Us and Them in Kenkanryu

Kenkanryu cover

Wednesday’s talk on the Japanese manga Kenkanryu was packed to overflowing — a strong contrast with the generally much sparser attendance at the Centre for Korean Studies seminars. Whether that’s a reflection of the greater number of people enrolled in Japanese Studies courses, or the popular culture subject matter I don’t know.

In these few paragraphs I can’t do justice to the richness of Nicola Liscutin’s analysis — and with all the Japanese names flying around I was getting a little confused. It would be fascinating to get hold of an English translation of the books, but I can’t imagine that many people apart from me would buy one.

For those unfamiliar with the manga, it presents a strongly conservative Japanese view of Korea-Japan relations, emphasising Japan’s purity of motive and benevolence in practice. Such issues as forced deportations are dismissed as myths, while Korea is accused of trying to steal Japanese culture.

Liscutin talked both about the manga itself and the internet discussion which has grown out of it. Highlighting the fact that the first volume came out in 2005, in Korea-Japan Friendship Year, she placed the series in the context of the wider manga genre, showing how manga artistic conventions had been exploited to enhance the message; the series, because of certain design conventions used, had positioned itself as an educational manga, thus aiming to enhance the authority of its contents. The educational content is enhanced further by the cartoon story line being broken up by the occasional article by various well-known figures. Liscutin commented how many readers regarded the manga as revealing new truths to them1, truths concealed by the liberal educational establishment (portrayed in the kenkanryu world — whether in the manga or blogosphere — as part of a left-leaning, unpatriotic, trade union- / communist- / North Korean- sympathising, zainichi nexus).

The talk flowed freely between the manga itself and the dialogue on the internet. Thus the Matt over at Occidentalism.org featured prominently as the premier English language kenkanryu site. Depending on your point of view, Occidentalism.org represents a healthy scepticism about some of Korea’s historical claims, or represents the unacceptable face of the Japanese neo-nationalist right. Whatever your point of view, the comment threads are always lively. An example was quoted in the talk: attacking the credibility of the New York Times article on the basis of the background of its author2, one commenter noted:

It is well documented that Norimitsu Onishi is in fact a 2nd generation Korean-Japanese who is a writer for the NY Times and has a penchant for praising all things Korean and speaking ill of all things Japanese. He was famous in Japan for his outward support of the Communist party as well as his time spent in school in Korea. His father was a pachinko parlor owner in Kyushu. His works have been published in Japan as well too catering all to Koreans.

Other brief notes:

  • Many of the main Japanese characters have the traditional manga doe-eyed look (almost Western-looking), while the Koreans are far more oriental looking (I’m reminded of the portrayal of Japanese solders in the UK “Commando” magazines).
  • In the debates between the Koreans and Japanese it’s the Japanese who speak first, delivering their version of historical truths with oracular authority (emphasised by the halos which the artist draws around the Japanese characters). The Korean characters are given fewer frames to refute the Japanese exposition, and more often than not are portrayed as being reduced to despair, rage or incoherence by the irrefutable truth of the Japanese views3.
  • The manga uses unsourced photographs as evidence of the truth of the Japanese viewpoint. Conversely, if the Koreans can’t produce photos, then their view is clearly false.
  • The presentation is very binary — us / them, white / black. There is no room for an in-between position.
  • There are two zainichi Koreans in the manga, one of whom is naturalised Japanese and provides the Japanese students with Korean insights, while the other, unnaturalised one is used as fuel for the debate. He’s portrayed has hot-tempered, linguistically ignorant and constantly complaining about discrimination. He’s dismissed as neither one thing nor the other by the native Korean students and the only way open to him is to become a naturalised Japanese.

A lively discussion was held afterwards, which kenkanryu devotees would no doubt dismiss as not worthy of reporting as the participants were a bunch of notorious establishment academics and students who go to seminars rather than getting their historical understanding from the internet.

Links:

  1. She noted how one of her own students, studying the portrayal of hallyu stars in Japanese women’s magazines, had been completely won over by the “truths” portrayed in the manga — despite her academic discipline []
  2. The dismissal of an article based on the author’s background also rears its head in Occidentalism’s attack on the Japanfocus paper: the Japanese half of the team is noted to have written an article on comfort women — the implication being that she is therefore part of the traitorous liberal nexus noted above and therefore not worth listening to []
  3. There are those who might say that’s a true reflection of the strength of Korea’s position. Indeed, there are many Western Koreaphiles who are often bemused by the irrational over-excitability of Koreans on certain topics []

2 thoughts on “Us and Them in Kenkanryu

  1. I was so amused when I first read up on the furore around that manga: it seemed to feed directly into the fears of knee-jerk Korean reactions to the Japanese. “See? This is what they really think! Peace? My ass!” sorts. Like meets like, pretty much, and right wing nationalists employ the same rhetorical strategies on opposites sides.

    The “accusations” against Norimitsu Onishi, though… weird. Of course he must be Korean! How dare he bring light to Zainichi discrimination! Then again, most of my academic (left-leaning) Japanese friends must be secretly Korean too.

    I kinda like his articles when they pop up on the NYT. He’s a good writer. And it never occurred to me that he seemed pro-Korean much. Mostly he writes about Japan. And my Canadian friends will claim him for maple country.

    It all goes back to the theory, that whoever you are, it’s so attractive to paint “us” as the “victim.”

  2. Of course, while my own site is by its self-imposed brief pro-Korean, there are times when I think that maybe it’s not all black and white…

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