Teaching the truth about Korea’s history

Professor says Japanese are eager to learn about relations between the two countries

April 06, 2005, Not far from the Japanese Embassy in Seoul where angry protesters set fires and maim themselves over the Dokdo islands controversy, one Korean teacher was addressing it in a more academic manner.

In a classroom setting that can only be envied by Korean educators, Professor Yeon Min-soo lectured Japanese students in fluent Japanese as to why the outcroppings of rock in the East Sea are Korean territory. With a map showing Korea and Japan hanging in the front of the classroom, Mr. Yeon explained that the Dokdo islands were annexed by the ancient Silla Dynasty in 512 and have remained under Korean control since then. “Rather than a nationalistic view of history, I tried to have an objective approach to the issue by comparing different theories on Dokdo history and explaining the pros and cons of each theory,” said Mr. Yeon, a Pusan National University professor.

Mr. Yeon’s class, entitled “The History of Korean-Japanese Relations for Japanese,” intersects a sensitive time between Korea and Japan. Relations have sunk to new lows over Japan’s claim to Dokdo and its publishing of history textbooks for school children that gloss over Japan’s imperial history. Mass protests were sparked in Korea after Shimane prefecture’s local council passed a measure proclaiming Feb. 22 as “Takeshima Day,” referring to its name for the Dokdo islands. The course, which was created last fall, teaches the history of relations between the two countries and is divided into three sections, each taught by a different professor. Topics range from the founding mythology of Japan to the country’s 35-year occupation of Korea.

“Many Japanese residents here are interested in learning the historical relationship between Korea and Japan, but there was no class available in Japanese,” said Mr. Yeon, explaining how the course was formed. “The history of the two countries has been a point of contention, and we recognized a need to provide them with systematic education.” The atmosphere of his classes is serious. In a recent session, about 60 students listened to Mr. Yeon intently, taking notes. His students comprise a range of occupations: journalists, housewives, businessmen and even diplomats.\r\nMr. Yeon said Japanese historians tend to have a self-promoting interpretation of its history. “Unlike Korea, Japan and China tend to glorify their history,” he said, noting that Japan highlights more positive parts of its history and downplays harm it caused to other nations.

His lectures tackle head-on long-running historical disputes. On a recent day, Mr. Yeon lectured about a stone monument in Jilin province in northeast China that is dedicated to Gwanggaeto Daewang, a Korean king during the Goguryeo Dynasty.

Japanese historians have asserted that scripts carved into the monument are clear evidence that southern parts of the Korean Peninsula were once ruled by Japan in ancient times. Students seem surprised to learn from a different perspective of aggression between the countries. For example, Professor Son Seung-cheul, who taught last year, addressed the history of Japanese pirates in Northeast Asia. “In Japan, the role of pirates is taught as more of an international commerce activity whereas in Korea and China, the suffering of their people resulting from piracy is the main focus,” Mr. Son said.

Japanese people’s preconceptions have not prevented them from accepting a different version of history, Mr. Yeon said.

Some students are reluctant to speak about his class, and none wanted to talk about the Dokdo controversy. “If I said something, it would look like I’m making a statement on behalf of Japan,” said Eiko Kawamura, a correspondent for a women’s magazine, adding that she didn’t know much about Dokdo.

But others say they have gained a greater understanding of Korean history. “The things that I learn here are different from what I learned in Japan, but I think it is a good way to learn Korean history as it is taught here,” said Iobe Getsu, a housewife and member of the Seoul Japan Club, who is taking the course for a second time. “When I return to Japan, it will be important to talk about things we do not know about our own history,” she said. According to Mr. Son, the Japanese public does not understand why Koreans are so upset because they have little knowledge about what happened in the past as well as about Korea in general.

“Recently I was in Japan, and the Japanese seemed puzzled as to why Koreans feel so emotional about the Dokdo issue and are taken aback by Koreans’ hostility toward Japan,” Mr. Son said. “Post-war generations in Japan know little about the atrocities committed by Japan during the war.” In Japanese high school, a Japanese history course is among selective courses, and most students graduate without proper knowledge of modern parts of history, especially the most disputed parts of history between the two countries, Mr. Yeon said.

But Mr. Yeon believes that Koreans have gone too far in responding to the Dokdo controversy. Shimane prefecture intended to stir up the debate when it declared Takeshima Day, Mr. Yeon said, but Korea overreacted, elevating it to an international issue. “Koreans should stay cool headed in dealing with the issue as opposed to stepping on the Japanese national flag and demonstrating in front of the Japanese Embassy,” he said. “Most Japanese don’t even know where Dokdo is and are indifferent to the issue.” “We need to persuade them in a gentle manner and make them understand to fix their lack of knowledge,” Mr. Son said.

The two-hour class is held at 3:30 p.m. every Friday at the Continuing Education Center, a part of the University of Seoul, in the Donghwa Building near Gwanghwamun (http://campus.uos.ac.kr/uosedu/).

by Limb Jae-un

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