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[Editorial] Outmoded nationalism

Local governments should stop inciting anti-Japanese sentiment

An anti-Japanese instigation to remove the “vestiges of Japanese colonialism” is spreading.

The Gyeonggi Province Assembly reportedly collected comments from residents from March 15 to 19 on a proposed ordinance on the marking of products made by “Japanese companies involved in World War II.”

The ordinance would make it mandatory to attach stickers with a phrase to the effect, “This was produced by a Japanese company involved in war crimes,” on appliances owned by elementary, middle and high schools in the province, if they were products made by Japan’s “war crime corporations.”

The bill lists 284 Japanese war crime corporations, selected based on a roster of Japanese firms found by a Prime Minister’s Office commission to have used Korean forced labor during the war. Of 27 members who put forward the bill, 25 belong to the Democratic Party of Korea, which controls the assembly.

Bill proponents say they seek to enact the ordinance “to inculcate proper perceptions of history in students.” But they have overreached. More than seven decades has passed since Japanese companies produced wartime supplies and exploited Korean forced laborers. Some of them may have since changed hands. Their current employees can hardly be said to be related to the war or war crimes.

When it comes to education about Japanese imperialism, the proper use of textbooks is enough. It is questionable if students will learn good lessons from seeing such labels.

Gyeonggi Province is not the first case. A ruling party member of the Seoul Metropolitan Council motioned a similar bill in January. It urges the Seoul mayor to see to it that institutions under the supervision of the Seoul Metropolitan Government, Council and Office of Education will not award no-bid contracts to companies on the list.

The two bills raise concerns about trade friction, among other things, by fostering boycotts of Japanese products. The Seoul ordinance, if approved, is likely to violate the government procurement code of the World Trade Organization. The ordinances would also hurt the image of Korea as a fair trade partner.

Local governments and education offices across the country are moving to remove what they call the remnants of Japanese colonialism. The touchstone they use to see if such traces remain is a biographical dictionary of pro-Japanese persons, published by a left-wing group.

On March 6, Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung banned singing the official song of the province in chorus, citing its songwriter in the who’s who, though its lyrics have nothing to do with Japanese colonial rule. North Jeolla Province started work to change its official song for the same reason.

Ten of 17 education offices under left-leaning superintendents have gone to work changing the songs of schools in their jurisdictions, citing the dictionary that lists their songwriters.

Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province, tore down stone memorials for two famous poets listed. The Seoul chapter of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union branded statues built on campuses of seven schools in Seoul as “pro-Japanese” and called for their demolition.

Calling out the “pro-Japanese” stigma 74 years after Korea’s independence and the end of the World War II is a wasteful, anachronistic witch hunt. It manifests narrow-minded exclusive nationalism, at best.

In his speech marking the March 1, 1919 Independence Movement, President Moon Jae-in said: “The word ‘Reds’ is being used as a tool to vilify and attack political rivals. ... These are typical vestiges left by pro-Japanese collaborators, which we should eliminate as soon as possible.”

Reds are one thing, and pro-Japanese another, but Moon connected them. An elderly scholar said the address connects “the remnants of Japanese colonialism” to conservatives implicitly, and argued what must be cleansed is a “state-led instigation of anti-Japanese nationalism.”

If Korea truly wants to remove traces of Japanese colonial domination, it needs to heed the words of Lew Young-ick, former president of the National Institute of Korean History: “If we want to get over Japan, we should overcome Japan in a positive way, like producing better products than Japanese rivals. Negative labeling exposes the limitations of a view of history.”

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