On the face of it, the current controversy over Japanese history textbooks is just one more example of Japan not facing up to its militaristic past. On a deeper level, however, Korea’s decision to forgo further liberalization of Japanese cultural imports until the offending texts are revised underscores the unique emotional relationship that exists between the two countries.

Up until only a few years ago, the Republic of Korea banned Japanese movies, music, TV programs and other entertainment-related products as a way of punishing Japan for its annexation of the Korean Peninsula during the earlier part of the century. Japan has had no reciprocal ban on Korean products for obvious reasons, and in any case there is a sizable ethnic Korean population in Japan that bought such products even if the Japanese themselves didn’t.

So while a newer generation of South Koreans has grown up understanding the terrible things that Japan did to their country before they were born, Japanese youths are fairly clueless about the relationship in general, not so much because of biased textbooks, but because Japanese history classes rarely cover the 20th century.

Consequently, the reasons for the current cultural trade imbalance between Japan and Korea go deeper than the government ban. A year or so ago, when the entertainment embargo was partially lifted, Koreans started scooping up Japanese products in large amounts. Little children covered their lunchboxes with Pokemon stickers and a Chage and Aska stadium concert sold out in hours. That seems to be over.

Japanese cultural imports have dropped significantly since the textbook controversy started, proving that it isn’t only the Korean government who is upset over the Japanese authorities’ intransigence. Interviews with Korean people on the street indicate that the populace takes the textbook problem seriously and, what’s more, personally. Sales of Japanese cultural imports are dropping off not because of their quality, but because of their source.

On the other hand, Korean cultural exports have been booming in Japan since last year, when the Korean action film, “Shiri,” broke box office records nationwide. The Japanese entertainment industry recognized that Koreans could produce a reliable product for mass consumption in Japan. Subsequently, Avex Records has released CDs by more than 30 Korean pop artists and Korean publishers are now distributing translated manga here.

This Korean boom has had a profound effect on Japanese youth, who, compared to their Korean counterparts in terms of cultural identity and memory, are blank sheets of paper. The most famous example is Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, a member of the popular pop idol group SMAP. Kusanagi was so impressed by “Shiri” that he started to absorb everything Korean that came into his orbit.

In April, he embarked on a personal crusade to become a star in Korea. He learned Korean and went over to the peninsula with a small Japanese staff (who also had to learn Korean), giving impromptu “guerrilla” street performances of a Korean song he had learned.

Kusanagi’s fans can watch his progress every week on the 15-minute Fuji TV program “Chonan Kan” (Friday, 1:30 a.m.), which is Kusanagi’s name in Korean. Though the street performances haven’t made much of an impression on the locals, Kusanagi has managed to get interviewed on a Korean variety show and was hired to appear in a situation comedy.

But while Kusanagi’s cross-cultural efforts can be applauded for their industry, his motivation is self-serving. In an interview with Telepal magazine he admitted that what impressed him most about “Shiri” was the resemblance between himself and the movie’s star, Han Suk-kyu: “It occurred to me that Korean people might like my face.”

The Japanese media have covered Kusanagi’s Korean exploits extensively — certainly much more than the Korean media has — but the textbook problem never comes up. (Note: Fuji TV is part of the Fuji Sankei Group, which also owns Fuyosha, the company that publishes the disputed textbooks.) For Kusanagi, international relations are all interpersonal. “I have no problem with the Koreans I work with,” he says. “They seem to understand exactly how I feel.”

Kusanagi’s innocent narcissism shouldn’t be surprising. While Korean citizens, for better or worse, have a certain amount of natural sympathy with their government’s policies, Japanese tend to feel that official matters at the international level have little to do with them. Japanese people who lived during the war don’t talk about the Korean situation, boomers are inherently defensive about the discrimination that Korean-Japanese continue to face and young people think of the country on the other side of the Japan Sea as a cheap weekend destination and a cool place to go shopping.

The biggest concern in the Japanese media is how the textbook problem will affect next year’s World Cup. Given the victim-oppressor dynamic that informs the problem, it seems unlikely that Korea will back down, and some Japanese on the local level are taking matters into their own hands. The Tochigi Board of Education has overturned its Textbook Selection Committee’s approval of the controversial textbooks. However, if the Japanese government finally breaks down and orders the changes that Korea is demanding it won’t be because they feel such changes are morally or even historically justified. They will do it for the same reason that determines most of their international relations decisions: for improved trade.

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