The campaign to boycott Japanese products and services here is gaining steam as bilateral relations continue to be tense following Japan’s export curbs on key hi-tech materials crucial for South Korean tech firms.
Japanese condiments and beer brands have been removed from store shelves, even as a substantial number of travel reservations to Japan are being canceled and inquiries for Japanese passenger vehicles have halved.
As more Koreans quietly join the boycott, a website called NoNo Japan that provides information on Japanese products as well as local alternatives experienced a server crash last week due to a sudden spike in traffic.
“I’ve consciously tried to avoid using Japanese products. But ever since the news broadcast (of NoNo Japan) I have been more attentive of my purchases,” a woman in her 50s surnamed Kim, buying groceries at Nonghyup Hanaro Mart’s Chang-dong branch in Seoul, on Sunday, told The Korea Herald.
“I have told my kids to stop shopping at Uniqlo (a Japanese casual wear retailer). Our family members often purchase clothes there. Also I have switched from using Japanese curry to Baeksae curry (a local brand) and stopped drinking Japanese beer,” Kim said.
At the heart of the quiet, yet widespread boycott, is the deep-rooted historical conflicts between Korea and Japan surrounding the latter’s wartime atrocities, including military sexual slavery and forced labor.
Though Tokyo claims to have settled all issues in the1965 treaty on normalization of relations, the absence of an official and sincere apology remains an unresolved matter for Koreans.
The creator and operator of NoNo Japan, Kim Byung-kyu, said in an interview with local media that the long-overdue reparation to 95-year-old Lee Chun-sik, who was taken into forced labor at 17, propelled him to launch the website earlier this month.
“Japan has crossed the line. Tokyo’s swipe at Korean businesses -- Samsung Electronics and SK hynix -- because of a ruling by Korea’s top court on forced labor has sparked public outrage,” said Sul Dong-hoon, sociology professor at Jeonbuk National University.
“The boycott is spreading online and people are voluntarily participating. This is a clear contrast to movements stirred by elite groups and China’s government-led boycott during the THAAD row.”
Shelves allocated for Japanese condiments remain empty after the products were taken off the shelves earlier in the month at Nonghyup Hanaro Mart’s Chang-dong branch. (Kim Bo-gyung/ The Korea Herald)
According to local pollster Realmeter, 54.6 percent of the 503 adults survey last week said they were participating in the boycott, showing a 6.6 percent hike from the previous week.
Nonghyup Hanaro Mart’s Chang-dong branch was the first large supermarket chain to pull Japanese products from sales earlier this month.
Banners reading “Nonghyup Hanaro Mart Chang-dong branch does not sell Japanese products!!” have been placed where Japanese goods were once on display.
“The Chang-dong branch was established with 100 percent Korean capital. We are joining the nationwide boycott to protest against the unfair export regulations. The economic retaliation has spilled over from political problems, such as the forced labor issue,” the banners read.
The outrage against Japan’s economic retaliation is resonating across all age groups.
“It is effecting me when I shop for clothes and pen,” Park Jung-woo, 19, told The Korea Herald.
“I opt for Spao instead of Uniqlo, and pens made by Monami rather than Signo. … The boycott campaign is frequently a topic of discussion with friends these days,” Park added.
A civic group based in Sejong Administrative City shows a list of Japanese brands during a press conference held to urge the public to join the boycott of Japanese brands in front of a Uniqlo store last week. (Yonhap)
Shin Dong-yeop, a retiree in his 60s, said he “deeply agrees” with the refusal to sell and buy Japanese products.
“It’s necessary for us to show that we can stand up and give a big response,” Shin said.
As NoNo Japan developer Kim mentioned, the boycott may not last long. But for the time being, Japan’s business, culture and tourism sectors will feel the heat.
Sales of Japanese beer at local retail giant E-mart plummeted 30.1 percent from July 1-18 compared to the same period in June, according to industry figures.
Sales of Japanese ramen at the largest retail chain in Korea dropped 31.4 percent, Japanese sauces and condiments fell 29.7 percent and Japanese natto slipped 9.9 percent in the cited period.
Ahead of the summer vacation season, a rising number of Koreans are also canceling their booked trips to Japan despite the cancellation fees.
Hana Tour, Korea’s largest travel agency, has registered a daily average of 500 people for trips to Japan since July 8, less than half the 1,200 daily average it recorded previously.
This trend, if it continues, should worry the Japanese government that has sought to capitalize on Korean tourists during the Tokyo Summer Olympics 2020.
Some 7.3 million Koreans traveled to Japan in 2018, making it the second-largest group of tourists after Chinese, according to official data.
“The trade regulations have fundamentally distorted basic trust in free trade and the international division of production,” said Rhyu Si-min, a popular liberal politician-turned-writer, in a YouTube webcast.
“Japan took advantage of Korea’s economic weakness and slapped a one-point (regulation) over discontent that should not have been a reason for export curbs. Regardless of the degree of repercussions, psychologically it is inevitable for us to feel angered. It is natural and within the constitutional rights to express (anger) by boycotting Japanese products,” Rhyu added.
Boycott notifications that have replaced Japanese items at the Nonghyup Hanaro Mart Chang-dong branch state: “We hope for the prompt normalization of trade between Korea and Japan.”
Until then the public-backed quiet protest is likely to persist.
“I don’t consider myself an active participant in the boycott. But I’ve made small changes by leaving out Japanese products from the shopping cart since the economic retaliation. I’ll continue to do so until Japan retracts the trade regulations,” a freelance worker in her 40s surnamed Lim said.
By Kim Bo-gyung (email@example.com