Thor's Korea Diary

Japanese Influence?? Believable yet absolutely wrong

@18 January 2001
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This entry in Thor's Korea Diary comes from the pen of Jinho Choi. In two e-mails he has responded thoughtfully, and with much information to some of the points (or confusions!) that I proposed in An End to Beginnings. Other readers are also very welcome to challenge or to comment... (it would be stimulating to have a Japanese reader arguing from their perspective...)

Jinho Choi's 1st e-mail    Thor's reply to the 1st e-mail    Jinho Choi's 2nd e-mail

Jinho Choi's 1st e-mail

12 January 2001: I truly thank you for writing the Korean Diary on Pusanweb. As a Korean Canadian, I always wondered how a first-timer would think of Korea compared to rest of Asia and the world. To some extent, I think I found many answers from your essay. However, there were some interesting points you made about Japan that I don't agree with. I'm a typical Korean, aren't I?? :)

Personally, I think you put too much emphasis on historical Japanese influence on Korea. Especially, your comment on Japanese influence on Korean dialects and grammar is something that is quite the reverse in fact.

As you know, Koreans and Japanese are very closely related. Many Korean and western scholars now support the theory of the mass migration of Koreans to Japan in the 3rd century BC, where they possibly replaced or at least mingled with native Jomon people. Therefore they heavily influenced Japanese culture and its language. During the three kingdoms era (1st BC to 7th AD), Korea was divided into two powerful military states(Koguryo, Pekjae) and one little kingdom(Shilla). However, until the 6th century AD Japan was divided into more than 40 small principalities (nowadays, the united kingdom of Yamato is largely dismissed as a myth).

Rather than Japanese political exiles being sent to Korea, it was completely the reverse. It is well recorded that the Kingdoms of Korea often sent many political exiles to Japan, while Japan has no record of Korean engagement, except a for a mystic empress invading Korea and sinking the Kingdom of Shilla into the ocean, which never happened of course;(if it had ever happened, Pusan would be at the bottom of the ocean).

The origin of Japanese imperial lineage has been speculated for quite a while because of archeological findings in Japan in recent years. Royal tombs of the Japanese Kofun era(5th AD to 7th AD) which were discovered recently contained many artifacts that are similar to Korean royal symbols and objects. The tombs themselves are of Koguryo(Northern Korean/Manchurian) style, and the murals are almost a carbon-copy of their Korean counterparts. So, there you go... It's not fictional, but it's not definite either... It will take years before we find out the truth as the Japanese imperial family refuses to open anymore tombs...

I think I have complained enough... :) Anyway, I really enjoyed your Korea Diary and I look forward to more.

Jinho Choi

Thor's reply to Jinho Choi's 1st e-mail 

13 January 2001: Hello Jinho Choi, I am extremely pleased and grateful to receive your comments on Korean history. If fact, if you agree I would like to append them to the web page.

You will have picked up that I'm in serious danger of writing nonsense in the Korea Diary, which is one reason up to now that not much has appeared. Hopefully my knowledge will deepen in time -- I'm reading whatever background materials, history etc., that I can lay hands on in English (which is not a whole lot here..). My other big constraint is that at the moment I seem to meet very few Koreans in any meaningful way.

Bansong Dong is a working-class enclave, well off the main track. The students in this particular college are pleasant but very uncomplicated (most failed national university examinations I think), and their English is mostly elementary. Foreign teachers are quarantined in their own staff room, so it has been almost impossible to get past pleasant small talk with the seldom-seen Korean staff. Therefore my ideas are incubated in the myth-making environment of a small group of international teachers, very few of whom speak any useful amount of the local language, and whose notion of meeting the locals is to talk louder and louder to nobody in particular in a downtown bar... :) .

Central China was quite different. I was one of about 100 resident foreigners in a city of 7 million (we foreigners never saw each other). Because I had helped a Chinese teacher from Wuhan when she was in Australia, I had an immediate welcome into the social network of Chinese lives. That proved to be immensely rewarding for the insights it offered. No doubt the Korean experience will develop more substance over time. The saving grace of this job is that it offers lots of free time...

My point about the Pusan dialect vis a vis Japanese was poorly expressed. I am sure that you are quite right about migration, and hence language transfer, from Korea to Japan. However, given the right social conditions, linguistic influences over time are often recursive. For example, the English of North America has many features which are frozen from southern British dialects in earlier centuries (the postvocalic "r" is the clearest example). Nowadays however, the ascendancy of American culture, commerce, technology etc. means that British English is being influenced in important ways by American English.

