Media watch: Japanese actor gets grief for apologizing to Korean press

Japanese actor Yoko Maki is the target of online vitriol for comments she recently made in South Korea. According to a Nov. 18 post on the website Shukan Josei Prime, Maki was interviewed by the Korean “media company” OSEN and talked about her experience portraying zainichi (Japan-resident) Koreans in two movies—Pacchigi! (2005) and Yakiniku Dragon (2018). Maki herself is not zainichi Korean and prior to the first job she says that while she was aware of the “existence” of zainichi Koreans in Japan she did not know any personally. Consequently, she thought they “had nothing to do with me.” However, because she had been hired to play a zainichi Korean character, she endeavored to find out more about their background and took out some history books from the library. After reading them she realized that the history of Japan she had learned in school included nothing about the zainichi experience. She then offered an apology for Japan’s past treatment of Koreans, presumably both Koreans who lived under Japanese colonial rule prior to the end of World War II and zainichi Koreans who are born and live in Japan and are often the target of hate speech. She goes on to say that as a member of the “younger generation of Japanese” (she is 40), she feels “embarrassed.”

Shukan Josei Prime, the web site of the weekly women’s magazine Shukan Josei, commented that Maki offered her opinion on a topic she is obviously “naive” about. The article goes on to say that it is only natural that she has caused an uproar on social media and is being criticized roundly. For instance, Tsuneyasu Takeda, a TV personality and so-called political pundit whose main claim to fame is that he is a descendant of Emperor Meiji, expressed displeasure that Maki would say she felt “ashamed” of being Japanese and that she should learn the “true history” of Japan-Korea relations. This is the view of certain people in Japan who think that Koreans have nothing to complain about with regard to their relationship to Japan during and since the war. They believe that Japan liberated Korea from Chinese control and lifted it out of the darkness; and deny any and all evidence indicating Japan’s oppressive rule and atrocities against Koreans. As for the treatment of zainichi Koreans, they tend to dismiss the matter by claiming that Koreans who live in Japan are basically parasites and should become Japanese nationals and give up their heritage, thus effectively proving the disgruntled zainichi Koreans’ complaint, which is that they are subject to discrimination.

It seems that Shukan Josei agrees at least tangentially with these viewpoints, but what makes the article wholly unreliable is how negligent the magazine seems to be about covering Maki’s job. The writer of the article asks rhetorically why she agreed to the interview in the first place and gets a quote from a “media contact in South Korea” who says that it is indeed strange since she doesn’t seem to be promoting anything she’s appearing in now. Neither Shukan Josei nor this contact (Japanese? Korean?) mentions that Maki is one of the principal actors in the Japanese film Aru Otoko (A Man), which not only opened in Japan on Nov. 18 but was the closing film of Korea’s Busan International Film Festival, which ran from Oct. 5 to 14. In the movie, Maki plays the Japanese wife of a zainichi Korean lawyer who is trying to determine the real identity of a deceased man who was the victim of discrimination because of his father, something the lawyer identifies with because of his own background, even though he has acquired Japanese nationality. Nevertheless, his wife sometimes betrays unease about his background, and her parents are unabashed bigots who only tolerate their son-in-law because he gave up his Korean nationality. It’s obvious why the movie, which has been receiving excellent reviews, was chosen as the closing film for the most important film event in Asia. Whether on purpose or out of ignorance, for Shukan Josei to neglect citing this movie, an important element in Maki’s life right now, just shows how shoddy its journalism is. 

In any event, Shukan Josei doesn’t quite understand why Maki would come to Korea to talk about her past roles as zainichi Korean characters, and there doesn’t seem to be any work for her in Korea at the moment. Apparently, she came to Korea this time (the article does mention she attended BIFF last month but doesn’t give the reason why) to pay her respects to people who died in the Itaewon tragedy on Halloween, which is a valid reason for someone who obviously feels an affinity for Korea. Nevertheless, Shukan Josei characterizes her motivation as that of a tourist. 

The article goes on in this dismissive, albeit speculative vein, saying that Maki’s career has been in the doldrums in recent years and that she left her agency some time ago and went independent. Rumor has it that she wants to work overseas, either in English speaking countries or South Korea, as an actor and producer. She has a notion to bring Japanese scripts to Korea and have them made with Korean casts and staff. Perhaps the interview was done to promote this kind of work in the future. 

No matter. Shukan Josei closes with the intelligence that Maki commented on social media about a recent incident in which some unknown person or persons threw eggs at the home of comedian Hikari Ota after he made remarks interpreted as defending the Unification Church, which has been embroiled in its own controversy with regards to its connections to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Maki wrote, “I hope people think about what kind of words they use,” an obvious condemnation of hate speech, but Shukan Josei finds the sentiment hypocritical. The article concludes: “Doesn’t saying that you are ashamed of being Japanese also hurt someone?”

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