take over Dokdo and open a rip in the fabric of the universe from which they can summon millions of Flesh-Eating Interdimensional Hello Kitty Ghouls to wipe out humankind. If you can work in some Akira or Ghost in the Shell cracks, the rest of the world might get it, too. Or, no, wait, I recommend Hello Kitty. Everyone knows (and hates) Hello Kitty. Imply that Japanese PM Yasuo Fukuda is channeling the ghost of Hirohito (and give the old emperor a lisp and make him talk in teen-girly Japanese, while you’re at it).
Write satirical essays on how Korea should give the rocks to Japan, because the country obvious has small-balls issues and this is the only way to stop Japanese politicians from sending young conscripts going on murder and rape ramages in Africa (the only place quite as poor as Korea was when they did it here, and perhaps the only place they could get away with it this time). If Japan is not given Dokdo, then millions of young Japanese men will be forced to contract AIDS in their war to protect Africa from, er, well… whatever it is decided is threatening Africa. (Rampaging Flesh-Eating Interdimensional Hello Kitty Ghouls?)
Explain how we should feel sympathy for the poor Japanese politicians who, after all, everyone knows are a bunch of wimp hentai and yaoi obsessive otaku fanboys and that of course they have lost their grip on reality through excessive masturbation during official meetings of the Ministry of Bukkake Relations. (Luridly cite Lord Baden-Powell or some other nutty Victorian Englishman on the effects of excessive masturbation.) Cite papers from obscure Korean medical studies “proving,” PD Diary-style, that excessive group masturbation has feralized the Japanese government, and note that Dokdo would be a perfect place for them to be placed for isolation from human society for the sake of the whole world.
Okay, maybe all of that is both over-the-top and not the kind of jokes Koreans would make to mock Japanese politicians. [And the last bunch of jokes probably wouldn’t win over the Japanese left, which you should try to do.] So just mock these guys in whatever way makes sense to you, feels natural and funny to you. What I’m saying is, you’ll get far more enjoyment out of creatively ridiculing the Japanese government, and by not taking its claims seriously, you’ll look like you have this whole thing in perspective. Which, frankly, the Korean populace didn’t look like last time the issue flared up. And people will be laughing, which is very often a good thing. You won’t look like you’re lending the Japanese right any credibility.
Wait until a gun gets fired before taking this thing seriously enough to get angry or make this a major national talking point, okay, folks? And foreigners — take a hint from Rob: find other things to look at and write (or talk) about, if you can’t approach it from some other angle, lest you get sucked into the tabloidy world of Korea-blogs where a tiny minority of rage-filled extremists somehow gets mistaken for the vast, nation-defining majority, and lest you find yourself once again just ranting about how annoying the Dokdo panic is. Focus on something else! That’s what I’ll be doing!
And that’s all I want to say about Dokdo!