BUNDANG, SOUTH KOREA – When Lee Kyung Eon and her friend recently scrapped their plans to go to Japan for summer vacation and paid a $135 penalty for canceling their plane tickets, they joined a growing public campaign in South Korea to boycott Japanese goods and services.
“We intended to do something that is unhelpful to Japan even a little bit,” said Lee, a 26-year-old office worker in the city of Bundang, just south of Seoul. “Many people told us we did something really good … but some with strong patriotic spirits said we shouldn’t boast of things that we have to do.”
A widespread anti-Japan boycott has gained ground in South Korea since Tokyo on July 1 tightened its controls on exports of three chemicals used to make semiconductors and display screens — key export items for South Korea. The boycott was widely expected to worsen after Japan expanded its export curbs to other materials on Friday by removing South Korea from a list of countries granted preferential trade status.
The South accuses Japan of retaliating for court rulings last year that ordered two Japanese companies to compensate former Korean employees for wartime forced labor during Tokyo’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. Japan has denied that, saying its actions were taken out of national security concerns.
Some question whether the boycott, mostly targeting consumer goods, can really hurt the Japanese economy, as a majority of Japanese imports are parts and materials used in TVs, smartphones, semiconductors and other electronic products South Korea exports. They worry the boycott might only aggravate the animosities because it may trigger a backlash from Japan.
But others say the campaign exposes the bitter resentment many Koreans still harbor against their former colonial master. A recent survey suggested 80 percent of South Koreans are reluctant to buy Japanese products.
Angry South Koreans have taken to Instagram and other social media, posting videos of canceled plane tickets to Japan, sharing information on which Japanese companies operate in South Korea and expressing support for the boycott.
But there have been consequences.
HanaTour, the largest travel company in South Korea, said daily reservations for Japan trips have dropped to about 400 to 500 from 1,000 to 1,200 late last month. Other tour agencies have reported similar or lower booking figures for Japan tours.
Last year, about 7.5 million South Koreans visited Japan, making it the most popular destination. The state-run Korea Tourism Organization said it has no data on how many traveled to Japan this month.
At hypermarkets and 24-hour convenience stores, the sales of Japanese beer have nose-dived. Beer is the most popular Japanese product. For example, at E-mart, the South’s largest retailer, Japanese beer sales from July 1 to 24 fell by about 38 percent from a month ago. Tens of thousands of small supermarkets and convenience stores across South Korea have stopped selling Japanese products altogether.
Customs officials estimated Japanese car imports from July 1 to 20 came to about $46 million — or 32 percent lower from the same period last year. Fast Retailing Co., which runs Uniqlo, was forced to apologize last month after inviting criticism in South Korea over remarks by one of its executives saying the boycott won’t last long.
“Even without Japanese products, there are still lots of things to sell and customers aren’t actually looking for Japanese products,” said Dan Kil-su, owner of Seoul’s Heemang supermarket who removed all Japanese products from the shelves on July 5.
One of the store’s regulars, Chon Jong Lee, supported Dan’s action. “I think I originally have stronger anti-Japanese sentiments than other people. I have really a bad feeling toward them,” Chon said.
Past anti-Japanese boycotts didn’t last long, but some say Japan’s expected new export limits could amplify the crisis.
“The boycott isn’t helpful in resolving the conflicts, though some may feel cool by venting their anger,” said analyst Lee Sangho at the Seoul-based private Korea Economic Research Institute. “If public sentiments (in both countries) get worse, we may see a situation that spirals out of control.”
Though there have been anti-Japan rallies over the trade curbs, none has yet turned violent. But two men in their 70s set themselves on fire in an apparent protest against Japan. One died and the other, who set himself ablaze last week, remains in critical condition.
Lee Myon-woo at the private Sejong Institute near Seoul said the boycott will likely have a limited effect on Japan’s economy. He also said the lower number of South Korean tourists to Japan will likely be compensated by Chinese and other foreign visitors.
Some worry the boycott will eventually undermine South Korea’s economy as a withdrawal by Japanese firms would lead to Korean employees losing their jobs, while a fewer number of tourists would incur losses for South Korean tour agencies.
Ahn Kyung-su, a researcher in Seoul who plans to visit Tokyo this weekend for summer vacation, called the boycott “anachronistic” and illogical. “Our TV stations mostly use Japanese-made cameras. So do we have to stop watching their programs?” Ahn asked.
Japan hasn’t yet reported a similar eruption of anti-Korean sentiment. K-pop super stars BTS’ four concerts in Japan last month reportedly drew a total of 210,000 spectators.
At Shin-Okubo, a major Korea Town in downtown Tokyo, business went on as usual last week, with many Japanese looking for K-pop music, Korean food, cosmetics and other merchandise.
Misaki Toguchi, a 14-year-old junior high school student from Saitama Prefecture, said her devotion to BTS and K-pop is unshakable despite the dark news. “There is absolutely no change, I still really like Korea,” Toguchi said.
“These (disputes) are something that only top officials in the government are doing. I don’t think there is any impact on ordinary people like us,” said Keiko Katsumata, a part-time worker who was in Korea Town with her friend.
The two countries are closely linked culturally. Many Koreans like dining at Japanese restaurants, watching Japanese anime and traveling to small towns in Japan.
Speaking before a large placard hung at his Heemang store that partly reads “We are not selling Japanese products,” Dan said his family canceled plans to go to Mount Fuji for a holiday this summer. “In fact, Japan has been a country that I’ve wished to visit,” he said.
Lee Kyung Eon, who decided to go to Taiwan with her friend in August instead of Miyazaki Prefecture, said she also used to enjoy Asahi beer, sushi, soba and other Japanese foods. She said she has visited twice.
She admitted there had been ups and downs in her feelings toward Japan, saying she had a good impression after trips to Osaka and Fukuoka before the anti-Japan sentiments resurfaced when the two countries started fighting over history again.
“The level of my hatred against Japan is now at one of the worst points in my life,” Lee said.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5