The Ancient Relationship Between Korea and Japan

Japan and Korea are like cousins or brothers and sisters who bicker with one another, but the relationship is getting better.  They have a very long history together.  The both came to where they are from China. They both consider China their mother country.  Their languages show that they are similar because the use the same grammatical patterns, but not those that are used in China. However, they both developed isolated from one another, but also fighting with one another.  For many, many years, both of them cut themselves off from the outside world. Korea didn’t even want the rest of the world to know they existed on the Korean Peninsula, and if you came to Korea in those days, you were never allowed to leave  If you went to Japan during the time that they were cut off from the rest of the world, you just better not be a Christian.  There was some persecution of Christians in Korea, but major persecution of Christians in Japan.  Korea eventually embraced Christianity, but Japan just learned to tolerate their existence.  The animosity between Japan and Korea seems to have been around almost from the advent of their existence.

One of my favorite books about ancient Korea.

Japan wanted to conquer Korea and make it part of Japan, but Korea would have no part in it.  If you visit Osaka Jo, the castle in Osaka, Japan, the story of that castle is very interesting. The Japanese like the samurai who lived there, but the Koreans didn’t.  In those times, both Korea and Japan were places that had several different kingdoms like England had during the time of King Arthur.  The samurai who lived in Osaka Jo conquered and united all the kingdoms in Japan. After he united Japan, he decided to also include Korea. However the Koreans would have no part of it, and they fought the Japanese off. The Japanese were defeated and had to go home.

In one of my favorite books about old Korea, they are always talking about what pests the little men from Japan were.  The Japanese were always coming and trying to come and take over Korea, but the Koreans always resisted.   They never became part of Japan, but they were ruled by the Japanese for a while about a generation back.

The Japanese used to like to use the Koreans as slaves. They came and kidnapped them or just offered them jobs and took them back to Japan to work.  The Korean artisans were very skillful, and the Japanese especially liked to take them to Japan. However, try as they might, the Koreans who went to Japan were never accepted in Japan. They were orientals just like the Japanese, but if they were not born in Japan, if their parents and grandparents were not born in Japan, it didn’t matter, they were foreigners.  It didn’t matter how many generations they stayed.  Even in modern days, it is still true.  I met a woman when I was in Japan whose parents came from Korea to work before she was born. She was born and raised in Japan, but she still had to carry a Korean passport and get a visa.  If you are not genetically Japanese, you will never be Japanese.  The Koreans are a bit more lenient on this issue.  You can get Korean citizenship, but it is a lot of work, and you have to give up your citizenship in your home country if you do.

The crazy stuff between Korea and Japan even goes to what they call things.  The whole world knows the sea between Korea and Japan as the Japan Sea, but the Koreans will not call it that. They call it The East Sea.  I mentioned to one of my students once that Korea and Japan use the same word for bag, kabang, and the Korean student said, “Then I am going to stop using that word.”

However, the younger Koreans are not quite as prejudiced against the Japanese as the older Koreans.  The younger Koreans are interested in Japanese Nintendos and Japanese anime (Japanese cartoons).  They like them, and many understand that World War II severely changed the Japanese for the better.  However, the older people are still bitter, and they tell all kinds of terrible tales about Japan to the younger people.

During one of the wars, the Japanese forced some Korean women to be used as prostitutes calling them “comfort women.”  The comfort women have been in the news and really blast Japan even though the women are old, and most of the people in Japan who did it are all dead just like the women who were abused are dying out.  It is history, but Korea has a hard time letting go.

green mountain surrounded by body of water photo
Photo by Borislav Krustev on Pexels.com

Korea and Japan also both claim an island that is in the Japan or East Sea. The Koreans call it Dok Do, but I don’t know what the Japanese call it. I only heard about it after I got in Korea because the Japanese are not as vocal about that kind of stuff, but the character of the Koreans make them want to tell everyone about how bad the Japanese have treated them, and there are some who will never forgive Japan.

