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By Heup Choi

Heir apparel

The prime minister’s samurai pose spooks Korea

On New Year’s Day, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made his annual visit to Yasukuni Shrine. Just as it does every year, the incident created a diplomatic row between Japan, Korea and China. Instead of arguing about whether his visit was right or wrong, however, I would like to examine one of the episode’s neglected aspects.

In years past, whenever Koizumi visited Yasukuni Shrine, he wore a swallow-tailed coat. This year, though, he showed up in the traditional Japanese formal attire known as haori and hakama. Korean newspaper editors seethed when they saw these clothes, and harsh words flew back and forth. “This is provocation against Korea and China,” they said.

Heup Choi is the Tokyo correspondent for the Korean-language Chosun Ilbo newspaper.

In Korea, to wear the traditional national costume known as chima chogori means to show a kind of determination. The implicit message is, “Normal people put on a suit, but I’m a patriot who loves my country. So I’ll wear the national costume rather than foreign-made clothes.” That’s why the only people who wear this attire in public are well-known Korean nationalists. What’s more, the haori and hakama are what samurai wear in movies. Korea and China, two countries leery of the reemergence of Japanese militarization, felt that in donning these clothes, Koizumi armed himself with the samurai spirit and made a war-like statement.

Korean journalists in Japan were no exception, because they firmly believe that the haori and hakama bespeak nationalism in the same way the chima chogori does. In reporting Koizumi’s visit, the Japanese media said that “officials emphasize that there were no political undertones to his visit, instead characterizing it as a traditional rite of worship.” But almost none of my colleagues took that statement seriously.

I told them, “The press says that Koizumi wore the haori and hakama because he wanted to make sure that his visit was a personal one, not an official act.”

My fellow journalists scoffed. “No way. The Japanese media deceive us with their lies.”

“Japanese nationalism is not warlike,” I said. “You shouldn’t judge this incident using Korean standards. Haori and hakama, unlike chima chogori, are not symbols that exclusively express an offensive kind of nationalism.”

“That’s bull. In movies, it’s the people who have ‘Japanese spirit’ who wear those clothes. The characters wearing attire that ‘looks like a kimono’ and carrying large swords are the samurai, and samurai are fundamentally warriors, aren’t they? Plus, traditional costumes serve as symbols of nationalism everywhere. And what do you mean, ‘Japanese nationalism is less warlike than Korean’? If Japan was a country that had a weak nationalistic spirit, Koizumi wouldn’t visit Yasukuni Shrine in the first place. It can only be seen as an assertion of militarism.”

After this exchange, one of my colleagues wrote an article supportive of Koizumi’s non-nationalist motives. However, the next day, a picture of the prime minister in his haori and hakama took up a full quarter page in our newspaper. The headline read “Memories of Militant Nation,” which was a play on the title of a popular Korean movie, Memories of Murder. But even without this explicit label, I think Korean people would have felt a chill because the image of traditional dress has such a strong impact in Korea. In the photograph, Prime Minister Koizumi was the spitting image of a movie samurai.

Interestingly, the issue of clothing also created a minor incident between Japan and China a few years ago. President Jiang Zemin, while visiting here in November 1998, wore traditional Chinese garments to a dinner party attended by the emperor. Some Japanese weeklies opined that it was impolite to wear such clothes to a function presided over by the emperor. The chief cabinet secretary at the time, Yasuo Fukuda, refuted this claim, saying, “Jiang’s garments are official dress in China and not a breach of courtesy. The media deliberately distorted public opinion.” Fukuda also suggested Jiang did well to wear traditional Chinese dress for such a sober occasion. It seems that in China, too, traditional clothing is used to express resolution.

It’s my belief that the prime minister’s wearing of the haori and hakama was a tacit peace message that said, “I want to avoid making relations with your country worse because of my visit.” At least I want to believe so. But the Korean people read it as a strongly provocative action.

Nowadays, miscommunication between different cultures occurs pretty frequently. That’s why it’s important for countries and people to make a serious effort to understand each other. Korean, Japanese and Chinese—I had thought that, even though we may not be the same, we are pretty similar. But this incident reminds me that even though we might think we comprehend each other, we sometimes don’t understand at all.


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