In recent months, Japan-South Korea relations seems to have hit rock bottom. The expelling of one another from their list of approved export destinations, played out within a complex confluence of historical grievances – especially over the phase of Japanese colonial rule – is a telling example. With less than a year to go before Tokyo hosts the 2020 Summer Olympics, these diplomatic skirmishes broached upon the usage of the rising sun “war crime flags” at game venues. South Korea’s request for their banning fell on deaf ears.
Amidst the bickering between the governments, last September, one HUFSan who was residing in Poland for internship came under the spotlight, when he mailed Polish fruit juice maker Hortex to remove the rising sun symbol from their Japanese-themed juice packaging, which actually halted its production. The Argus grabbed a chance to chat with this man-of-the-hour, Jo Jung-hee, Dept. of Polish ‘14, out of curiosity over who this determined, brave-hearted young man is.
The Argus: You have recently filed an online complaint against Hortex. Can you tell us what drove you to take action?
Jo Jung-hee (Jo): It was last August, when I was about to return to Korea, nearing the end of my six months of internship at the Korean Cultural Center in Warsaw, Poland. My Polish friend Kasjan Nowakowski, who majors in Korean studies at the University of Warsaw, sent me a photo of an exotic multi-fruit drink from Hortex, a well-recognized brand among Poles. It was called, “Japan 1L,” and its package was designed with a rising sun banner motif - a sunburst with 16 rays. It was one of the innovative drinks this brand promoting. It offered distinct flavors commonly available in particular holiday destinations, such as Brazil, Los Angeles, Madagascar, and Japan.
Regarding the design of the Japanese-motif drink, Kasjan said, “Should this not be pointed out? Let’s file a complaint.” As a Korean student who is majoring in Polish, and as a member of an institution that belongs to the Korean Embassy in Poland, it seemed like my destined task to get things right before I return to my homeland.
The Argus: Wow, impressive! Your answer makes us curious about what may have gotten Kasjan to contact you.
Jo: Probably, it is because I previously raised issues over the rising sun symbol in some of my SNS posts. It had happened about a month before he reached out to me: One of the locals came to our center to take a Korean language course, and he was wearing a t-shirt that had the rising sun. I was used to it, recalling my first time in Poland when I was greeted with “Konnichiwa.” To my dismay, however, many Poles were not even considering the chance that Korea has its own language, which means their actions come from ignorance. On top of all that, they just loved the color and composition of this very symbol, as it brings up the image of their respected Polish flag, made up of two horizontal stripes of white over red. The colors were defined in the constitution of the nation, as the white is said to represent the hope and peace of their people, while the red symbolizes the independence Poles regained through centuries of bloodshed.
It was unfortunate to face the rising sun issue yet to be cropped up as a bone of contention within Poland, a helpless victim of World War Ⅱ just like Korea. I realized the need to educate the Polish people on this certain matter. This led to my first attempt to explain about the rising sun naval flag and what it entails.
The Argus: You succeeded in getting an affirmative response from the Hortex Company. Can you tell us how you organized your mail in detail?
Jo: I asked Hortex to commiserate with the tragedies our ancestors have gone through during the Japanese military aggression in World War II. From the comfort women, the corps of sex slaves under Japanese colonial rule here, to Unit 731, which specialized in barbarous live experiments on humans. Japan used the rising sun flag from 1870 until the end of World War Ⅱ, together with Nazi Germany as a part of the Axis, then re-adopted in June 1954. The flag is still in use today by Japan’s Ground and Maritime Self-Defense Forces. Nowadays, the escalating row between Korea and Japan is nothing new, especially on the diverging interpretations of history. Indeed, the juice package design had to be changed, and I suggested Hortex of another banner, with no negative connotation like the Hinomaru flag – a red disc on a white background - that was legally made the national flag of Japan in 1999.
I believed that Poles know exactly how it feels to be the target of another country’s imperial ambitions. They suffered over one hundred years of servitude, the bloody suppression of national insurrections, perpetrated by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Moreover, Nazi atrocities were committed on Polish soil in World War Ⅱ, including the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. To add to this, Poland also is claiming for additional compensation from Germany for World War Ⅱ, though many think Germany has already paid its reparations years ago. I described how millions of Asian people are still tapped into the well of historical pain and animosity, and emphasized that the rising sun stirs up the same degree of feeling that Nazi swastika does in Poland. I questioned them, “How would it be if Korean companies sold drinks that have swastikas drawn on them? Can you even imagine the Hakenkreuz, the symbol of the Nazis, proudly fluttering from ships’ masts and held aloft in city streets at patriotic events?”
The Argus: What were the difficulties in the process?
Jo: There was no response to my mail in the first place. My friends and I awaited the reply for almost about a month. By this time, I was in Korea, I was ignored, and I did feel a little off. I had to choose to take my complaint online, so I wrote another letter on one of my SNS accounts to ask others to join in this protest with me. Surprisingly, fellow Poles gathered, and started to share the post. It spread quickly. “As a Pole,” they said. “We are ashamed that a large Polish company like Hortex has been ignorantly using the hate symbol that is indelibly linked with the greatest genocide in the history of mankind. We will send mails to the Hortex Company as well.”
Eventually, Dawid Borowiec, the vice president of the Board at the Hortex Group, responded, “We found out that the package designers were not aware of how the presented form of colors could give the growing sense of aggrievement to the general population. Our company will immediately stop the production of “Japan 1L,” and hope you will accept our sincere apologies for the inconvenience. We will continue to be committed to providing you and all of our customers with the highest standards of service in the industry.”
The Argus: What about the domestic opposition you had to face? Is there any genuine message you want to share with the opposites?