grayscale photo of explosion on the beach
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However, World War II actually did change the Japanese. The problem with the Japanese before World War II was that they were very religious people.  Their religion, Shintoism, taught them that their emperor was a god, and that they were descended from the gods and destined to take over the world.  It made the aggressive toward other countries.  Everyone has heard about the kamikaze pilots.  They would just fly their planes into an aircraft carrier and kill everyone on the aircraft carrier, and in the process kill themselves.  They did it because they believed they would be fine after they died because they were descended from the gods and destined to take over the world.  However, when America dropped the big bombs on them, it made them rethink things.  They could see they weren’t destined to take over the world, and it also meant the emperor was not a god.  It meant that Shintoism was not true, at least that part of Shintoism.  It caused them to become less aggressive toward other countries, and some of the Korean realize they are not as aggressive as they used to be. Since Christianity it a major part of the Korean culture, the Christians have a tendency to forgive the Japanese for the sins of their past, but not all of them do.

Before the big bomb, a large percentage of both Korea and Japan were also Buddhist.  They both have Buddhist temples you can tour through.  However, the Japanese are basically atheists now. They go to the Shinto shrine and the Buddhist temples, but only because they are Japanese. They do anything that is Japanese. Cultural experts say the Japanese only believe in Japanism.  The Koreans on the other hand, have a combination of Buddhists, Christians, and people who aren’t sure.

On a normal basis, if you go to Japan, the Japanese are kind and humble.  Both Korean and Japanese societies are built on the Confucian model. The older people keep the younger ones in check.  It is written into both of their languages too.  There are words for relationships among people in Korean and Japanese that are not in other languages. In Japan, there is a simpai, and there is the same person in Korea called a songbae.  This simpai or songbae is an person who has gone before you like in a school, and older student.  The simpai or songbae in a school has a responsibility to the younger students because they have been through the same things the younger one is going through now.  They are supposed to teach them and show them the way.  In both countries also, the younger people bow to the older people, but in Japan, they bow to everyone all the time.  If you watch two Japanese professors having a conversation, it can get a little funny because they are busy bowing at one another all the way through the conversation.

In order, the first one is a Korean chopstick. The second one is a Japanese chopstick, and the third one is a Chinese chopstick.

Korea and Japan also share a lot of food.  Many times, the food as well as other things begin in China, and then it goes on to Korea and Japan.  If it goes to Japan before it goes into Korea, the Japanese will do what they do with everything and make it better, and then pass it on.  Both Korea and Japan use chopsticks as China does, but all three countries have different chop sticks.  China has the longest chop sticks.  Korea uses stainless steal chopsticks, and Japan uses chopsticks that look like Chinese chopsticks, but the are shorter.

Me in a kimono when I was in Japan.
My daughter and I in Korean hanboks.

As far as traditional clothes, most people have heard of the Japanese kimono, and if you have been reading my blog, you have heard about the Korean hanbok.

The Bible on the left is Japanese, and you can see that it opens backwards to what our books do. The Bible on the right is Korean, and it opens the way ours do.
This is the first chapter of Matthew from the Japanese Bible.  It is written from top to bottom and from right to left.  There are a combination of types of letters used, and you can see that next to the kanji, there are small hiragana written so the reader will know the pronunciation because kanji don’t give you pronunciation, only meaning.
This is the first chapter of Matthew in my Korean/English Bible.  The Korean is written from left to right just like the English.

