Aug 11, 2019

Holiday in South Korea with a serving of diplomacy

Holiday in South Korea with a serving of diplomacy photo

So the Japanese partner and I are off to South Korea this week for a four-day stay in the southern city of Busan, which I understand to be the second largest city in the country. We’re on a Korean Air flight from Narita the day after tomorrow.

If you pay any attention to the news in Japan, you’ll likely be aware that Japan and South Korea are having a diplomatic spat that commentators are saying has seen relations between the two countries sink to a significant low.

Trade policy and the seemingly unresolvable tension stemming from wartime history have seen the TV in our apartment filled with images of South Koreans standing behind garbage cans into which they throw a bunch of clothes from UNIQLO along with other representative items from a number of Japanese manufacturers. Some of the locals are calling for a boycott of Japanese goods and even Japan itself, or at least trips to these shores.

It’s retaliation for the Japanese government’s decision to remove, later in August, South Korea from a “white list” of countries which enjoy simplified trade procedures, which in turn was retaliation for South Korea's top court ordering some Japanese firms to pay damages to Koreans who said they were victims of forced labor during Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule over the peninsula.

And so it goes on. In fact, it was just the other day that local authorities of a popular tourist area of the South Korean capital Seoul saw fit to adorn the streets with properly designed and produced anti-Japan banners.

But this was something of a last straw as it turned out. Within a few hours an online petition had gathered around 20,000 signatures demanding the banners be taken down. Which they duly were.  

According to Japanese news, petitioners felt that the dispute should be kept at a diplomatic level and that it was wrong for authorities to take it to the streets in this way. If people wanted to protest for themselves, then they should feel free to do so.

It was reassurance of a kind for this soon-to-be holiday maker in South Korea. I hadn’t felt that there would really be any trouble traveling to the country with the Japanese partner but I had been concerned about getting stinky looks in stores and eateries, or maybe even the odd comment here and there. Plus, if there were going to be anti-Japan banners lining the streets, well, this is supposed to be a holiday, ie. taking us away from stress and bad vibes not towards it. 

Maybe I’m doing an injustice to the average people on the streets in Busan, and South Korea at large -- I’m sure they’re mostly lovely, with a smattering of those that you just have to tolerate, as is the case anywhere. 

Anyway, according to a news report this morning, as residents of Japan head off on their holidays, while numbers of tourists from Japan going to South Korea have fallen by 25 percent from last year, the remaining 75 percent likely represents a large number.

Of course, I’ve aimed some jokes at the Japanese partner --”Let’s pretend you’re from Singapore,” (she’s often mistaken for being from somewhere other than Japan when we’re traveling overseas), “I’ll run away at the first sign of trouble,” … I even stumbled upon this pin in a store in Tokyo today which I cracked up at the idea of pinning it to the partner’s rucksack!

Holiday in South Korea with a serving of diplomacy photo

It’s going to be cool though. I’m actually looking forward to it, having only really wanted to go to South Korea out of a feeling that I should check out what Japan’s neighbors are up to while I’m here. 

Now I’m looking forward to reaffirming my general belief that most international tensions are exploited, or even manufactured, by greedy and greying suits who want to keep hold of money and power by distracting people with targets to dislike, even hate.

That said, South Korea marks its National Liberation Day during our stay, when the country celebrates liberation from decades of Japanese occupation across the peninsula. Demonstrations are planned (although typhoon No. 10 might put a dampener on those), and Japanese residents in the country are, naturally, advising their tourist counterparts to stay away from such gatherings.

Maybe I’ll grab some alone time and pop out for a look by myself.

Where are you off to, if anywhere, during Obon? Hope you have a good one regardless and stay safe with this typhoon coming. Looks like a big one!



Traveler, surfer, and scribe. Based in Tokyo for six years.