Our historical dissonance in an undercurrent regional discord.

This post is a deviation from the light stuff I’ve been posting lately, so if history is not your thing, turn away.

Anyone remembers this video? At the height of Shingeki no Kyojin’s popularity outside Japan, a brilliant team from South Korea uploaded this edit of SHINHWA’s “This Love” in July. Under Youtube username “serin jung”, every member was painstakingly replaced with Isayama Hajime’s men. The final product was slightly flabbergasting at first (and I realize that may be an oxymoronic expression), but a few more views and it was fairly easy to get used to (not to mention there are other more interesting scenarios where we find SnK characters in), and even I began to appreciate this 2-minute video. 
Well, I recently revisited this video again, and an October update from the team announced that they decided not to upload the full-length version of this video. A series of unfortunate events concerning tweets by Isayama himself about the South Koreans has led to many fans turning their backs on the series completely. 
While I’ve only just picked this up six months after Isayama received his first batch of death threats, I am not surprised. Having tracked the news about East Asia dynamics myself, calling the relations between Japan, China and South Korea a walk on a very fine line is an understatement, and anyone who has access to their early 20th Century war history should easily see why. All of us in Asia have borne the brunt of Japan’s army invasions at some point, but Japan’s neighbors reportedly had it the worst, with brutal militaristic efforts to eliminate culture, enslave women, murder children, brutalize men, and turn their countries into a fiery, living nightmare. This ugly black history has been embedded into our brains for the longest time, and no matter how much anime and JPOP gets pumped out, we are constantly reminded of it so that this may never be repeated. But with the way things are right now – including China’s recent spats with Japan about a seemingly negligible patch of tiny islands, and the former’s announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone – it feels like old wounds are opening up again. 
The first controversy was around Isayama’s choice for designing his character, Commander Dot Pixis (who leads the Garrison Squad), after real-life General Akiyama Yoshifuru (秋山好古) of the Japanese Imperial Army. According to Wikipedia, this man is considered “the father of modern Japanese cavalry”, having led wars in Russia and China, and held war posts in Korea between the 19th and 20th Centuries. The news, which was apparently supposed to be a private tweet in June, became public through retweets, and was subsequently the subject of the first wave of backlash against the manga artist. 
One would think that his reply would be smarter (and less stinging). Instead, Isayama wrote a second related tweet (and reportedly, his blog too), which apparently read, “I believe that categorizing the Japanese soldiers who were in Korea before Korea was a country(??) as ‘Nazis’ is quite crude. Also, I do not believe that the people whose populations were increased twofold by Japan’s unification(??) of the country can be compared to people who experienced the Holocaust. This type of miscategorization is the source of misunderstanding and discrimination.” 

I’m not one to judge (I’m not Korean), and I am going to overlook the fact that such arguments about our region’s history was actually laid out on something as flimsy as Twitter. But this tweet – never mind the sweeping statements about doubling a country’s population – tells me that Isayama was either feeling particularly bold that day, or was too shocked/unnerved that he gave a rather immature answer, or just simply failed to put in enough care to thoroughly consider the repercussions of his remarks. 
Regardless of what he was thinking, his answers have already made him a prime/tragic example of Japan’s infamous “selective hearing” history curriculum. And sadly, he is not a unique case. After reading a number of articles, and talking to Japanese friends myself, the reality is that only a few are willing to accept the atrocities made at the time, and readily admit that Japan had indeed done some very horrible things. One only needs to look at the backlash Miyazaki Hayao received to know how far in denial these people are. 
Indeed, the Japanese are a proud bunch – they came out of a deep economic slump in record time and thrived for the next 10 years; many of their creations are now in our households; they are making headway in technology and entertainment – they have the right to be proud of what they do, because they really have worked their butts off to make things no less than perfect. 
But they also don’t deal with failure very well. It is a mark of shame; it is not dignifying; there is no glory in failure. That’s why one of the popular sayings in this country is “I can’t give up; I don’t know how to quit”. So naturally, when one hears about the horrors of war (and the key roles they played), it becomes painful to accept, and unfortunately gets brushed off as merely a matter of perspective.

Correcting this attitude about shame and glory isn’t just a matter of time, but also mindset and openness, with more being willing to say “I’m sorry”, and restart on a fresh, clean page. More native advocates should also be encouraged to be less fearful about the setbacks they may face from speaking out without taking sides with anyone. The rest of us could also learn to be more forgiving and hold less grudges. Human behavior and instinct may not have changed all that much, but the rest of the world has; we have international allies, supporters, and at the very least, we have all the information at the tip of our fingers to educate ourselves, one Google search away. 

So rather than boycotting SnK altogether, take it as a learning device – a reflector, if you will – of someone who is a product of his country’s mistake. I will continue to enjoy the series (I’ve already reserved a copy of the Japanese Volume 12 limited edition manga), albeit slightly more sorrowfully. 

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