Koreans shun Japanese products as disputes grow
A widespread anti-Japan boycott has gained ground in South Korea since Tokyo, on July 1, tightened its control of exports of three chemicals used to manufacture semiconductors and display screens – key export items for South Korea.
The boycott could worsen as Japan is expected to expand its export curbs to other materials as early as today, Friday, by removing South Korea from a list of countries granted preferential trade status.
South Korea accuses Japan of retaliating over local court rulings last year that ordered two Japanese companies to pay compensation to former Korean employees for forced labour during Tokyo’s 1910-45 colonisation of the Korean Peninsula. Japan has denied that, saying its action was taken out of national security concerns.
Some question whether the boycott, mostly targeting consumer goods, can really hurt the Japanese economy, as a majority of Japanese imports are parts and materials used in TVs, smartphones, semiconductors and other electronic products that South Korea exports. They worry the boycott could only aggravate the animosities, as it may trigger a backlash from Japan.
But others say the campaign exposes the bitter resentments many South Koreans still harbour against their former colonial master. A recent survey suggested that 80 per cent of South Koreans are reluctant to buy Japanese products.
Angry South Koreans have taken to Instagram and other social media, posting videos on their cancelled Japan-bound plane tickets, sharing information on which Japanese companies operate in South Korea, and expressing their support for the boycott.
There have been some consequences.
HanaTour, the largest travel company in South Korea, said a daily number of reservations for Japan trips has dropped to about 400-500 from 1,000-1,200 late last month. Other tour agencies have reported similar or lower booking figures for Japan tours.
Last year, about 7.5 million South Koreans visited Japan, making it the most popular destination. The state-run Korea Tourism Organization said it has no data on how many South Koreans travelled to Japan this month.
At hypermarkets and 24-hour convenience stores, the sales of Japanese beer have nosedived. Beer is the most popular among Japanese products. For example, at E-mart, the largest retailer in South Korea, the sales of Japanese beer from July 1-24 declined by about 38 per cent from a month ago. Tens of thousands of small supermarkets and convenience stores across South Korea have stopped selling Japanese beer and other products altogether.
Customs officials said the imports of Japanese cars from July 1-20 was estimated at about US$46 million – a 32 per cent decrease from the same period last year. Fast Retailing Co, which operates Uniqlo, was forced to apologise last week after inviting criticism in South Korea over the remarks by one of its executives that the boycott won’t last long.
“Even without Japanese products, there are still lots of things to sell and customers aren’t actually looking for Japanese products,” said Dan Kil-su, owner of Seoul’s Heemang supermarket who removed all Japanese products from its shelves on July 5.
One of the store’s regulars, Chon Jong Lee, supported Dan’s action. “I think I originally have stronger anti-Japanese sentiments than other people. I have really a bad feeling toward them,” Chon said.
Past anti-Japanese boycotts didn’t last long, but some say Japan’s expected new export limits could amplify the crisis.
“The boycott isn’t helpful in resolving the conflicts, though some may feel cool by venting their anger at (Japanese companies),” said analyst Lee Sangho at the Seoul-based private Korea Economic Research Institute. “If public sentiments (in both countries) get worse, we may see a situation that spirals out of control.”
There have been anti-Japanese rallies in South Korea over the Japanese trade curbs, but none has yet turned violent. Two men in their 70s have set themselves on fire in an apparent protest against Japan. One died and the other, who set himself ablaze on Thursday, remained in critical condition.
Lee Myon-woo at the private Sejong Institute near Seoul said the boycott will likely have a limited effect on the Japanese-economy. He also said that the lower number of South Korean tourists to Japan will likely be compensated by Chinese and other foreign visitors.
Some worry that the boycott will eventually undermine the South Korean economy, because a withdrawal of Japanese companies would lead to their South Korean employees losing their jobs, while a fewer number of tourists would incur losses for South Korean tour agencies.
Ahn Kyung-su, a researcher in Seoul who plans to visit Tokyo this weekend for his summer vacation, called the boycott “anachronistic” and illogical. “Our TV stations mostly use Japanese-made cameras. So do we have to stop watching their programmes?” Ahn asked.
Japan hasn’t yet reported a similar eruption of anti-South Korean sentiments. K-pop superstars BTS’ four concerts in Japan this month reportedly drew a total of 210,000 spectators.
At Shin-Okubo, a major Korea Town in downtown Tokyo, business was as usual this week, with many Japanese looking for K-pop music, Korean food, cosmetics and other merchandise.
Misaki Toguchi, a 14-year-old junior high-school student from Saitama, north of Tokyo, said her devotion to BTS and K-pop is unshakable despite the news of the disputes. “There is absolutely no change, I still really like Korea,” Toguchi said.
“These (disputes) are something that only top officials in the government are doing. I don’t think there is any impact on ordinary people like us,” said Keiko Katsumata, a part-time worker who was in Korea Town with her friend.
The two countries are closely linked to each other culturally. Many South Koreans like dining at Japanese restaurants, watching Japanese animation films and travelling to small towns in Japan.