Home > Korean Society, Uncategorized > Korea and Japan: A Comparison of Contrasts or a Contrast of Comparisons

Korea and Japan: A Comparison of Contrasts or a Contrast of Comparisons

Well, I have returned from vacation. Richer in experience and no poorer from the casino, so I guess that makes a successful trip. Unfortunately, as much as I love to travel by air, most anytime I take a plane I wind up sick, so I’m dealing with that now. Anyways, on to my topic for the day. As an outside observer who has lived in both countries, I am often asked my feelings about Japan and Korea, their differences and the frequent hot button issues between them. My living preference should be relatively obvious, given my current location, the amount of time I’ve spent in each country, whom I chose to marry and simply that The リ in 日本 doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as a blog title. That being said, it is still an interesting topic and one I have formed some opinions on over the years.

An apt comparison, or am I just hungry?

Now as a man who will frequently think with his stomach, I find an interesting societal comparison in the foods of the two nations (both of which I find delicious). In Japan, as we can see in the left picture, each dish has its place and should be enjoyed separately. The flavors are understated and savory, with just an occasional kick of wasabi giving some spice. In Korea, the dish is still organized, but more as organized chaos. Everything gets thrown together and all mixed up. The flavors tend to be very strong and in your face, there’s very little subtlety with kimchi.

Now how does this vague and poorly put-together comparison apply to society as a whole? During my time in Japan, I felt the country and the culture was very beautiful with a lot to offer, but incredibly organized to a stifling degree. While this organization may make for an incredible public transportation system, living within it was suffocating at times. Just like I couldn’t add soy sauce to my rice, in the classroom I couldn’t add or modify my lesson plans, which were specified down to the minute for each class. Even on the hottest days, I had to be in my suit and tie (dark suit, white shirt, only a red or blue tie as specified on page 156 of my employee manual) because that’s how everyone is supposed to look. On many of these summer days, the humidity seemed matched by oppressive mass of conformity in the air. Additionally, similar to the flavors of its food, the emotions of its people seem equally reserved and held beneath the surface. I know I am painting far too broad of strokes here, but during my time in Japan I was continually frustrated by my inability to discern what people were feeling (and I consider myself a fair reader of people). For Star Trek fans out there, maybe the best comparison I could make is that the people all seemed to have a bit of Vulcan blood in them, with the suppression of emotion as a cultural trait.

I will admit, I never had to wait so long for the Japanese subway.

Korea, on the other hand, strikes me as a lot like a good bowl of bibimbap. For all it’s disorganization and madness on appearance, everything tends to come together with purpose and combine to make a great dish. Anyone who has spent any significant time living here can tell you that one of the few constants is change. Often, these changes seem without any rhyme or reason (or notice in the case of those expat teachers out there who walk into empty classrooms) and this can be an incredibly frustrated experience, especially for those who like a bit of order to their lives. These rapid changes can also be seen across the physical landscape of Korea (especially urban areas) where the bahli bahli almost overnight transform some dilapidated fishing docks into a modern, techno playground for the 2012 Yeosu Expo. As for the people, while I wouldn’t consider Koreans in general to be overtly emotional on a daily basis, like biting into a gochu pepper, the spice tends to come hard and fast with little warning. Screaming matches are not uncommon and scuffles can erupt even on the floors of the national legislature. This trait is not only limited to anger, though, as in general I find Korean people much more willing and able to express joy, sadness, kindness and everything in between.

Now, all that being said, I would like to turn to what really is the main point of this post, and what I feel is a strong reason why the bickering and fighting continues over seemingly trivial matters. Despite the differences on the surface, Japan and Korea are inexorably tied and remarkably similar. They are, in a way, like brothers (or if brothers is too strong a word, at least cousins). They share not only physical characteristics, but mental make-ups forged from a similar ‘upbringing’ as cultures (feudal, warring territories unified to kingdoms generally cut-off from Western civilization to (slowly) modern democracies and economic forces). In this analogy, Japan would have to be considered the ‘big brother’ due to it’s greater size, population and historical emergence to the world stage. As a big brother, it often feels it knows what is better for it’s sibling and often will try to force the issue. South Korea, as the younger brother, then often feels under the thumb and in the shadow of Japan, causing it to lash out strongly at even the smallest issues. Please note that this comparison is in no way excusing or otherwise explaining the forced annexation of Korea by Japan, but this time period does certainly provide further evidence and context to the analogy. The fact is the nations are too closely tied to simply wash their hands of one another, but a history too scarred completely open up to one another, at least at the current time. I do believe that time will heal these scars eventually, however, and when that happens a new generation of Koreans and Japanese may find they are not so different after all.

Can you really tell the difference?

