During his recent visit to the United Nations, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reasserted his eagerness to improve relations with Japan’s East Asian neighbors, but the reaction from Beijing and Seoul was tepid.
That’s because in both China and South Korea, Abe is reviled for his revisionist views about the region’s shared history with Japan. He and other reactionaries have convinced the Chinese and Koreans that Japan is monolithically unrepentant about its pre-1945 regional depredations. This is untrue, but Abe’s pernicious whitewashing of this history has derailed relations with nations that already harbor and orchestrate animosity toward Japan over its imperialist excesses stretching from 1895 to 1945.
The tensions have spread to unlikely battlegrounds, including the War Memorial of Korea, a museum in downtown Seoul that honors those who fought and died in the fratricidal Korean War (1950-53). In July, it became another arena for the history battle between South Korea and Japan when it abruptly canceled an exhibition based on the Japanese manga “One Piece.” The reason was that the series, which features the adventures of pirates and outlaws searching for treasure, contained depictions of a flag that resembled the Rising Sun, a symbol that Koreans associate with Japanese colonialism. The flags, which are scattered across dozens of volumes of the manga since 1997, are flown by the protagonists’ enemy and therefore not glorified.
In contrast, the same exhibition was simultaneously staged in Taiwan (also a former Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945) and was a huge hit, attracting 100,000 visitors in the first week alone. The promotional campaign emblazoned Taipei’s subways in “One Piece” cartoons, something unthinkable in Seoul due to prevailing sensitivities.
While “One Piece” features a lot of violence, meaning the War Memorial site seems an appropriate venue, there is nothing that specifically relates to Korea’s subjugation, and “One Piece” doesn’t stoke patriotic sentiments. It is, however, the best-selling manga series in Japan ever, and an exhibition similar to the ones in Seoul and Taipei pulled in huge crowds here. “One Piece” is also a best-seller in South Korea and the anime version has aired on TV there since 2003. Until 2014 there had been no controversy over the flags.
Netizens in South Korea, one of the world’s most wired societies, have become the country’s guardians of public mores and the thought police of the 21st century; some seem to have an obsession with the Rising Sun flag and pressured the War Memorial to cancel the exhibition. There is, however, no denying the power of Japanese popular culture among young Koreans, who are avid fans of manga and anime and disinclined to see them through the prism of historical animosities or state-promoted narratives of victimization because that is not what they are about.
The backstory of the “One Piece” saga is that recently there have been a number of cases where K-pop artists have been zinged online for displaying or wearing Rising Sun flag images — as part of the backdrop in music videos, or on hats and designer hoodies. Among many Koreans, the flag conjures up notions of Japanese imperialism and brutal subjugation, something akin to the Nazi swastika.
In a move similar to how Western punk and metal bands tried to cultivate rebellious, transgressive personas by dabbling in Nazi or fascist imagery, use of the Rising Sun has become an attention-grabbing strategy guaranteed to irritate many Koreans. Given how assiduously K-pop acts are marketed and the extent to which coordinators choreograph everything about their dance routines, appearances, clothing, diet and private lives, it is hard to imagine that such displays are unwitting. However, the Rising Sun flag is good copy and, after an attention-grabbing ritual apology, the show goes on — hopefully accompanied by increased sales.
Although there were no Rising Sun flag images among the many items in the proposed “One Piece” exhibition, and advance ticket sales had been brisk, the War Memorial’s management still decided to cancel the show. Organizers, however, took the case to court and won speedy justice, the judge ruling a few days later that the government-run facility was contractually obligated to host the exhibition since it had agreed to rent the space to organizers. The court also ruled that “One Piece” does not glorify Japanese imperialism, perhaps the first legal opinion about the politics of any Japanese manga anywhere.
Soon after the court ruling, Korean reporter Kim Seong-ho pointed out in Money Today News why the flag flap was absurd.
“In Korea, (‘One Piece’) was one of the best-selling manga,” he wrote. “Later on, it was broadcast on KBS, where it also recorded the highest viewer ratings. In particular, the creator of ‘One Piece,’ Eichiro Oda, is known for his strong opposition to Japan’s imperialism and militarism, which has often caused controversy in Japan.”
The delayed exhibition finally opened July 26 and proved a big hit with Korean fans of Japanese pop culture. So in the end, this tempest in a teapot proved to be good PR, with no protests and with South Koreans embracing both the rule of law and Cool Japan. Alas, the two countries don’t have many of these happy endings to brag of. Clearly, the mutual vilification industry in both nations is not always an accurate barometer of grass-roots sentiments, but does hinder reconciliation.
Abe could climb out of the hole he has dug by sponsoring a museum in Japan curated by women from around the region depicting the travails of trafficked women including, among others, the karayuki-san, Japanese women sent to work as prostitutes in Asia before the 1930s; comfort women, who were mobilized from all across Asia for the Japanese military’s system of sexual slavery; those women who served American military forces in post-World War II Asia; and the Asian women recruited to work in Japan’s red-light industry, known as Japayuki-san. This would boost his scant credibility over history and gender issues, but I doubt he has the courage to make such a grand gesture of reconciliation.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.