“I have a somewhat unique view on relations with Japan,” said author and academic Lee Young-hoon. Given his latest work, that is a masterpiece of understatement.

For the vast majority of South Koreans, the 1910-1945 colonization of their country by militarist Japan is a black-and-white story of villainy and victimhood. The darkest period in more than 2,000 years of history, it was marked by economic exploitation, cultural desecration, savage brutality, forced labor and sex slavery, they believe.

This narrative is taught in schools and reinforced in mass media and popular culture, where heroic resistance and abused victimhood are evergreen themes in the film industry.

“If I were to define anti-Japanese (feeling) it would be unconditional and absolute antagonism that does not change,” Lee told foreign reporters in Seoul last week.

However, Lee does not buy it – and has said so in his book Korea’s Anti-Japanese Tribalism. Thanks, apparently, to its incendiary viewpoint, the book, lead-authored by Lee and with five co-authors, has topped best-seller charts at South Korea’s leading bookstore chain for three weeks.

Inside its covers, Lee courts massive controversy as he takes on Korea’s vast corpus of anti-Japanese sentiment. He slams Korea’s education system and politics, argues that Imperial Japan was, while oppressive, a force for modernity in its colony, and above all, questions the conventional wisdom on forced laborers and “comfort women.”

Lee, a professor emeritus in economics at Seoul National University, the country’s leading educational institute, based his work on a series of lectures delivered late last year and early this year.

Rather than relying heavily or exclusively on personal accounts that have emerged from victims since the 1990s, he deploys a wide range of data – ranging from official colonial-era statistics to comfort women’s postal ledgers, military brothel rules and regulations and accounting books from Japanese mines.

He asserts that amicable relations with Japan would be a plus for South Korea, for regional democracy and for market economics. But at present, “a lot of antagonistic emotions toward Japan are hindering our progress,” he said.

Author Lee Young-hoon with his book, which has ignited a raging controversy in South Korea. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Dissecting tribalistic nationalism

As per his title, Lee calls into question Korean nationalism – a dynamic that floats in a deep well of anti-Japanese sentiment. Labeling such sentiment “unscientific” and “shamanistic,” the author prefers the term “tribalism” to “nationalism.”

Korea’s liberation in 1945 was not achieved by Korea itself but was a byproduct of the Allied victory, he said. Due to this historical chip on the shoulder, “Koreans are mired in a chaos of their own identity … The common idea is that there is a division between left and right – but in fact, it is an identity crisis over history and a search for our true identity.”

Lee says he was moved to write the book after an experience with his granddaughter. “One day, my granddaughter came home from kindergarten and said, ‘Japan is our enemy,’” he recalled. “So, we should take a look at what kind of education is being taught: It is teaching ‘evil.’”

At present, Seoul-Tokyo relations have reached arguably their lowest nadir since the two entered bilateral relations in 1965.

Since the early 1990s, a “history war” has been underway. Seoul raises colonial-era atrocities and demands apologies and compensation. Tokyo compensates or apologizes, but the compensation is refused and the apology derided on grounds of insincerity. The process repeats.

Even so, these ill feelings, for decades, were restricted within diplomatic and historical boundaries. But with Seoul’s leftist Moon Jae-in administration facing off against Tokyo’s rightist Shinzo Abe administration, the dispute has leapt all firewalls.

Impacts have been felt in the economic space– both nations have withdrawn preferential trade status from the other – and the military sphere – Seoul has nixed an intelligence-sharing pact that was the only military agreement linking the two Northeast Asian democracies.

Lee compares the current situation to war and its corollary, propaganda. “In war, it does not matter if a leader tells the truth or not,” he said. “That is the emotional situation we are in.”

Uncomfortable findings

Lee addressed some disinformation surrounding forced labor. For example, photographs that claim to show a Korean forced laborer that have appeared in Korean textbooks and even in giant advertising spaces in New York’s Times Square, alleging Korean victimhood, have actually been shown to depict Japanese miners, he noted.

