Loathing for former colonial master casts 50-year shadows between Korea and Japan

The Independence Hall of South Korea, at the foot of a beautiful hill outside the city of Chonan, is like something out of early science fiction. The great signboard near the coach park lists its many attractions: scattered around the broad central plaza, punctuated by soaring monuments and stones bearing inspirational inscriptions, are the Reunification Hill, the Stairs of the 105 Patriots, and the Grand Hall of the Nation, 12,080 square metres in area, 45m high and 126m wide.

Beneath its giant tiled roof is the Statue of Indomitable Koreans, an epic, swirling mass of muscular figures, energetically casting off chains and surging into the future. The atmosphere is both nostalgic and futuristic - you half expect to come across Flash Gordon doing battle with Ming the Merciless. And the Independence Hall does indeed present itself as a battle of good against evil, an ancient struggle which even after five decades of peace refuses to be resolved.

"This is a national shrine - please behave accordingly," warns the sign, and there certainly is a near-religious atmosphere about the hall, especially on a clear, bitterly cold winter morning, with the monuments casting long shadows over the icy paths. But this is a complicated cult, based not so much upon pride in national achievements, as on mistrust, self-righteous contempt and frank loathing for Japan, Korea's near neighbour and former colonial master.

The heart of the Independence Hall is a series of seven galleries, covering Korean history from the late 19th century to post-war independence. Among the exhibits are thousands of photographs, documents and everyday objects, displayed beneath long panels of explanatory text. The collection was begun in 1945, and is now supported by a research department of archivists and historians. But the documentary value of their work is eclipsed throughout by a relentless chauvinism, bordering on xenophobia.

Enlarged photographs show the severed heads of peasants killed by the hated coloniser. In an animated film, the beautiful tear-streaked face of a 19th-century Korean queen is intercut with those of her snarling Japanese assassins. The most extraordinary exhibit is a wide display case containing wax work scenes from the torture chambers of the Japanese colonial police. Uniformed interrogators interfere with a naked, bleeding girl; a pair of policemen smirk at an old man, bent double in a box lined with spikes.

Two and a half million visitors come here every year and among them today is a boy, Lim Jin Mook, being shown round the exhibition by his parents. "The Japanese are bad," he tells his father. "When I grow up, I want to bash them." He is 10 years old. Around his neck hangs an expensive Japanese camera.

Why do Korea and Japan, so close in culture and ethnography, and with so much to gain from friendly relations, still find it impossible to get on? Their businessmen manage it (two-way trade amounted to $45.5bn last year), and so do their students (there are 15,000 Koreans studying in Japan). But official relations remain hopelessly snarled in a web of prejudice, propaganda and historical resentment.

The Independence Hall may be one-sided (it makes no mention, for instance, of the millions of Koreans who co-operated and profited from the occupation), but the atrocities dramatised here are not invented. Japanese brutality in Korea began in 1592, when invading samurai carried away with them art treasures, the severed ears of dead enemies, and many of the finest craftsmen and artists. In the later years of the colonisation, Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names and language in a brutal attempt to eradicate national identity.

Until recently, the grim facts of the period were skated over in Japanese schools - a generation of new textbooks, which make cautious reference to such matters, are regularly denounced by right-wing intellectuals and politicians. Among older Japanese, one frequently finds a polite xenophobia towards Koreans, an equivalent of the middle-class anti-Semitism of Edwardian England, coupled with a reluctance to face the ugly truth about their parents' colonisation of the peninsula.

A fortnight ago, a former cabinet minister, Takami Eto, cutely compared Japan's act of annexation in 1910 to "the merger of a town and a village". Last week, the night before an official visit to Japan by President Kim Young Sam, Tokyo's chief government spokesman, Seiroku Kajiyama, caused an even bigger flap when he remarked of the "comfort women" - foreign slaves, most of them Korean, used as front-line prostitutes by the imperial army - that "many of them did it for the money".

But if Japanese sentiment expresses itself through historical amnesia, Korean feelings are rarely so subtle, and the Independence Hall is not the only example of government-sponsored xenophobia. Japanese popular culture (including pop music, films and comics) is banned here, a state of affairs supported, according to official polls, by most Koreans. Gaffes, such as Mr Kajiyama's, routinely provoke ugly demonstrations - as Japan laid claim last year to a rocky islet controlled by Korea, its Prime Minister and Foreign Minister were burned in effigy in the streets of Seoul. When the two countries competed last year for the rights to host the 2002 World Cup, the rivalry between them became so intense that Fifa, football's world governing body, took the unprecedented decision to award the tournament jointly.

Many Koreans, particularly those old enough to remember the colonial period, have genuine reasons for suspicion of Tokyo, but the roots of anti-Japanese feeling are complicated and closely tied with the single most important influence on politics in the peninsula: its enduring partition along Cold War lines. While the communist North was ruled by Kim Il Sung, a war hero and former resistance fighter, South Korea's defining post- war leader was Park Chun Hee, an officer of the Japanese imperial army.

In the North, collaborators with the Japanese were quickly purged, and their land confiscated; but the US generals who took custody of the South preserved much of the former colonial machinery and those Koreans who administered it. Shame at the complicity of its leaders, and the desire to be more patriotic than the North, explains much about the Independence Hall.

But it remains a sad place, as well as a magnificent one, a shrine not to pride and achievement, but to victimhood, self-pity and xenophobia.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
The two faces revealed by the ultraviolet light
newsScholars left shaken after shining ultraviolet light on 500-year-old Welsh manuscript
Rosamund Pike played Bond girld Miranda Frost, who died in Die Another Day (PA)
Arts and Entertainment
newsHow do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? With people like this
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat