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The Making of "Anti-American" Sentiment in Korea and Japan

Katharine H.S. Moon, Asian Policy Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center and the George Washington University; Sheila Smith, research fellow, East-West Center; Peter Brookes, director, Heritage Foundation Asian Studies Center.

Date & Time

May. 6, 2003
3:00pm – 5:00pm ET

The Making of "Anti-American" Sentiment in Korea and Japan

Anti-American sentiment around the world, or at least anxiety about American strength and intentions, seems more prevalent today than at any time in memory. Given their assumptions about the benign nature of American power and the lofty character of U.S. intentions, many Americans find this fact not only distressing but inexplicable. On May 6, the Asia Program, in partnership with the Washington office of the East-West Center, hosted an afternoon seminar designed to foster a better understanding of anti-Americanism in two key U.S. allies, South Korea and Japan.

Katharine Moon suggested that anti-American feeling in South Korea, reflected for example in the widespread demonstrations that rocked Korea last year, be viewed through three separate mental constructs: memory/history, nation/nationalism, and democracy. In each case, manifestations of anti-Americanism can best be understood as reflecting longer term trends and developments within Korean society -- such as the increased cosmopolitanism of a new generation of Koreans, the growth of civil society in Korea, and the introduction into the political process of heretofore marginalized groups. Moreover, Korean anti-Americanism also represents the collective venting of accumulated grievances that in many instances have lain hidden for decades. Nonetheless, for all the very public demonstrations of anger toward the United States, Moon declared, the majority of Koreans of all age groups supports the continuation of the American alliance.

Turning toward Japan, Sheila Smith argued that Japanese anti-Americanism today must be seen in terms of a broader debate in Japan about the institutions and practices that emerged in (and were imposed on) Japan in the wake of its defeat in World War II. In this sense, the new questioning about ties with the United States reflects Japan’s maturation, and must be deemed a healthy development. Like Moon, Smith stated that the central issue revolves not so much on whether to retain an old alliance, but instead on how to modernize that alliance so as to align it more closely with Asian societies that have evolved dramatically since the two alliances were created half a century ago.

In a brief commentary on the Moon and Smith presentations, Peter Brookes, formerly deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian affairs, reminded the audience that American servicemen and women in Korea and Japan serve there at considerable personal sacrifice. Those who complain about the noise emanating from U.S. airbases in these two countries, Brookes asserted (echoing a bumper sticker popular on American airbases), forget that this deafening din is quite literally “the sound of freedom.” These alliance partnerships have kept the peace in Asia for 50 years, Brookes added; this is hardly an insignificant achievement.

The afternoon’s discussion served to underscore the notion that the growth of anti-American sentiment in both Japan and South Korea must be seen not simply as a response to American policies and actions, but as reflective of deeper domestic trends and developments within these Asian countries. Or to put it another way: even at this moment of U.S. preeminence, not everything that happens around the world is a response to American might, or to decisions taken in Washington. While this should not constitute a momentous discovery, Americans all too frequently seem to lose sight of this basic reality.

Robert M. Hathaway, director, Asia Program
(202) 691-4020


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The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

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