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To Lee Hee Jung, a 20-year-old South Korean student at Yokohama National University, Japan is closer to her mother country than the United States not only geographically, but psychologically.

Along with her fondness of writing kanji, which both the Korean and Japanese languages use, a growing influx of modern Japanese culture into South Korea, including pop music and apparel brands, nourished a sense of familiarity with the neighboring country. So she decided to come here two years ago, instead of North America — South Koreans’ most popular destination for studying abroad.

“There is a wide gap between South Korea and the United States. Japan, on the other hand, is close on the map,” said Lee, who, sporting a stylish white trench coat and short hair dyed light brown, fits right in Japan.

“But Koreans have not had sufficient information about Japan,” she continued. “I don’t like to criticize a country that I don’t know well.”

An increasing number of students from South Korea, as well as from China, are coming to Japan to study, despite frequent diplomatic rows between Japan and its two Asian neighbors.

Such tensions were sparked by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s two visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the nation’s war dead — including

Class-A war criminals — and the government’s authorization of a contentious history textbook for junior high school students that South Korea claims glosses over Japan’s atrocities during its colonial rule of the peninsula before and during the war.

But at a more private level, Asian students choose Japan for practical reasons. Japan is nearby and offers a chance to obtain a certain level of expertise. What’s more, particularly in South Korea, modern Japanese culture — pop music, fashion, comic books, movies and TV dramas — has gained surprisingly high popularity and has a strong impact on the students’ decisions.

The surge in the number of non-Japanese Asians coming to Japan has also prompted many Japanese to study other Asian languages, as they hope to speak with their Asian friends and colleagues, sources said.

According to the latest figures from the education ministry, 14,725 South Korean students studied at colleges and vocational schools in Japan in 2001, up 14.6 percent from a year earlier and up 23.8 percent from 1999.

More drastic growth was seen in the number of students from China. They numbered 44,014 in 2001, easily topping the list of foreign students in Japan, and rising nearly 70 percent during the two years.

The jump was partly due to a growing desire by Chinese parents with means to send their children to prestigious schools, as well as the lack of such schools in China, an education ministry official said.

Similarly, the number of South Koreans and Chinese who entered Japanese-language schools has been on the rise for the past several years.

Most of the students seek higher education to gain a competitive career edge. But an increasing number of Korean students are coming here to learn the Japanese language or culture. Particularly in South Korea, the demand for speakers of Japanese has been rising, since the generations who were taught Japanese during the colonial rule are at or past retirement age, said Tokiyoshi Arai, managing director at Akamonkai Japanese Language School.

Goals vary

Students coming from South Korea and China are pursuing different goals.

South Koreans are mainly pursuing practical skills in such fields as apparel, hairstyling, beauty care, makeup, animation and dog grooming, while Chinese are seeking college degrees in such fields as economics and management, said Koji Shinjo, a manager of the Japanese-language division of ALC Press Inc., a Japanese service provider of correspondence courses for language study.

Lee Hee Jung hopes to get into Japan’s broadcasting business. She wants to acquire skills at a Japanese broadcasting company so she can direct or produce TV programs that attract South Korean viewers. Thus job experience in Japan is necessary if she wants to succeed in her planned career after returning to South Korea, she said.

ALC held a two-day fair in Seoul last year for people who want to study in Japan, attracting as many as 2,000 participants. It set up counseling booths for future applicants to provide information on Japanese schools, and launched various seminars and held Japanese music and game contests.

ALC plans to hold a similar event later this year and expects around 3,000 to attend.

ALC has held similar events in Beijing and Shanghai in recent years, with each having drawn double or more than triple the number who turned out in Seoul.

“The biggest reason (that Asian students head for Japan) is the closeness in their cultures and the distance between the countries,” Shinjo said. “Instead of going to the United States, for instance, which is far away and reflects a totally different culture, living near their home countries provides a sense of relief for them and their parents.

“Particularly in recent years, people feel at ease coming to Japan. Some look as if they have just moved into their own neighborhood,” he said, referring to South Korean students.

Because of the memories of the war, there were cases in the past when students were admonished by their grandparents when they confided to their families their desire to study in Japan.