Japan in 2001 seems to badly need another "Meiji Restoration", but it is still an economic giant. If Koreans and Japanese suddenly lost all historical memories and antagonisms (which won't happen of course), then I am sure that there would be a major daily flow of people and ideas between, say, Pusan and Fukuoka. Such human contacts always have linguistic consequences. (Of all the students I teach here, not one has ever been to Fukuoka, although it is much closer than Seoul...).

By all means continue to point out errors and differences of interpretation. Easily the most interesting people I know are those who disagree with me, and have the spirit to say so!

Best wishes, Thor

Jinho Choi's 2nd e-mail :

15 January 2001: Thanks for the reply. I'd be glad to see my mail on the webpage.

I take your point that under the right conditions linguistic influence can be recursive. However between Korea and Japan, there rarely were any "right conditions". Before the Japanese rule of Korea in the early 20th century, historically, Japanese cultural influence on Korea was minimal if not none. Until the late 19th century, the cultural transmission was almost always from Korea to Japan. Trade and commerce might have been active from both sides but the culture was mostly transmitted from Korea to Japan. This fact is well documented by both Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese.

The Choson(Josun)and Koryo dynasties consistently sent scholars for "cultural expeditions" to Japan as the Japanese imperial court was very willing to accept many aspects of Korean culture. This continued till the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592, which effectively halted the expeditions. Despite the deep wound of the invasion, 50 years later the cultural expeditions were recommenced to Japan as the diplomatic relationship between Korea and Japan was fully restored.

However, Korea never recovered from the Japanese invasion economically. Almost 80% of the houses and structures were destroyed and 1/5 of the population was killed during the war. As if the Japanese invasion was not enough, Korea was once again invaded by Jurchens(Manchurians) and Chinese within less than 50 years. After this traumatic experience inside the rather short time span of 60 years, the Korean government adopted extreme isolationism as its new policy, and this continued until the end of the 19th century. By then Korea was in an absolute shambles (Mrs. Isabella Bird Bishop's book you introduced in your Diary explains the situation very well).

In contrast to the situation in Korea, Japanese culture flourished during the 300 years of peace and the influx of western culture. In 1910, the Japanese colonial rule of Korea started, and for the first time in Korean history, Korea was greatly influenced by Japan. For 35 years, the Korean language was banned, and everything in Korean life was somehow connected to Japan. Here's where many people assume that the Korean language and its dialects were influenced by Japanese. It's believable yet absolutely wrong.

For instance, my grandmother, who lived in Pusan during the Japanese rule, speaks perfect Japanese, but also speaks the Pusan dialect of Korean, which hasn't changed much for hundreds of years. And this is the case for most Koreans who lived through the Japanese rule(though many forgot Japanese). If the colonial rule had lasted more than 3 or 4 generations, it might have had great influence on the Korean language, but 35 years of colonial rule was just not enough for the Japanese language to influence Korean linguistically.

Actually, what caused the Korean language to have 6 distinctive dialects is the history and the geography of Korea. As you know, mountainous land takes up nearly 80% of the Korean peninsula. Also, until the 7th century Korea was divided into one empire: Koguryo(North Eastern China, Manchuria, and Northern Korea), two kingdoms: Bekjae(South Western Korea), Shilla(South Eastern Korea), and two small kingdoms: Kaya(Southern tip of Korea), Tamla(Jeju island). Each of them spoke rather similar but slightly different languages.

In 668AD, Shilla united Korea, but 40 years later the Korean empire of Barhae is found on the land that used to be Koguryo. Therefore all of Korea was not actually united until the 10th century, when Barhae was conquered by Jurchens and Koryo replaced Shilla and annexed Tamla(Jeju island). So, in the 10th century Korea was really one country for the first time, and all the regions started to use a single language.

Note that before the unification, Korea used several different languages for more than 1000 years. Mountains were huge obstacles for transportation, thus creating rather different dialects of Korean in spite of the Korean peninsula's small size. You might ask why mountainous lands were so much trouble for transportation in Korea while they weren't for most countries. Initially, mountains were no problem for Korea, but after the successive invasions(Mongols, Tartars, Turks, Jurchens, Chinese, Japanese) that followed Korean unification, many of the roads were destroyed.

Walking was the only means of travel because domestic animals and horses became so expensive and rare. Without many horses and roads for transportation, carts were no longer available in Korea and naturally the economy suffered as a result.(In the 17th century, the Korean government once considered importing camels for transportation, but failed due to strong opposition)

Therefore, the conclusion is that geography played a large part in the variation of Korean dialects. And also, the political situation(e.g. different languages for different kingdoms), the economy, and outside invasions all played major roles.

I think I wrote too much. I'm afraid I might bore you if I write more now. Again, thanks for your reply.

Jinho Choi

* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"Japanese Influence?? Believable yet absolutely wrong ... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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