South Korea and Japan, two neighboring East- Asian countries with heavy historical baggage, have been at each other’s throats in endless political, economic, and cultural disputes for years. In July 2019, nationalist fervor erupted again in the form of a boycott, encouraged by online posters with “NO JAPAN” signs and Korean celebrities posting photos of cancelled flight tickets to Japan. The current spat began on July 1 when Japan imposed export restrictions on three high-tech chemicals – fluorinated Polyimide, photoresists, and hydrogen fluoride – that are vital to South Korea’s semiconductor industry. Japan also set out to remove South Korea from its ‘white list’ of trusted trading partners, a move that would require South Korean firms to seek case- by-case approvals of more than a thousand items from Japanese exporters. These moves, many experts claim, were precipitated by the latest ruling of the South Korean Supreme Court, which ordered scores of Japanese firms such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel to compensate forced labor victims during Japan’s colonial occupation. Citing the 1965 Basic Treaty and additional national security concerns, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe claimed that “Japan cannot give shipping-clearance priority for imports to a country that doesn’t keep its promises,” admitting that the latest retaliatory move was in response to the Supreme Court ruling in favor of the forced labor victims. South Korean President Moon Jae-in warned that Japan’s weaponization of trade aimed at achieving a political goal has “broken the framework of economic cooperation.”
South Korea and Japan, Explained
Decades of irreconcilable disputes over history have soured the two countries’ diplomatic relations, even while cultural and individual exchanges have flourished. Contested sovereignty of Dokdo, the issue of ‘comfort women’, and the East Sea - Sea of Japan naming dispute are among the few well-known points of dissension. In 2013, South Korea banned fishery imports from eight states in Japan, including Fukushima, due to increased public concern over radiation contamination. This was deemed a hostile move, leading Tokyo to file an official complaint to the World Trade Organization (WTO) on grounds of discrimination. Authorization of a revisionist textbook from the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform in 2001 also sparked strong reactions in South Korea, with critics taking issue with the Japanese nationalist attempt to downplay the nature of Japan’s military aggression during World War II. Recently, the conflict over compensation for forced wartime labor, an immediate trigger for the current boycott movement, has once again stirred up animosity. The issue started in 1997 when two former wartime workers sued Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal for forced and unpaid labor during the war. The Osaka District Court sided with the Japanese government, claiming that the 1965 Basic Treaty, which established diplomatic relations between the two countries, had already settled the issue. In 2015, the plaintiffs and two other former workers took the case to the Seoul Central District Court, which ruled in their favor. However, in 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court upheld a 2013 lower-court ruling that Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal must pay 108 million won to Lee Chun-shik, the surviving plaintiff, and three other South Korean men subjected to forced labor between 1941 and 1943. Undaunted by unfavorable rulings, Japan has continued to insist that all matters concerning forced wartime labor were settled under the 1965 agreement while President Moon, who has taken a decisively different stance from his predecessor Park Geun-hye, has argued that the agreement does not and should not prevent victims from seeking redress. Song Hyun- ho, a Spunk Security Advisor and a certified architect at SecureWorks Japan, noted, “Japan wields the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations and the Park administration’s 2015 Accord (an agreement that discussed and settled the issue of ‘comfort women’ ) as effective weapons in countering South Korea’s requests for compensation. South Korea is having a rather difficult time rebutting such counterarguments.”
How is the Boycott Unfolding?
Against the backdrop of an unprecedented rate of social media use, the Anti-Japan boycott has turned itself into a nationwide movement with multi-faceted implications. The Korean Mart Labor Union, the Delivery Union, and the Korean Federation of Service Workers’ Union condemned the Abe administration’s economic retaliation and formally declared participation in the nationwide Anti-Japan wave. Likewise, the consumer reaction has led to lower sales at Japanese-based companies. Okazaki Takashi, Chief Financial Officer of Uniqlo, a global casual clothing chain, inflamed the boycott in its early stage when he claimed that “although the boycott is having a consistent impact on sales, it certainly would not last long.” No-no Japan, an online community that offers domestic alternatives to Japanese products, experienced a server crash as consumers flocked to the site for more attentive purchases. Yoon In-jin, a professor in the Department of Sociology at Korea University, emphasized the significance of the current boycott movement as a civilian- led movement perpetuated by citizens of varying occupations and age groups, devoid of government intervention. “A large chunk of the population shares the view that Japan’s retaliatory policies are unjustifiable, which consequently led them to empathize with the justifiability of a boycott campaign,” Yoon noted. Chief Advisor Song similarly contended that the importance of this boycott lay in the voluntary participation of the citizenry, which makes the government’s nonparticipation in it a crucial, tactical factor. Politicians’ tendencies to evoke unconditional hostility and provoke a nationalist surge, he said, would be a move that could undermine the current boycott’s strength. Professor Yoon additionally pointed out that the growth of the campaign could be attributed to a widespread, sophisticated use of social media services among the youth. “Citizens in their 20s and 30s are effectively leading the boycott, and they have never been more comfortable with social media platforms, regarding photos and comments uploaded on them as notable forms of self-expression,” he commented. More importantly, the economic impact of the boycott is equally concerning both sides of the confrontation. The boycott is inflicting heavy damage on Japan’s tourism industry. In 2018, 7.5 million South Koreans visited Japan spending approximately 6.68 trillion won. Kyushu, one of Japan’s main islands closest to South