Korean Endgame: A Strategy for Reunification and U.S. Disengagement

By Selig S. Harrison | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 23
Korea, Japan, and the United States

THE MOST striking example of the impact of historical memories on contemporary relations between Northeast Asian powers is the persistence of deep tensions between Japan and the two Koreas more than half a century after the end of Japanese colonial rule in the peninsula.

Most Japanese look down on Koreans as crude country cousins who imitated but never absorbed Chinese culture. In the Japanese self-image, Japan took the best of Chinese culture, created a distinctive Japanese cultural amalgam, and then turned to face the new challenge from the West, using Western technology to modernize, but not Westernize, Japan. In Japanese eyes, the Korean failure to organize itself as Japan did during the Tokugawa period resulted from its inherent inferiority to Japan, which justified the colonization of the peninsula as part of an effective Asian response to Western power. By contrast, Koreans see themselves as the first and most authentic heirs of a Chinese cultural legacy that Japan copied and then corrupted. In Korean eyes, by annexing the peninsula, the Japanese revealed themselves to be amoral, nouveau-riche opportunists who dishonored a Confucian heritage that they owed to Korea. Far from uniting Asia to face the Western challenge, Japan had divided it, using Western technology for its own aggrandizement at the expense of a neighboring Asian country that was also part of the Confucian cosmos.

It is the underlying resentments and cultural tensions left over from history that make the danger of a nuclear arms race between Japan and the two Koreas, or a unified Korea, worthy of serious attention. Public opinion polls consistently show a deep mutual distrust and animosity between the two countries, with each identifying the other as the “most disliked.” 1

The clear and present Chinese nuclear threat to Japan is much more significant than the hypothetical possibility of a future threat from North Korea, South Korea, or a unified Korea. In political and psychological terms, however, it is not easy for the advocates of a nuclear-armed Japan to arouse Japanese public fear of China. Apart from a profound, ingrained cultural respect for China, many Japanese accept China's argu

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