Are Korea and Japan similar or different?

The answer, of course, is both. The better question is: why would we ask this question?

Because Koreans do.

One of the most sweetly jarring things I noticed when visiting Korea for the first time in 1992 (while on tour with the Chicago Chamber Orchestra) was a national obsession with not being Japan. The hotel room’s little “Welcome to Korea” picture book, for example, went to great pains to explain the many ways Korea is very different from Japan. I never managed to reconcile this with its also prominently featuring a Japanese restaurant and offering numerous Japanese and Japanese-derived dishes in its other restaurant. But it wasn’t just the hotel–seemingly everywhere I turned was another demure if dogged denial of Japanese influence.

Even a typically ignorant American probably realizes that there are good reasons for this. The main one would be that Korea, like most other countries if you bother to read any history or guide books, has endured its fair share of invasions, occupations, and turf wars over the millenia–and also the usual series of dynastic turnovers and skirmishes–and the most recent occupation, by Japan from 1910-45, still smarts. Comfort women, conscription, and complicity by those Koreans who benefited are the painful side. On the other hand, this period is also credited with vast infrastructure improvements. Caveat lector, jump to your own conclusion, etc.

Anyway, my reaction in 1992 was along the lines of, “Methinks she doth protest too much.” If I hadn’t seen all these stubborn denials of influence or similarity, I wouldn’t have thought to confuse the cultures at all.

Yesterday at lunch, one of my translation team members asked, “Do you think Korea and Japan are the same?”

I answered carefully. I said that perhaps to Westerners, Korea and Japan seem more similar than different because both are so different from Western culture, but that the longer you stay and the more you learn, the more differences you see between them. Superficially all the Asian cultures I’ve seen or read about so far have more in common with each other than with the North American and European cultures I’ve experienced. Mind you, I have yet to visit Japan myself–please wait a day or two–but for business reasons I’ve studied the subect to death and hope that by now I know enough to seem respectful, at least, if bumbling.

Case in point. Many Americans know that Japanese etiquette demands that you fill others’ sake glasses (especially your superiors’) and wait for others to fill yours. So far Korean etiquette is the same, but last night at dinner I learned some distinguishing details. When you pour, you hold the bottle (and it probably contains soju, not sake, although Americans would probably confuse them) with both hands, and when being poured for, you hold the glass up (not leave it on the table as in Japan) with both hands (vs. saying thanks in Japan, or tapping the table with two fingers in China). Similarly you hold the glass with both hands when toasting, “Gombei,” (yes, this sounds a lot like the Japanese and Chinese toasts). Since you might not have room for all these hands, you can instead touch your sleeve with the second hand to represent the same thing. In the presence of a superior, you turn away to drink.

I also learned that you always eat with the soup to the right of the rice, except one day a year to honor the dead you switch the bowls. I have no idea (yet) whether there is a Japanese rule about this sort of thing.

Back to the dreaded question, my team seemed happy enough with this answer, so I turned it back on them. They gave me a surprising answer: they thought Japan and Korea were similar, and they really liked Japan and Japanese culture.

My team is young. I’d guess that the three women and one man ranged in age from 23 to 33, and probably they’re closer to 23 than 33.

I remarked that I knew this was a loaded question and thought perhaps there was a generational difference of opinion.

My reviewer, a distinguished professor who announced at some point that he is 55 years old (now there’s an East-West difference!) was also at lunch. He quickly agreed with me.

Later our conversation wandered to North and South Korea and whether they would ever be one nation again. I remembered the words of my Korean host (who coincidentally shares my reviewer’s name) in 1992, who commented on the pro-unification riots that were on the TV news as we sipped our tea after dinner that “Young people have too freedom! They want North Korea to be same as South Korea. They don’t understand. They have too freedom.” He had fought in the Korean conflict or police action or whatever it was that we were supposed to call that war. He had seen much suffering and as much as fled to the United States to study medicine. He returned to enjoy his wealth and made a great point of eating his favorite, most expensive fish every day, as if to erase the years of suffering. To him the pains of war clearly were still fresh, and he despaired that the youth would naïvely undo an uneasy armistice with their silly rebellions. I couldn’t help thinking at the time that he seemed to view the students’ positions much the same way my elders viewed my college generation’s demanding divestment from South Africa–yes, sure, that’s right, but you really don’t understand how complex it is, and have you taken the garbage out yet?–except that their naïvete was not just silly but also painful for him.

So I wondered aloud at lunch if perhaps younger generations view this topic differently. I said that it seemed to me if Korea could hold itself together for most of two thousand years of history, it would probably be one nation again eventually. (I should note that others had already commented on the division with some sadness; my reviewer’s family, for example, had been from North Korea and as a result his parents and all the rest of his family now live in the U.S.) My reviewer shook his head sadly and said it would take at least a hundred years.

This sounded about right to me but astonished our young colleague. He said, “No! I would have said fifty, at the most!”

The young women just listened.

In other news, I have learned how old I am. I could sit on the floor cross-legged for hours when I was a kid, and I remember my mom and great aunts once chuckling about how it hurt just to look at me sitting that way. Sitting that way for three hours at dinner last night, under a table so low I could scarcely shift without making a big production of it, was excruciating! Dinner was delicious, opulent, amazing, beautiful, and included almost nothing I’d ever had before in all my years of visiting Korean restaurants (including in Korea)–one of my hosts described it as food for royalty that the lower classes were not allowed to eat–and I worried if I’d be able to walk out afterward.

The time it took me to put my shoes back on after dinner let my joints recuperate enough for the ten minute walk back to the hotel. The bill, for three hours and four people dining in luxury? W250,000–about US$260.