Media watch: Korean tourists celebrate uprising anniversary by patronizing former oppressors

Yahoo News

Today is the 103rd anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement in South Korea, a national holiday. On March 1, 1919, anti-colonial elements in Korea assembled at various locations to denounce Japanese rule, thus leading to a movement involving 2 million Koreans comprising 1,500 demonstrations over the next month or so. Korean records claim that more than 7,000 people were killed in retaliation by Japanese soldiers and police, with more than 46,000 arrested. Japanese records claim 553 died.

March 1 is obviously a day that Koreans are keen to celebrate and Japanese people are just as keen to ignore, which isn’t to say that the legacy of that day impinges directly on the two countries’ relationship. For sure, Seoul and Tokyo maintain a steadily antagonistic tension based on differing views of their shared history, but that tension doesn’t necessarily apply to commerce. 

A Feb. 27 story by the Yonhap news agency reports that the number of Koreans visiting Japan today will likely set a new record. The three low-cost carriers that operate between South Korea and Japan are reporting near sold out flights from Feb. 25 to March 1, the same scale of traffic you normally would see during the peak summer vacation months. In fact, the rush of Korean tourists to Japan has been extraordinary ever since Japan relaxed its COVID travel curbs in October. During that month alone, 123,000 Koreans visited Japan. The number increased to 315,000 in November and 456,000 in December. In January, the number exceeded half a million, or 37.7 percent of all the foreign visitors to Japan that month. And it just continues to grow.

Yonhap notes that this is a very different situation than that in 2019 after Japan retaliated against a Korean court ruling in favor of people who had sued a Japanese manufacturer for being forced to work during the colonial period. The retaliation involved the withholding of certain export materials needed by Korea’s high tech industries, and Korean consumers themselves retaliated by boycotting Japanese products. The disagreements exacerbated by the forced labor issue have not gone away, but Korean consumers no longer seem to care about it; nor do they seem to care that Japan recently asserted its right to attack North Korea preemptively, a move that would greatly impact South Korea. They don’t even seem to care that last week Japan officially celebrated Takeshima Day, which asserts Japan’s ownership of an island that Koreans call Dokdo and which it also currently occupies. 

One cultural critic told Yonhap that only older Koreans tend to be sensitive about history and politics. Younger people have the ability to distinguish between history and “consumption.” A Korean woman in her 20s told the agency that she knows of no one her age who would “hesitate” to travel to Japan due to political differences.

A company employee in his 20s from a suburb of Seoul said he had booked a package for 5 days and 4 nights in Tokyo that started on March 1 completely aware of the irony of traveling to Japan on that day. He said he didn’t find anything at all strange about it. Another man who just came back from a visit to Fukuoka said that he tends to get angry when Japanese politicians “fantasize thoughtlessly about history,” but that isn’t going to stop him for traveling to Japan and buying Japanese products.

It shouldn’t really be surprising. The lure of Japan is obvious, especially right now: it’s only an hour or two away, the yen is low against the won, and, perhaps most importantly, Koreans have always been very familiar with Japanese customs and lifestyles. A different article cites a recent survey of Koreans aged 20-40 regarding their feelings about Japan. More than 80 percent said they had neutral to positive feelings about Japan, with 52 percent saying they had visited their neighbor. Perhaps most significantly, 58 percent said these feelings have not changed over time, even in the wake of political changes in Korea brought about by the election of President Yoon Suk-yeol.

The article does not look at the reverse side of the coin, but it’s obvious that Japanese tourists are also flocking to South Korea now, though perhaps not at the same volume. What is different is that while the Korean press covers this phenomenon quite thoroughly, the Japanese mainstream media mostly ignore it. Though the Korean tourist wave is a boon for the Japanese economy, the press here doesn’t write about it except to print numbers. If they went into the reasons for the tourist boom, they’d have to explain more than they are willing to. 

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