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Korea : no longer through a Japanese Looking-Glass

Etienne Rolland-Piègue - Séoul, République de Corée - 21 novembre 2014

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An interesting thing is happening among Korean experts in France. People are developing an interest in Korea for its own sake, and not only as a country neighboring Japan and China.

A detour through Japan

This hasn’t always been the case. Beyond the small circle of scholars who specialize in coréanologie (Korean studies,) many observers from other professions—economists, diplomats, business executives—often discovered Korea after first passing through Japan. Their interest in Korean affairs arose as a secondary, unintended consequence in their pursuit of East Asian expertise. They would first learn to speak and read Japanese, develop networks of contacts in Japan, and stay for extended periods on Japanese soil before developing an interest in Korea. In the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has a special track for diplomats specializing in the Orient, Korean was considered a minor subject for candidates that opted to take the Japanese or Chinese language tests in the entrance exam. At Langues O’, the main language training center for Asian and other regional specialists, people often took Korean as a supplementary course while studying other Asian languages.

This detour through Japan made sense. Learning Korean is much easier when you already speak and read Japanese. There are obvious similarities between the two languages. In addition, textbooks and teaching materials are much more abundant in Japanese than in other languages such as French or English. Automatic translation systems such as Google Translate work quite well when you want to translate a Korean text into Japanese. But don’t try to use them to translate an Asian language into French or English : it will only produce gobbledygook.

Like it or not, Japan and Korea have a long history in common. Both cultures have historic ties to the Chinese civilization, with the dual influences of Buddhism and Confucianism heavily shaping their traditional worldviews. Japan often was at the receiving end of cultural traits that had been funneled and sieved from China through Korea. For historians who study the korean colonial period, from 1910 to 1945, access to Japanese archives is indispensable. For earlier periods of Korean history, as well as for studying contemporary Korea, the academic publications of Japanese scholars are a useful reference, and Korean academics often work in close partnership with their Japanese colleagues. Even for a French student specializing in Korean studies, a good command of Japanese helps.

For economists as well, studying Korea through a Japanese lens can reveal useful insights. Korea has often been confronted with challenges that Japan had to face one or two decades earlier, only in a more compressed and condensed manner due to the speed of Korea’s development.
Nowadays, Japan and Korea are so economically interdependent that it makes sense to study them together in a regional context. The rise of China as an economic superpower is creating both challenges and opportunities for Korea as well as for Japan.

Korea’s soft power

But going through Japan is not always the shortest way to come to Korea. For a start, Koreans don’t like to be systematically compared to the Japanese. Many western scholars versed in Japanese or in Chinese often make the reproach to Koreans of having abandoned the use of hanja, the Chinese characters comparable to the kanji used in Japan or to the hanzi used in China and in Taiwan. "Things would be much simpler if Koreans had kept their Chinese characters !" some say. But Koreans are very proud of their national alphabet, the hangul, which was designed by King Sejong in the fifteenth century and which passes among linguists as one of the most rational and easiest-to-learn writing systems in the world.

In economics as well, the Korean economy has many national characteristics that don’t easily compare with Japan’s, and that make more sense if we study them in comparison to other countries and regions. Although Korea is a member of the OECD and, according to OECD’s statistics, has a GDP exceeding 30,000 USDdollars per capita on a purchasing power parity basis, the country is often bundled together with other emerging markets such as the BRICS or the “Next Eleven” identified by Goldman Sachs. On the other hand, Korea has some traits that make it more global than Japan. According to the Asian Development Bank Institute, more Koreans go abroad to complement their academic studies than do Japanese students. Whereas Japanese management now seems to be going out of fashion, Korean business groups have adopted global management techniques, and Korean professors are more numerous than their Japanese colleagues in top business schools from Europe, the United States, or Australia. Western business executives living in Korea have to adapt to a faster tempo, where situations can very quickly turn in your favor or at your disadvantage.

Things are changing fast. Korea now attracts people for its own sake, and not as a stopover on the way to or from Japan or China. With the worldwide craze for K-pop, Korean dramas, and other recent cultural sensations of the Korean Wave, new generations of students are starting to learn Korean from an early age, and some of them specialize in Korean studies without learning any other Asian languages. Young people come to Korea in increasing numbers to experience firsthand the Korean way of life, to study in partner universities, or to find their first job. Korea radiates a different image of Asia, one that doesn’t need to pass through the Japanese looking-glass.

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