Korea, reportedly took the full force of the economic blast. South Korea is expected to suffer greatly in this economic standoff as well; Japan is the second-most important source of imports behind China, with more than 44 million won worth of products imported each year. Crucial sectors such as machinery, photographic laboratory equipment, and chemicals account for a significant share of total Japanese imports, areas that Japan has tightened economic control over in recent weeks. Paul Joo, the Director of GK Global Edu., emphasized that Koreans must be fully mindful of the unexpected ripple effects of the boycott. He stated: “Korean shop owners, manufacturers, and employees in corporations reliant on heavy Japanese investment may suffer the unintended consequences of the boycott movement. Unless our confrontation method changes in a way that minimizes the inevitable economic harm inflicted on us, the boycott will fail to deliver its core purpose of economic effectiveness, even while its symbolic significance certainly remains.” Juhn Mi-suk, a former employee of Uniqlo, stated that although plunging sales of Uniqlo Korea will inflict a clear financial damage on Japanese headquarters, it is vital to heed the less noticed side of the damage: Koreans themselves. “More than 90 percent of employees and part-time workers in Uniqlo Korea are Koreans. Therefore, compared to the Japanese headquarters, Uniqlo Korea experiences more deficits in terms of salary or job security. As the boycott unfolds and reaches every corner of Korean society, we must not be blinded by only the attractive side of the story,” she asserted. But the symbolic effect of the boycott is uniting people in their stances. Professor Yoon noted that “Boycotts help build public awareness and even increase political and diplomatic will to resolve the problem at hand.”
How Would the Success of the Boycott be Defined?
“Determining whether a boycott has been a success or a failure is difficult due to its complex nature, but it certainly induces problem identification and a build-up of public awareness.” In essence, “the success of the boycott would not simply be the disregard of Japanese merchandise or people, but also the possibility to raise awareness within Japan in a mature manner.” Professor Woo Soo-gun, an International Studies professor at HYU, stated. Professor Woo defined ‘success’ as a term that not only reflects alterations in comprehension and mature decisions made by Korean citizens, but also those in Japan. By helping Japanese citizens realize that their government’s decision to eliminate Korea from the ‘white list’ was faulty, proven by observable records in the sales of their merchandise to a significant pool of Korean consumers, the boycott could be defined as a success. Boycotting Japanese products includes not only reducing the purchase of Japanese brands, but also refraining from visiting Japan. A large portion of Korea’s products are Japanese-based or share production components from Japan, so cutting off Japanese products from daily life is easier said than done. Pharmacist Kim Kyoung-hoon, a member of the Pharmaceutical Association of Seoul, explained how numerous types of medicine sold in Korea are based on Japanese products, thus making it difficult and perhaps dangerous to limit prescription of such medicine to patients. Medicine is a substance that directly correlates with health, and thus decisions on its sales should be dealt with much caution, especially because political objections should not blur boundaries between political angst and health care. Regardless of such concerns or dangers, the Pharmaceutical Association of Seoul has agreed with the decision to ban or at least limit certain Japanese medicine along with other municipal pharmaceutical associations including Gwangju and Daegu. Pharmacist Kim asserted that the main reason for pharmaceutical associations to agree with boycotting Japanese medicine was because the action would be in sync with the current social movement as well as enable them to help individuals who depend heavily on Japanese products for various personal reasons. Boycotting is not as easy as many suppose, so by taking care of the relatively heavy role, Pharmacist Kim suggested easier ways for people to participate such as reducing visits and tours to Japan, or keeping interest in the current problem between the nations, by maintaining a firm and objective ground to the issue. Objective and well informed buttresses are required for every citizen in that certain forces display the ‘Meaningless Boycotting Theory’. This ‘theory’ is highlighted by Koreans who have been and are ‘Japan-close’ either externally or internally. As the name suggests, the theory states that boycotting would have no effect on Japan as Korea is not such a vast market for Japan to supply. Their loss would be less when compared to Korea’s anticipated loss since, unlike Japan, Korea is heavily dependent on Japan as a major market. The theory arrives at the conclusion that boycotting would only result in an economic deficit for the Korean market, whereas Japan would constantly remain ‘strong’, as finding a market similar to the size of Korea’s would be less of a problem for Japan. However, although the statement that Korea is not such a vast market in Japan may not be completely wrong, Japan has definitely exhibited deficits since the boycott began. Airline ticket purchases to Japan have plummeted, while substitute getaway package sales have peaked during the past few months. According to a tour guide at ‘Hana Tours’, one of Korea’s largest tourist agencies, “Japan has always been a popular tourist site regardless of season, weather, and location.” Trip purchases to the country have decreased vastly. The sales are even poorer than after an environmental incident like an earthquake which shows that trips to Japan are seriously decreasing indeed. Cancellations of trips to Japan were about 63% on average, and in extreme cases, some tourist agencies reported up to approximately 80% in cancellation rates. Therefore, refraining from visiting Japan is one of the ‘mature’ ways to participate in boycotting. This action is linear to the movement’s cause, and displays clear results; in other words, an impact Koreans can convey to Japanese citizens. The negative effect will create frustration and confusion for Japanese citizens, who will eventually utilize the media to investigate the faulty decisions their government has made and come up with their own just and unbiased political viewpoints on the issues concerning Korea and Japan. The most optimal result is to change not only the attitude of Koreans, but also the minds of Japanese citizens so that the boycott succeeds and the two nations can incorporate healthy mindsets when it comes to solving other political dilemmas.