Jo: [Laugh] “A Hikicomori-soap dodger-lunatic that is Anti-Japanese,” that was me. Well, people tend to pay more attention to what happens in their neck of the woods. Some net-users objected saying that the direct comparison of rising sun naval flag with the Nazi swastika was overdoing it. They said that flags used by the military are domestic decisions and pointed out that other countries do not normally raise objections. It is true that while the swastika was created to symbolize Nazi propaganda, the rising sun flag was used before Japan went into war, holding celebratory meaning.
However, my deeds were not some kind of patriotic glow that anybody may cherish in their breast, but a hope to restore my faith in humanity through those who can share the sense of human solidarity upon the sacredness of fundamental human rights, built on upon the sacrifices laid on the battlefield. If there are any other emblems that draw a bitter legacy of their past, it also should be withdrawn from being used. I believe that Japan should correctly communicate its views to the world, and provide a gentle environment as the host country of the next Olympics.
The Argus: We heard that the key to your success was the language you used to write your mail, Polish! You are one proud colleague to us HUFSans. We believe there must be a story behind why you decided to learn such a rare language.
Jo: Since I was little, I had a keen interest in international relations. My parents were a paycheck-to-paycheck working couple, and I whiled away the tedious hours without them reading the world flag encyclopedia. I guess it was from then on that I began to wonder what kind of varying group identity these visual representations carry. I inevitably came to identify the vast discrepancies between the nations and got interested in the European Union (EU) — a geopolitical entity formed to ensure long term peace after World War Ⅱ. Its sustainable vision of international order based on the alliances with like-minded states captivated me. Admittedly, a future related to Europe quickly became a dream, and I eventually considered learning one or more major European languages.
At first, I decided to major French in college. France is one of the older Western European Nations in the EU, and French, to me, is an undeniable viable alternative – second – in the race to become the lingua franca, other than English. But why Polish? One day, listening to a lecture on world history, I happened to have a world map spread on my desk. As if fate had guided me, my gaze was drawn to the Eastern part of the European continent. On second thought, I realized that our current understanding of Eastern Europe is shaped by the Cold War and marked as nations not as “civilized” as the center of enlightened civilization.
The new entrants to the EU that were from the Eastern parts, including Poland, actually did struggle to shed the tag of “the other Europe,” and even I have engaged the Western European countries such as France and England to be the heart of Europe. Above all, I got interested in Poland in particular, because the country looked strikingly similar to Korea. From their unified entity that was strengthened by fending off numerous invasions and authoritarian regimes, to the fast, dynamic development that happened in such discursive spaces. Consequently, I got to know that HUFS is one of the three universities that teach Polish in East Asia, including Beijing Foreign Studies University and Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. I thought it would be cool to do something different from others! I guess that confidence got me to come this far. Who would have thought I would be sitting in front of The Argus as an interviewee?
The Argus: Wow! What other challenges do you see yourself facing similar to this experience?
Jo: I have always thought that the notions of frontiers, limits, edges, and boundaries — the symbolic space that sets limits and creates an artificial divide between “us” and “them”— matter much in life. Especially, when we debate on where to draw the line when teaching the most difficult chapters of the history, as this Hortex case does. Historically, those lines have aroused all the conflicts human race had to suffer, and eventually turned them into full-blown wars. I want to contribute to blur this distinction that disturbs peace between people, environment and even nations. That may be applied to Japan-South Korea, Poland-South Korea relations, the East-West divide of Europe and even the South-North divide of Korean Peninsula!
Looking back at my childhood, “border” was something very grave. It was truly a complex issue to me. I grew up watching the second inter-Korean summit between President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. In the televised image of the meeting, as President Roh took the symbolic step to cross the military demarcation line, he said: “This line is the wall that has left our nation divided for half a century. Because of this wall, our nation has suffered so much pain.” Such heavy tensions held words like “pressure,” “sanctions,” and “Cold War.” Even when I served as a security guard in the military, nothing was different. I was told to keep people out from things that may be beyond the borders, and fortify our community.
Then one day, I happened to travel across one of the intra –EU borders at the Schengen area, between Poland and Slovakia. At some point, I unknowingly and nonchalantly cycled over the border. It was only when I got to a village and saw the road signs all in different language that I realized what I have done. This was the result of the Schengen Agreement, a treaty that abolishes internal border checks along 28 EU countries. Millions of people come in from outside the area, all entirely legal and delightful. It was as if my whole life changed in an instant. I started to dream of another Schengen agreement, here in Korean peninsula.
In recent times, the current North Korean leader for the first time in 65 years stepped foot into the South and restarted talks on denuclearization. You may be surprised, but Poland is one of the few countries that maintain diplomatic and limited trading relations with North Korea. Perhaps, Poland may work as a vital strategic foothold in the reunification of the two Koreas. I hope my Polish can one day somehow contribute to the development of their future relationships. Let’s meet the world, HUFSans!
During the interview, Jo emphasized that he is just an ordinary HUFSan that typically sits alone at lunch and takes class alone like many others. He chuckled to himself when The Argus asked, “Are you not already a star on campus?” Jo replied, “You may be surprised, but not at all. Actually, what I did was not a big deal. I just did what anyone would do. You might think the difference you can make is insignificant. But, hey, if I can do it, you can too.” As he shared his favorite quote from the book “Misaeng: The Incomplete,” Jo added that in the long journey we call life, it is completely up to us to pave our own ways.
: Looking ahead, there seems to be a long way to go. You may take pride of how far you have come, or may be disheartened of having gone too far to go backwards. Anyhow, we have no idea of what we are walking into until we reach the end of the road. What saves the man is to take a step, then another step. It may be the same step, but that is the fate of those that stand on the road.
By Kwak Hyun-jeong Associate Editor of Theory & Critique Section