Half-baked thoughts on Japan, China, and South Korea

By Mao Shiotsu

In middle school, as my seventh grade friends and I crowded around our usual canteen table, ready to tuck into our packed lunches, my South Korean friend, out of nowhere, turned to me and stated, “Dokdo is Korea’s.” At the time, Japan and Korea were disputing the sovereignty of the Liancourt islands, referred to as “Dokdo” in South Korea and “Takeshima” in Japan, but I knew only vaguely about the conflict.  I think I froze for a moment, too shocked to say anything, before uttering a dismissive comment. I didn’t know how to react to the undercurrent hostility in my friend’s words, something I knew existed between our countries but never thought had anything to do with us. I was taken aback by the real enmity I thought I heard behind her seemingly forced light tone. 

That friend and I are still in touch. The topic of the islands has never again been spoken about, but I’m sure we both remember that particular lunchtime. And that short conversation always resurfaces in my memory when I think about the cold relations between Japan, South Korea, and China today. 

Admittedly, I’m no expert on the history between the three countries. I do know that Japan in the early 20th century was a militant state with an imperialist agenda and colonized Korea and parts of China. I believe that imperialism is a conceited, backwards policy, and that there’s no justification for subjugating people of other countries to one’s own government. I’m also aware that history is written by the victors. There are probably countless things in the histories of these three countries that I do not know. But I think thatI am not alone in this position; most people only know selective episodes of history. 

I struggle when thinking about how this history, full of holes in my mind, still drags out in the East Asian hostilities today. How should one navigate justice, while moving on toward a progressive future? The governments have repeatedly reaffirmed the historical hostilities in past decades. Older generations, it seems, also hold this traditional stance. My aunts and uncles who have only ever lived in Japan have negative views toward China and Korea. Whenever the topic comes up, I’m ashamed to say I just leave the room, having given up on arguing back long ago. They will not change their minds. To be honest, I’m not even sure I know enough to provide a well-substantiated argument or what exactly my argument would be in the first place. 

I have always wanted an East Asia that is united, perhaps in some ways like the US and Canada, spearheading the further development of other Asian states. Japan, China, and Korea all had a late start in modernization and have been playing catch-up to the West until quite recently. These cultures, although vastly different, also have a lot of similarities. If the three countries formed a secure, friendly bond, and joined forces in science, development, innovation, just imagine what could happen. The current automatic animosities between the countries’ political leaders seem like a wasted opportunity. An opportunity, I think, that could be approached from the other end: from dialogue between the people. 

As generic as that sounds, I do believe that dialogue, especially between young people from the three countries, could help breach deep-rooted ridges. More understanding between the ordinary people, I think, could slowly shift the public perspective, and hopefully translate upward to higher-level politics. I’d like to put myself in more situations where I could speak with fellow students from China and South Korea, to walk that first step toward settling unsettled discussions and healing unhealed scars. 

Mao Shiotsu is a rising sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. You can contact her at mao.shiotsu@yale.edu.