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  • Conversation on East Asian Civilization, Past and Present
  • Kim Uchang (bio), Karatani Kojin (bio), and Noma Hideki (bio)
    Translated by Jeon Seung-Hee (bio)

Korea was the theme country of the 20th Tokyo International Book Fair held at the Tokyo Big Sight in the Tokyo Bay Area from July 3 to July 6 in 2013. The Literature Translation Institute of Korea sponsored a variety of Korea-related events including discussions by Korean poets and novelists and various interviews and conversations between Korean and Japanese authors. One of the more popular events was Conversation on East Asian Civilization: Past and Present, where distinguished Korean literary critic Kim Uchang and renowned Japanese philosopher Karatani Kojin exchanged ideas about the development of East Asian civilization. Before the event, Karatani Kojin and Kim Uchang exchanged short essays, which would be published, to prepare for their conversation. Karatani Kojin sent his essay first and Kim Uchang responded to it. The following is a translation of their essays and a transcript of the actual conversation that took place at Tokyo Big Sight on July 3, 2013.

Karatani Kojin’s Letter to Kim Uchang

I met Prof. Kim Uchang for the first time in 1980. Since then, we’ve met a few more times for interviews and lectures sponsored by Korean literary journals. Throughout these meetings, I’ve always [End Page 165] been impressed by Prof. Kim’s knowledge of Asian civilization. While I was teaching at UCLA, Prof. Kim was teaching a seminar on Confucianism at UC Irvine. No Japanese scholars in English literature can teach Confucianism, nor can Japanese intellectuals, except for specialists in the field. I thought then, “No wonder he is considered an intellectual who represents Korea!”

In an online interview Prof. Kim criticized how quickly Koreans leap to organize demonstrations and protest rallies. After reading this interview, I realized that our situations were quite different. I have long been arguing that Japanese should start taking to the streets to demonstrate, as they almost never do. There have been some demonstrations following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster after the 3/11 earthquake, but their level and scale would have been completely different if such an event happened in Korea. From this perspective, Prof. Kim and I do not really have opposing viewpoints, despite appearances to the contrary. I believe that he would have also encouraged demonstrations if Koreans were politically inactive like we Japanese.

I think we can trace these differences between our two countries back not just to their modern histories but also to ancient times. In my book The Structure of World History, also published in Korea, I discuss empires, peripheries, and semi-peripheries. According to these categories, Korea, along with Vietnam, is a periphery to the empire (China), and Japan is a semi-periphery to the empire.

The differences between Korea and Japan became more conspicuous after the Unified Silla period in Korea and after the Heian period in Japan. Before then, there weren’t any significant differences, or if there were, they don’t stand out. During these periods Chinese civilization was carried forward in both Korea and Japan, but to very different degrees: comprehensively in Korea and superficially in Japan. Korea imported and firmly implemented the civil service system, based on the civil service examination. The idea that the legitimacy of a dynasty depended on the popular will was also firmly rooted in Korean society. [End Page 166]

Japan also imported the Chinese legal system during the Nara and Heian periods, but the civil service system never truly took root there. By contrast, it was the samurai regime that took hold of the nation and lasted until the Meiji Reformation. Also, although the Japanese monarch called himself the emperor, or tenno during the Nara period, this concept was markedly different from that of the Chinese emperor [tianzi], as the tenno’s legitimacy is determined solely by blood. This tenno system continued to exist to give authority to the real power (military regime), although the tenno himself did not have any real political power.

In Korea, whatever the reality, the idea that the people’s will is the will of Heaven was fairly prevalent. As this idea was at...


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