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

August 30, 2011 7 comments

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?

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