As far as the language, there are some similarities, but many differences too.  To begin with, the letters and how they are used is completely different.  The Korean letters, the hangul, are like English letters, and each one is either a consonant or a vowel. However, that is not the case in Japanese.  In Japanese, they actually use two alphabets called hiragana and katakana and the Chinese Characters called kanji because the English letters they use. The use hiragana to write Japanese words and katakana to write foreign words.  The Koreans have almost done away with the use of the Chinese characters, the the Japanese are still actively using them and using them in combination with the hiragana and katakana in a sentence.  Japanese writing can be just flat complicated.  I asked my Japanese teacher how long it would be for me to learn to read the Japanese newspaper, and she said I would have to go to school for 12 years in Japan to learn enough kanji to read the Japanese newspaper.  The Koreans write in syllable groups, and each Japanese letter is a syllable.  If the Japanese use the kanji (the Chinese characters), often they will write hiragana beside the kanji in smaller letters in case someone doesn’t understand the kanji they used. The Koreans write from left to right like we do.  The Japanese may right from left to right, from right to left, or from top to bottom, which every way they want.

I have written out some sentences in Japanese and Korean and written the English word that is equivalent to the Japanese or Korean word below it.  You can see that they have the same word order. If you look at my name, in the first one, the Japanese one, my name is written with katakana, not hiragana, because it is a foreign name.  In Korean, everything is written in hangul.
Here, you can also see that Korean and Japanese have the same ideas about grammar. In English, we build our concepts by adding words like “I go” becomes “I can go.” However, in Korean and Japanese both, they don’t just add a word to “go” to make it “can go.”  They make a grammatical construction sometimes completely changing the words.  The also leave the pronoun “I” out.
On the first part of this page, you can see if they want to say, “I love you,” they leave both the pronouns “I” and “you” out.  On the second half of this page, you can see that we only have one meaning for our “be” verb, is, am, or are.  They have two different “be” verbs, and the Japanese  “be” verbs  and the Korean “be” verbs mean the same thing.

The similarities that come between Korean and Japanese is the grammar.  Korean and Japanese have the same grammatical patterns, ideas about what words mean, and use their words in the same way. This means that Koreans and Japanese can learn to speak one another’s languages easier than the rest of us if we want to learn Korea or Japanese. The words are completely different, but the grammar is exactly the same. It shows they have a common root. They both came from China, but it also shows that they developed differently.

Here is one of the Chinese characters explained.  The Koreans call the Chinese characters hanmoon, and the Japanese call them kanji. They have no pronunciation on their own, so they can be used in any language. The “kawa” written her is in Japanese, and the Koreans would read this same symbol and say “kang” for the English word “river.”

The Japanese hiragana was actually made for the ladies of the King’s court to use.  The men went to school and learned the kanji (the Chinese characters), but the women wanted to write poetry, but didn’t go to school, so the Japanese invented hiragana for the ladies to write their poetry.  The hangul, the Korean alphabet, was invented by King Sejeong many centuries about because he wanted the Korean people to have their own alphabet. In the beginning, both cultures used the Chinese characters exclusively.  However, using the Chinese characters is part of Korea’s history and you seldom see them now, but the Japanese are still using them mixing them with two other alphabets.

There are more similarities and differences between Japan and Korea.  They both take their shoes off at the door. The Japanese do it as a matter of rule that is never broken!  They are very strict!  The Koreans do it for comfort.  If it is inconvenient to take your shoes off, no one is mad, but the Japanese would never understand not taking your shoes off. Both countries also either sleep on beds or in the floor.  The Japanese style beds, the futons, are much more comfortable than the Korean style beds.  The Japanese sleep on big soft mats on top of straw mats. The Koreans sleep right down on a hard concrete floor covered with linoleum, and many times without a mat. They both have public baths, and the men and women do not go into the same bathroom in either country.  The heating system is actually better in Korea than Japan.  The Japanese have a heating unit attached high up on the wall, and you need to be careful because you feet can get so cold in the winter that people have been known to get frost bite on their feet from always taking their shoes off.  However, the Koreans have a heating unit under the floor, and the floors are heated in the winter.  Their style of doing things many times is very similar, but sometimes different.

These two countries both have my heart.  I have a Japanese son in law and a Korean son in law.  I will forever be connected to both of them even though I am an American.  I am glad the two countries are getting along better than they used to, and I hope they continue to develop in a congenial mode toward one another.




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