“But I hardly hear of such cases any more,” Shinjo said.

Not just a one-way street

The influx of South Korean students, as well as the recent travel boom to Seoul and growing exposure to South Korean culture, has witnessed more Japanese seeking to learn the Korean language and to study in the country, sources said.

“The past two years has seen a sharp increase in the number of people wanting to study Korean,” said Kazuhisa Tazuke, vice president of the YMCA Asian Language Institute at the Korean YMCA in Japan.

“The number of students has jumped by around 50 percent from three years ago.”

Nanako Ito, a 33-year-old dental hygienist currently taking one of the Korean classes, said she started studying the language six months ago, impressed by the South Korean musical comedy “Nanta” and a chance to talk with the performers after the show. “My dream is to become an interpreter,” she said.

Another woman in the class said she likes Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, a member of the Japanese pop group SMAP who plays the role of a would-be star in South Korea and speaks Korean on the show.

“I’m not learning the language for my job. I’m doing it as a hobby,” she said.

Such enthusiasm often leads to further interest in the country and decisions to study there.

“Many Japanese students get interested in South Korea or start thinking about studying there when they take a trip or communicate with Korean students in Japan,” said Lee Mi Kyoung, a representative of Japan & Korea Friendship Corp., which provides counseling services for those who plan to study in South Korea.

“In recent years, the number (of those who want to study in South Korea) has doubled every year, helped by the cohosted World Cup,” she said. “Particularly for the last two years, company workers who quit their jobs and leave for South Korea stand out.”

Such workers leave their jobs amid Japan’s harsh business environment, Lee said, seeking to hone their career skills in South Korea before looking for a new job.

Mutual understanding

The surge in Asian students coming to Japan helps foster mutual understanding with their home countries, according to experts, and Japan and South Korea in particular have often been described as being geographically close but far apart in their feelings toward one another.

The most important point, they say, is that Japan and other parts of Asia share many aspects in common, but the differences, especially in their way of thinking, and their failure to understand such differences, invite confrontation. This is especially true regarding the historical legacy Japan shares with, but interprets differently from, China and the Korean Peninsula, particularly Japan’s wartime and colonial-period atrocities.

The differences in how history is interpreted and taught serve to hamper Japan’s true understanding of the Asian people, experts said.

Students often notice such differences in daily life.

Rumi Akasaka, a 22-year-old college student who returned after a year of study at South Korea’s Hanyang University, said she was surprised by Koreans’ straightforwardness even toward someone they meet for the first time.

She recalled how South Koreans she shared an apartment with questioned her when they met for the first time, asking what she thought about Prime Minister Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine and other politically touchy issues.

“I think Japanese tend to hesitate when it comes to asking questions to people they meet for the first time,” Akasaka said.

“I often heard that South Koreans consider Japanese to be a bit cold,” she said, adding she believes the hesitation is probably perceived as a lack of friendliness.

Lee Mi Kyoung said: “Some Korean students suffer mental stress from living in Japan and end up in a hospital. Sometimes they can’t understand what the Japanese are thinking because they don’t speak out.”

Lee Hee Jung at Yokohama National University has often been perplexed by Japanese behavior. For example, Japanese people working in the service industry tend to easily say they are sorry when they face any complaint from customers. “In my country, people don’t say they are sorry if they don’t really think they are wrong,” Lee said.

Nozomi Akizuki, a professor at Meiji Gakuin University, pointed out that Japanese see an apology as a lubricant for mutual relations, while South Koreans take an apology much more seriously.

“Even if the Korean way of thinking is 95 percent similar to that of the Japanese,” the way they differ must be acknowledged and understood, Akizuki said.

Learning the history the two nations share is also essential, although this is often ignored in Japan, said Tazuke at the Korean YMCA.

To help Japanese students better understand their nation’s historical relations with the Korean people, the YMCA language school has assigned Japan-born Korean teachers to Korean classes at introductory levels.

The school’s efforts are linked to its history, as this YMCA branch was established by Korean students in Tokyo in 1906 — four years before Japan began its colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

“We want our students to know part of the Japanese-Korean history that has received little focus,” Tazuke said. “If Japanese people want to get along with Koreans, they cannot avoid that part of history.”

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