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Take Them, They're Yours
Dokdo/Takeshima is more about political opportunism than real estate
David McNeill (internews)     Print Article 
  Published 2006-05-05 12:36 (KST)   
©2006 ROK Coast Guard
Do Koreans have a version of the pub bore? A staple of British and American TV comedy, he is usually a middle-aged, semi-alcoholic loudmouth with a talent for dispensing idiotic, homespun wisdom on weighty contemporary topics.

The bore is a much maligned species where I come from, but I'm still reluctantly drawn to one in my local pub in Kanagawa Prefecture. Time and again, the bore -- let's call him Tanaka -- comes up with a nugget of slurred insight that puts soberer and more articulate men to shame.

On the Emperor, for instance, Tanaka's views are tart, pithy and virtually un-publishable here: "What does he have to do with my life," asks the 40-something salary-man. "He's irrelevant. Let's see him work a 60-hour week, ride the train home every night and make love to his wife."

Now when's the last time we heard a comment like that on Japanese TV?

On the U.S. "war on terror": "What a waste. Imagine if the Americans had given the money they've spent invading Iraq [three-quarters of a trillion yen, by some estimates] to build schools and orphanages and hospitals, instead of blowing people up. The Middle East would love them now."

Are you listening George W?

Recently, the topic-de-jour is Takeshima/Dokdo. Actually, Tanaka had to be prodded into a comment on this one because, like many Japanese outside of the Liberal Democratic Party and Shimane Prefecture, he couldn't care less.

But his comments are still worth recording: "Why doesn't Japan just give up its claims to the islands," he suggests. "It would help to make up for what we did, and might convince them that we're not really a bad country."

Tanaka's views are not always so PC. He supports prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni Shrine and can be mind-numbingly sexist, and also says the islands could be turned into a theme park. But I often find myself daydreaming about him while watching some piffle-spouting politician on TV.

Wouldn't it be marvelous if Tanaka staggered onto a press podium, drunkenly elbowed Shinzo Abe aside and said: "Look, they're yours, Seoul... take them, please. Call them what you like: Dokdo, Takeshima, Liancourt, Rockworld. They're only a bunch of bloody volcanic rocks."

In the real world, however, Abe may well be Japan's next prime minister and the bunch of rocks is the subject of the kind of rhetoric normally reserved for two nations preparing for war. But it is worth remembering that there are far more Tanakas in Japan than Abes.

I mention this again because I think it is important to separate people from governments, an elementary point often lost in the heat of argument. And like many people who have been colonized, Koreans can get very heated.

Most sensible people accept that Japanese people are not inherently warlike imperialists (although I heard this very stupid, offensive argument sometimes in China), and that the agenda on issues of national interest is set there, as it is elsewhere, by a relatively small group of people.

A tiny Japanese political clique, for example, has promoted a narrow, nationalist-tinged perspective on history, but a much larger number of ordinary people have stood firm and blocked attempts to import this perspective into education.

Many people outside Japan seem to assume that the average Japanese is a closet nationalist who secretly harbors designs on Asian beach-front property, but in my experience apathy and indifference reign.

Every semester my university inadvertently sets up a mini-social experiment by putting at least one Korean among my Japanese students. Inevitably, in a class about media issues, the subjects of Japan-Korea relations, war and history education comes up, often all three.

Last week, we discussed the Bunch of Rocks in the Sea and as ever the Korean student (let's call her Pak) was not only vastly better informed about the nuances of the issue, she took a much harder line on it than her mostly silent classmates.

"There's no debate to be had," she said. "We occupy Dokdo and protect it with troops. How do you propose to get it back?" I can picture several countries where a comment like that would be the start of very a nasty political fight, but it was greeted with mostly shrugging shoulders and nodding heads.

Take them, they're yours, they seemed to say. You obviously feel a lot stronger about them than we do.

Much of Japan is like my classroom and my pub: a vast number of basically good-natured, generous people, poorly informed about historical events such as the colonization of Korea and the invasion of China but often willing to listen and give the other side the benefit of the doubt.

Their views are often more flexible than those of people from other countries, where consciously holding a political opinion is valued rather than frowned on in casual conversation. Naturally, this can be a double-edged sword: weakly held opinions are more susceptible to political peddling, but it also means Japanese can be open and accommodating.

It seems to me that, politics aside, the conditions for real friendship between South Korea and Japan are good. There are record numbers of students and tourists traveling to and from both countries and many more people who know about life on either side of the sea than a decade ago thanks to direct, or indirect experience via popular culture. My local video store has a whole wall of Korean movies and TV dramas that weren't there a year ago.

Grassroots' exchanges, not the high-level meeting between the cretins who rule us, are the best hope for a civilized, mature relationship between the two sides. With a bit of luck and effort, they will survive the flap over the islands, Yasukuni and whatever else is lurking around the corner.

"Politicians might start out life as one of us, but they lose touch with what it is to be a person like me," says the Great Philosopher Tanaka. "You just can't trust them, especially when they say 'trust me.'"

Right again.

Related Articles
'Japan's Dokdo Claim Erases Korean Nation'
Takeshima/Dokdo: Not Territory, But History
Japan-South Korea Ties on the Rocks

- Take Them, They're Yours, by David McNeill 

©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter David McNeill

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