Last week, it took less than five hours for a district office in Seoul to withdraw its plan to hang some 1,100 banners featuring “No. Boycott Japan” on lampposts across major streets in the heart of the city following a strong public backlash.
After officials from Jung-gu Office put up some 50 banners reading “I won’t go [to Japan], I will not buy [Japanese goods]” around the district, which encompasses popular tourist destinations such as Myeong-dong, Namdaemun Market and Deoksugung, the municipality’s website was bombarded with public complaints.
“Don’t distort the public’s pure spirit [of the boycott of Japanese products],” a website posting said. Another said, “If the government takes the lead, [South Korea’s] relations with Japan will deteriorate.”
An online petition on the presidential office’s website calling on the Jung-gu Office to take down the banners gathered more than 20,000 signatures.
Jung-gu Office’s head Seo Yang-ho ended up cancelling the anti-Japan banner plan and issuing an apology.
As conflicts over historical issues between the neighbouring countries showing no signs of abating, anti-Japanese sentiment has gained traction in Korea for the past month.
South Koreans, however, have expressed their opposition to any state-orchestrated anti-Japan movement, saying the boycott should remain in the private sector. They have denounced politicians and authorities for exploiting the issue to advance their agendas.
Many also tried to focus their campaign on criticising the Abe administration, not citizens of the country.
Bilateral relations hit an all-time low after a Korean court last year ordered Japanese firms to compensate Koreans who were forced into slave labour during the 1910-45 colonial period. Tokyo says the matter was settled by the 1965 treaty normalizing bilateral ties.
In an apparent act of retaliation, Japan tightened restrictions on exports to Korea of three key materials necessary for the production of memory chips and displays. On August 2, Japan also removed Korea from its whitelist of trusted trading partners.
Enraged by the Abe administration’s moves, more and more Koreans are joining the boycott of Japanese services and goods such as beer, clothing and pens.
“I have joined the boycott campaign and no longer buy Japanese products. I think it is unfair for Japan to take such retaliatory actions,” said Lee Jun-hee, 41, who brought her child to an anti-Abe administration rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in central Seoul on Saturday.
A man and his girlfriend walking past the Uniqlo store near Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul at around 8pm on Saturday were heard saying, “It is not the right time to shop at Uniqlo.”
Two women also briefly looked inside the store’s display window but walked away, saying, “Yes, they are pretty, but we should not buy anything here.”
While Japanese restaurants are seeing fewer customers, travel to Japan has declined as well.
The number of Koreans boarding Japan-bound flights from August 1-9 was 447,323, down 17.9 per cent from 544,693 over the same period last year, according to government data.
Last week, organisations representing the self-employed and small and medium-sized merchants stopped selling Japanese products, and a parcel delivery workers’ trade union also vowed to stop delivering Japanese products.
A total of four candlelight vigils have been held so far in front of the Japanese Embassy, with participants calling Japan’s move an “economic invasion” and demanding a sincere apology for Japan’s wartime atrocities.
In the wake of the growing anti-Japan sentiment, politicians and district offices in Seoul quickly joined the bandwagon.
Choi Jae-sung of the ruling Democratic Party suggested the government consider expanding the current travel restrictions – which cover all areas within a 30km radius of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant – to include Tokyo, citing high levels of radioactive materials. He also suggested a boycott of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.
His suggestion was seen as a response to the Japanese government’s warning to its citizens about travelling to Korea, citing anti-Japan rallies here.
Lee In-young of the ruling party called Japan’s decision to remove Korea from the whitelist a “declaration of an all-out war” and vowed to gain victory in the “Korea-Japan economic war” by upholding the spirit of the “independence movement”.
At the municipal level, 52 district offices launched an association in favour of countermeasures against Japan, vowing to stop using Japanese products, join the boycott of Japanese goods in the private sector and cease exchanges with Japanese authorities.
Jung-gu Office originally planned to hang 1,100 “No Japan” flags, Seodaemun-gu Office locked all Japanese stationery used by officials in a time capsule, and Gangnam-gu Office took down Japanese national flags from its major streets.
Participation is ‘voluntary’
For decades, diplomatic spats over historical issues did not stop citizens of Korea and Japan from enjoying close cultural and people-to-people ties.
Despite the intensifying row between the neighbours, people the Korea Herald spoke to – some who joined the boycott of Japanese products and others who did not – made it clear that they did not hate Japanese people for the Abe administration’s actions.
“I hope that Koreans and Japanese people don’t get hurt by this. It is not a fight between us. It is a fight against the Japanese government,” said Kim Jun-gyu, a 26-year-old university student.
Some netizens were seen taking pride in participating in the boycott and making an emotional appeal to others to follow suit. Others, however, were more accepting of those who were not joining the movement, viewing participation as a voluntary and personal choice.
“People have the right to decide if they want to join the boycott. Forcing others and dismissing their views would be no different from fascism,” said Kim, who has been boycotting all Japanese products since last month.
Park Eun-woo, 33, an office worker, has not joined the boycott.
“I don’t think we should stop pursuing Japanese culture on an individual level because of political issues,” said Park. “I don’t feel guilty when I buy Japanese products. It is a personal choice.”
“There are some people creating an atmosphere pushing me to join the boycott, but I don’t think it helps solve the problem,” he said, criticising politicians for “taking advantage of” the issue for domestic purposes.
Activists say the ongoing anti-Japan movement shows how mature Korean society has become in terms of civic engagement.
“There are some extreme cases, but it is a fair way of expressing public anger,” said Han Sun-bum, an official representing an association of 700 mostly leftist civic groups leading the anti-Japan candlelight vigils.
“Rather than incite or feed off Koreans’ anger toward Japan, what authorities have to do is to find a diplomatic solution to build new bilateral relations and resolve historical issues.”