How Would the Failure of the Boycott be Defined and Avoided?
Anti-Japan boycotts are actually not a novel concept in Korea. The movement has been used in Korea numerous times throughout Korea and Japan’s history: the ‘Boycott of Japanese cigarettes’ in 1995, the ‘Rejection of Japanese textbooks for Korean students’ in 2001, the ‘Anti- Japan Boycotts in response to the introduction of ‘Takeshima Day’ in 2005, and the following ‘Takeshima Day anniversary’ also provoked a boycott in 2013. When all four of these boycotts took place, they did not bring about any noticeable changes or fruitful results because they followed a particular sequence of poor participation and lack of interest in the movement. The current Anti-Japan boycott though, seems to show different patterns and is showing more progress than the past boycotts. One of the major contributing factors is the enthusiasm of the principal agent. Pointed out by Professor Han Sang-ha, from the Global Economics Department in Chung-Ang University (CAU), the Anti-Japan boycott is special in that the movement was entirely created and carried out completely by the principal agents, the citizens, on their own. The removal of Korea from Japan’s ‘white list’ triggered the nature of Koreans to promote cooperation and integration, and the current boycott shows how much stronger Koreans have become. Compared to prior boycotts, Koreans have gained a better sense of justice and now feel less pressure to tolerate unjust decisions made against them compared to the past. Through various political movements and decisions, the citizens of Korea now have stronger desires for a democratic and fair society, showing more ‘integration’ than ever. Based on such factors, it can be expected that the Anti-Japan boycott will create beneficial outcomes. There are conditions that need to be addressed in order to successfully carry out the movement. Citizens must not confuse the strict boundaries that differ between the terms ‘Anti-Japan’ and ‘Anti-Japan boycott’. The misconception of the boycott has triggered countless malpractices throughout the social movement, featuring actions that display ‘Anti-Japan’ rather than sensible boycotting. The backlash against Japanese members among KPOP bands, spoiling clothing in UNIQLO, throwing garbage at the Japanese ministry are all behaviors of immature opposition to Japan’s behaviors. In order to achieve an optimal conclusion to the boycott, all must acknowledge the fact that political controversies exist only within the political field and should not escalate to irrelevant realms. The relationship between Japan and Korea itself is also a trait that should be addressed with meticulous care and caution, since it still remains on a tight rope. The boycott could be a stepping stone to create a peaceful relationship between the two nations and beyond, so citizens of Korea should remember to stay emotionally neutral and unbiased when engaging in political disputes. In addition, force or tacit enforcements should not be used as the Anti-Japan boycott is an act of peace, not war.
How will the Anti-Japan Boycott Conclude?
Compared to other successful boycotts throughout history, the current boycott seems to be going in the right direction. For example, the boycott of India against England during its colonization is a notable successful boycott. The people of India performed a non-armed insubordination and protested peacefully by boycotting English imported clothing and instead wore domestic handmade cotton ones. This was one of the most peaceful and effective movements that sought dignity and justice for citizens; moreover it was the start of their official ‘boycott’. As Professor Lee suggested, Korea is also following a similar path. Though there is definitely room for improvements, the Anti-Japan boycott is relatively moving in the right direction as people cooperate and assist one another by chasing a single motive. The solidarity of Korean citizens is strong and has proved its power through equally powerful results. As long as people maintain a clean division between being Anti-Japan and an Anti-Japan boycott, the results will definitely be desirable, especially when compared to Korea’s boycotts over the past 25 years.
The Boycott’s Future
Political and international disagreements need to be solved politically rather than economically. Solving matters by only highlighting economic aspects may trigger a vicious cycle where revenge constantly triggers backlashes. Society must also refrain from any tendencies that could create an ‘Anti-Japan’ culture, by not portraying unconditional hatred for Japan. All methods should be incorporated to maximize the country’s benefit by thinking rationally and less emotionally. People should always be aware that mature boycotting movements lie in the attitudes and behaviors. Rather than lamenting the Japanese citizens themselves portrayed in the media, Koreans must remain keen and adhere to the objective and factual causes of the boycott.