Professor Ra Jong-yil on the Paradox of Korean-Japanese Relations
On May 15, 2017 a lecture by Ra Jong-yil, Professor at the Kyung Hee University, Ambassador to Japan from 2004 to 2007 and to the United Kingdom from 2001 to 2003, writer and public figure in the Republic of Korea, was held at HSE’s School of Asian Studies. The lecture was dedicated to the problems of perception of the Japanese in Korea and overcoming the colonial legacy in the Korean nation’s collective consciousness.
Professor Ra Jong-yil asked the students a key question: ‘Can we speak about the Japanese as victims in the first half of the 20th century? Or did they play the role of judge and jury over the Korean people? Can a victim be a judge, and a judge also be a victim?’ These questions were challenging even for Russian students, who are accustomed to viewing the Japanese colonial regime as exploitative and aggressive.
In official Korean historiography, Japanese colonialism was traditionally considered exploitative and as having had a detrimental impact on the development of the Korean nation. This essentially remains the case today.
Professor Ra Jong-yil did not question this perspective, but did try to find a way out of the deadlock in Korean and Japanese relations that we see today for obvious reasons. He noted that is important to find a way to bring together the Japanese and Korean peoples in the contemporary environment, which is a long way from the imperialist wars and militarism of the early 20th century.
According to Ra Jong-yil, Koreans need to ‘reload their historical memory’ about the colonial past, and, in particular, about people who were involved in the Japanese colonial system. How can this be done? One should represent the Japanese as ‘victims’ of their own militarist regime, as they didn’t make the decision to start a war in China, to colonize Korea, etc.
Some may disagree with this perspective, but it is important to understand the conditions under which Japanese colonialism formed and developed, as well as Korea’s place in the existing system of international relations in the early 20th century.
This approach, he believes, helps alter the perception of the Japanese as the aggressors and ‘judges’ of the Korean nation, makes them victims, making it possible to see their positions and those of the Koreans come closer together, as the latter also perceive themselves as ‘victims’ of Japanese colonialism.