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Korean media fanning anti-Japan sentiment

Publication Date : 26-12-2013


South Korean mass media reports on Japan have had undeniably grave ramifications on bilateral relations.

For example, take Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Matsushima Air Base in Higashi-Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, on May 12. Abe’s visit was intended to offer words of encouragement to Air Self-Defence Force personnel at the base, which had been damaged by the Great East Japan Earthquake and ensuing tsunami in 2011.

During the visit, Abe was photographed aboard a practice plane of the Blue Impulse, the ASDF’s aerobatic demonstration team.

Two days later, however, The Munhwa Ilbo, a South Korean evening paper, criticised Abe in an article with the headline, “Is he awakening the specter of militarism?” The article accused Abe of provoking the ire of countries that were drawn into World War II as the practice plane happened to be numbered 731, which the paper said reminded people of the Imperial Japanese Army’s Unit 731. The unit allegedly conducted covert research on biological weapons during the war.

Other members of the South Korean media followed suit.

“I was ordered to write a similar story by my boss,” a South Korean reporter admitted. In protest, he asserted that The Munhwa Ilbo’s report was comparable to a false accusation against Abe, but was overridden by his boss who said to him: “Are you pro-Japan?” He said he reluctantly wrote the story as instructed.

About a week after the media frenzy, the JoongAng Ilbo, the second-largest newspaper in South Korea in terms of circulation, carried a column written by an editorial writer that labelled the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as “revenge” for the “human beings used in experiments by a covert biological warfare research team in China called Unit 731”.

Apparently with Abe in mind, the column said, “Some leaders deny the history of aggression and hurt their Asian neighbours with such denials.” It ended with “But God, too, is at liberty...God may feel that retaliation against Japan hasn’t been complete.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga replied by saying, “We’ll never tolerate such perceptions about the atomic bombings” at a press conference before the Japanese government lodged a protest with the JoonAng Ilbo. In a reply, the newspaper said the column contains the personal views of the writer, not the daily’s official stance.

The column served to pour cold water on Japan-South Korean relations: Some survivors of the bombings were devastated to learn about the column and said the columnist should not have written the article while he was carried away by his emotions.

In another instance, Abe’s speech at an annual memorial service to mark the 68th anniversary of the end of World War II on August 15 drew criticism from South Korea—this time not for a verbal gaffe, but for not making an apology for its militarist past. “We will carve out the future of this country as one full of hope, as we face history with humility and engrave deeply into our hearts the lessons that we should learn,” Abe said in his speech.

The Dong-A Ilbo ran an article titled “Abe ditches last conscience of war criminal nation”, which said the prime minister failed to mention the damage the country inflicted on Asian nations and failed to show remorse. It then said the prime minister aims to change Japan into an ordinary nation that can fight a war.

“South Korean newspapers tend to arbitrarily assume that readers want to read anti-Japanese stories,” said a Japanese journalist residing in South Korea, adding that they often end up fanning anti-Japanese sentiment among the public.

Recently, however, there have been a number of stories that warned against running excessively anti-Japanese reports.

The Kyunghyang Shinmum carried a bylined story from its Tokyo correspondent on August 1, saying the attitude that “you can get away with doing anything as long as your slogan is anti-Japanese” will only make an enemy out of even Japanese who see South Korea in a favorable light.

The Chosun Ilbo’s Yang Sang Hoon, chief of the editorial board, questioned why Japanese are more trusted than South Koreans in the world in his column on November 13. “We have only ourselves to blame for this ironic outcome. As long as we turn to our emotions first and fail to deal with matters logically, all the while refusing to see how our emotional behavior may be perceived by others, we will never be able to beat Japan at anything.”

Whether such a call on South Korea to begin soul-searching would resonate with the South Korean public remains to be seen—and this is what the Japanese government is watching with keen interest.

Japan media fuel reaction

Japanese media reports have ignited anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea in a number of cases. Issues related to so-called comfort women are a case in point.

On Jan 11, 1992, The Asahi Shimbun sensationally reported that “The Japanese military supervised and controlled the establishment of comfort stations and recruitment of comfort women.”

The article also indicated that “joshi teishin-tai”, women aged 14 to 24 who were recruited to work at such places as factories during World War II, were forced to serve as comfort women.

The report infuriated the South Korean public, prompting Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa to apologise to South Korean President Roh Tae Woo when he visited Seoul shortly after the report. It also led to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono to issue a statement that expressed “apologies and remorse” over comfort women on Aug 4, 1993.

But investigations by the Japanese government have found no evidence to back up the allegation that comfort women were forcibly recruited by the Imperial Japanese Army.

“It is a major sin for reports to suggest that comfort women were forcibly recruited,” said modern historian Ikuhiko Hata.


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