  1. zeb
    August 30, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    one group is opend hair and second tied hair, during performance looks close to each other but second group looks independent performer

  2. June 22, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    Nice… It’s difficult for someone like myself who only has visited SK and not J. I’ve a lot of compassion towards Korea, it’s history and people etc etc. Japan I’ve yet to visit, but I’ve an idea.

  3. June 28, 2013 at 2:27 am

    This is an interesting article. I’m Japanese-American, and I have relatives in Japan — my cousin has married a Korean-American and I am currently dating a Korean woman. I think part of your experience of Japan might have been due to the fact that you were interacting with Japanese almost exclusively as an “outsider”, a foreigner. Japanese are reserved around strangers (not only foreigners — pretty much everyone who isn’t in their inner circle) — but they are quite open with their close family and friends. Living in Japan on the “outside” of everyone I could imagine would be a singularly bizarre experience, in which the only interactions you had with other people were in “outside” mode, where people are reserved. That would be quite stifling without the outlet of “inside” mode, where most people live when they go home, or during after-work drinking binges, etc., which most Japanese take part in. I assure you they are not very reserved in those situations, AT ALL. If you aren’t on the “inside” (uchi vs soto) then you are going to have a very uncomfortable life in Japan.

    I have to say, however, that despite the differences between Korean and Japanese culture I find Koreans to be the closest culturally to Japanese of any of the Asian groups (Chinese, VIetnamese, Thai, Filipinos, etc.) The woman I’m dating reminds me a lot of my Japanese relatives, even her facial expressions, tone of voice, laugh, her sense of style, and so on. For all the crazy insane history between Japan and Korea, there’s no doubt that there is a lot of overlap between the two countries’ cultures, at least relative to other Asian groups.

  4. February 11, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    You can sometimese see non-Asian looking Japanese like Ken Hirai because of Jomon/Ainu blood.

  5. Anonymous
    August 3, 2014 at 11:27 pm

    On the girl group comparison you either don’t know or are unaware of the fact that upwards of 90% of the South Korean girls you see have had moderate to radical plastic surgery to look more Japanese or less south Korean. They want to loose the square faced squint eyed look of traditional South Korean woman. Even Japanese woman are trying to look less Asian with eye and nose surgery at least in the entertainment world but not near the level as in the K-pop world.

  6. someonelse
    November 6, 2016 at 2:21 am

    2012 Yeosu Expo – was a financial disaster – it is failure as a project. Koreans are a jealous people. Japanese are an overly humble and roles based people. I am kinda tired of the generalizations. But I can tell you from direct experience … the cultures are truly different. Even down to the metal chopsticks in Korea and pointy wooden chopsticks in Japan. Every single cultural nuance in Japan and Korea have subtle differences. Some say that Languages are similar because of the 80% similar grammar – but after you study the culture and languages you really gain a deep feeling – that the native parts of the language (not shared part in Chinese) could NOT BE MORE DIFFERENT. So you know what … stop comparing these places – and stop talking about ti if you are no-expereinced in living and working in both countries. I am tired of hearing it – … it is like listening to a sports caster talking about music theory … give it up – not worth paying attention to start.

  7. November 6, 2016 at 7:08 pm

    I have the opposite perspective: I think if you grew up in Korea or Japan it is LESS easy for you to understand the relationship between the cultures in some ways than it is for someone looking at it from the outside. It’s the same with nearly every culture — there are many things which are more apparent from the outside than when you are inside it.

    I have friends who never really understood American culture until they went into the Peace Corps and spent time in radically different cultures — then you can see American culture much more clearly, when you live outside it.

    Of course there are subtle differences between Korea and Japan at every level. And the two cultures are clearly distinct, with different histories and different internal structure. BUT growing up outside Japan, with Japanese parents, I have a different perspective. So many things about the way my family works are different from the typical American family, and typical American culture, and in a strange way I therefore notice some of these things more than Japanese in Japan notice them, because they’re inside it.

    My wife is Korean and it’s very obvious how similar our ancestral cultures are on many levels — yet there are profound differences too. But since we now live in America (she grew up in Korea), the similarities are quite stark, as well, because we are comparing our cultures to the general American culture we live in. We share many values, many tendencies, many perspectives — and her family and my family also clearly share many of these tendencies as well.

    To my mind, however, there is a very distinct difference, which I couldn’t quite put my finger on until my wife told me about the concept of Han. The “han” feeling is something that isn’t very strong in Japanese culture, but I can see it is very central to the Korean heart. Japanese, on the other hand, have a “shikataganai” soul, I think. Once I understood this a lot of the differences between her and me became much more clear. To me, Han vs Shikataganai is the most central difference between Japanese and Korean culture. Much more important than minor things like metal chopsticks or wooden chopsticks. Metal or wooden, they’re still chopsticks. I like metal chopsticks. Not a big difference. Han/Shikataganai, though, now there’s a real difference.

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