However, in his briefing to foreign reporters, Lee focused in on the most emotive issue dividing Korea from Japan. The widespread belief in South Korea is that some 200,000 sex slaves, predominantly Korean, were kidnapped by and for the use of the Japanese armed forces.

Lee does not deny the existence of the “comfort women” system, nor that it was created for Japanese troops. He does, however, challenge virtually everything else about it, citing research into institutional and judicial records that, he claims, have been ignored by other Korean researchers.

In terms of numbers, he called 200,000 “a groundless and manufactured figure … no one has been able to prove this.” While other researchers cite numbers of 20,000-40,000, Lee has a radically lower estimate, of up to 7,000.

He believes that many women were, in fact, Japanese or Korean prostitutes laboring in brothels near Japanese military bases. When the official “comfort women” system was promulgated by Tokyo in 1937, a number of these brothels were converted to “comfort stations.”

He also disputes the “sex slave” narrative, stating that comfort women were contracted sex workers – a profession legal in the Japanese Empire. They enjoyed some freedom of movement and were paid.

“’Sex slave’ is very political terminology,” he said. “We found operational rules and regulations for comfort stations … these rules were adhered to and many women from Korea and Japan were able to save up for their lives after service.”

As for kidnappings by Japanese troops, he offered “a different notion of the recruitment process than we are accustomed to.” Lee’s research indicates that many of the comfort women were, in fact, poor peasant girls sold to civilian human traffickers.

“Parents or guardians had to sign an agreement to allow girls to work for brothels,” he said. When “pimps went to low-income and remote areas with large sums,” parents, who “could not afford three meals a day” literally sold their daughters on contracts.

As for oral accounts by aging survivors of the system, “we cannot say I did not listen, but we need to be more objective,” he said. “With witness accounts, we need to look at their representativeness in terms of the overall group: Any historian has to be a bit skeptical about human accounts – you cannot be sure of them, and they change.”

Even so, he conceded that the system’s “crude face of humanity” could be a truly beastly process. “Women cried and tried to defy this, and some were beaten and dragged by the pimps,” he said. “But some went willingly to get out of poverty. This is the reality.”

A perilous path

The book’s reception has been largely positive he said. “I believe many Koreans are taking this as a positive sign – a new perspective on history, a new interpretation, a new Galileo or Copernicus,” Lee said. “However, a lot of social and political forces have been coming together and slowly criticizing the book.”

Still, it is a risky path he is walking. South Korea has powerful defamation laws which have already been deployed: academics have been fined and even sentenced to jail for questioning the “comfort women” narrative.

The Korea Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, an NGO that advocates for comfort women, is mulling a response. “We are discussing on how we would deal with Lee Young-hoon’s book,” Kim Hae-sel, a staffer at the group, told Asia Times.

But not all are so measured in their opposition. Lee has been assaulted, been accused of using “violence of words” and been compared to a Holocaust denier. His literary charge has been met with cannonades from both political and media circles.

Cho Kuk, Korea’s controversial, newly appointed Justice Minister – now the most high-profile figure in the Moon administration – coined the most emotive terms possible to attack those who supported the book: “I do not know what to call the scholars, who openly make these claims, and some politicians and journalists, who support the claims, anything else than pro-Japanese collaborators,” he wrote on social media.

Lee’s book “… shows views based on distorted history are becoming more familiar to the public in the name of alternative historical perspectives,” The Korea Times thundered in an editorial. “We need to take stern action against this because they were created only to serve the needs of unrepentant Japanese politicians and right-wing groups.”

The newspaper also said Lee belonged to an economic institution that has received funds from a foundation affiliated with Japan’s Toyota.

Some media refuse even to countenance Lee’s research.

“There is no need to debate the facts concerning the details of a book or statements representing Japan, not to mention the eyes of the far right … we need to tell them and make them fear how their ‘pro-Japanese acts’ that know no shame will go down in history,” the left-leaning Kyunghyang Shinmun editorialized, accusing one of Lee’s co-authors of being in league with Japan’s far right.

But Lee is not backing down. “Most of the criticism was emotional,” he said. “There has yet to be any serious academic criticism.”