Disparity Studies

In my discussion of the job market I said “I only saw two Korea positions, which seems about par for previous years: at some point, though, Korea positions should catch up with Japan ones.” Morgan Pitelka took exception, noting (correctly) that

Other than UCLA, which continues to have one of the most productive Korean studies programs outside of Korea, and perhaps Harvard and Columbia, how many grad schools are cranking out Korean studies PhDs? I also know of only a handful of liberal arts colleges with any substantial Korean studies, and rarely language. Very few regional/MA-granting universities have substantial Korean studies. Almost all have some Japanese studies. Also, as far as I know, few colleges or universities DON’T have access to study abroad in Japan. On the other hand, most colleges and universities don’t have study abroad options in Korea.

He’s absolutely right, of course: Korean studies doesn’t have the infrastructure Japanese studies does in the US1 and that means that — like the painfully slow growth of MidEast studies and Islamic history after 9/11 — it will take real time and effort to build. But that’s a symptom, I think, not the root of the issue. As I said, “Korean history is no less interesting than Japanese history, and the US is no less involved in Korean affairs than it is in Japanese affairs.”

Another commenter, “Overthinker” offered a cultural explanation:

There seem to be three fundamental reasons why Japanese Studies is “bigger” than Korean. One is that WW2 was more significant that the Korean War, and has given us longer-lasting imagery; household words like Pearl Harbour and Hiroshima that everyone knows about, whereas to most people the Korean War is basically Klinger in a dress. Second is the dominance of Japanese products in the marketplace: while LG and Samsung etc are strong players, they have not yet achieved the dominance of Toyota, Sony, and Nintendo. Third is the generally “cooler” images of Japan. Think of Korea, and most Americans would be hard-pressed to think beyond the aforementioned M*A*S*H and perhaps Kim Il Jung singing “I’m so ronery”. Mention Japan and people think of samurai and geisha and ninja, plus robots and giant rubber monsters stomping Tokyo on a regular basis. All these three factors would seem to indicate a greater interest in Japan at the BA level, which translates to bigger graduate programs, and more PhDs in the area. To become bigger, Korea needs to become more popular – more people at the undergrad level need to be curious about the place.

This is closer, I think: I definitely agree that Japan’s lead in economic and cultural production is a part of the puzzle. The relationship between pop culture images and student demand is not always straightforward, but it is true that there is more Japanalia in American culture than Koreania2 and more interest in the cultural roots of its economic success3 because that success was so striking in the 80s.

But, as I’ve said before, “there’s no question that a historian can’t complicate by talking about what led up to it” and I think the key to this puzzle is earlier. Much earlier: I think it starts in 1853.

Japan is opened up to foreign intercourse twenty years before Korea, and is more strategically important, in the age of sea power. As a result, there are more foreigners in Japan earlier, and Japan, along with China, becomes a critical touchstone in the understanding of “the Orient.” The Meiji Restoration helps, too: as China was descending into chaos and Korea was still keeping the doors closed, Japan embarked on its great modern project, whch got a lot of attention from the West and brought a lot of Western scholars to Japan. From that point forward, there will be continual growth in Japanese studies, much of it facilitated by the Japanese government.4 Korea, geographically, isn’t as important to the sea power-sensitive great powers, and so Western Korean studies was largely the province of missionaries who were largely uninterested in transmitting Korean culture or history to the West. Within a decade of Korea’s “opening” it was clear that Japan and China would be the dominant powers there, and by the early 1900s Western powers were formally acknowledging Japan’s “special interests” in Korea. None of this is news, but the lack of substantial progress in Korean studies has to be linked to the its irrelevance to Western interests. By 1910, of course, Korea was part of the Japanese Empire, and Japan then spent the better part of the next thirty-five years trying to obscure the existence of Korean culture and heritage, while promoting Japanese culture and heritage to the hilt, and Western interest largely followed that lead. With the rise of Japanese militarism in the 1930s and 40s, in particular, the strategic interest in Japanese studies grew, while Korea, as a colony of Japan, was roughly coequal with Taiwan (and secondary to Manchuria) in US interest.

Though WWII was a vicious experience on all sides, Americans had fairly positive experiences once they actually got to Japan in the post-war period5, while very few Americans were in Korea until the breakout of the Korean War, and then their experiences were, predictably, fairly negative, not the kind of thing to promote deeper interests in tradition, history and culture (such as was left, after Japan’s cultural obliteration). The first generation of GI Bill Japan scholars was getting their Ph.D.s and settling into the GI Bill-expanded American academy while the Korean war was still an open wound, and while South Korea was going through its post-war recovery6 Japan was experiencing the “Miracle” economy and attracting all kinds of economic and sociological attention. Japan’s exports — kitsch, cars, steel and sushi — were strong in the 1970s, despite the economic slowdown, and Japan’s democratic government — one-party, but still with elections and changing PMs and student movements — was considerably more familiar and friendly than either of the Korean systems. Japan was also, once again, putting considerable money into cultural promotion, with the Japan Foundation established in the early 70s.7

By the 1980s, the Japan Boom was in full swing — backlash and all — and South Korea was just starting to become known as a source for very small cars and cheap electronics. Only in the 90s could Korea’s economic and political situation begin to attract wider attention, and scholars — some with personal experience, some looking at Asia with an eye to the gaps in the scholarship — began to look at Korean questions in more substantial numbers.

I’m not going to try to predict the future, but it seems to me that Korean studies is roughly where Japanese studies was in the 70s, though with, perhaps, the added challenge of having strongly established China and Japan studies programs in place already. There’s a lot of room for expansion, still, and if Korean studies starts to get traction, it could claim a lot of that new territory.8 As I said when I joined this blog, I think a lot of progress in Japanese historiography is going to depend on progress in Korean historiography, and that won’t come unless there are more Korean historians.


  1. or anywhere in the West, I think, but I’m just going to go with what I know  

  2. No, I don’t know that “Koreania” is a word: would “Koreanalia” be closer?  

  3. I just had a discussion with my World History students about Musashi’s Book of Five Rings….  

  4. bringing foreign scholars to Japan, sending Japanese students to the West, promoting Japanese accomplishments through friendly journalists, reviving and revising traditional culture for modern/foreign consumption, etc.  

  5. nothing like being occupiers in a country which has actually surrendered, eh?  

  6. and North Korea was becoming a model Stalinist state, another factor against an interest in Korean traditions or history, instead making North Korean studies part of the general body of Cold War political science  

  7. They paid for my research. Yours? I’m not saying that scholarship on Japan is “bought and paid for” but that the Japanese government (and a few NGOs as well) has done a remarkable job at facilitating any and all who are interested in Japan to pursue those interests.  

  8. China’s going to continue to be the 600-lb gorilla, of course, but that’s a whole other set of discussions  


  1. Thanks for the thoughtful opinion. The issue is very complicated indeed. As a Korean graduate student who is tudying Chinese history in the US (please excuse my English!), I would like to add a very simple fact that the current status of Korean studies in Koreakeeps foreigners from an easy access to its complex and rich history. Let me take some examples. For those of you who study Chinese or Japanese history, Hanyu da cidian/Dai kanwa jiten/Nihon gokugo dai jiten (a Japanese OED) must be all too familiar. But there is no Korean equivalent to Hanyu da cidian or Nihon gokogo dai jiten. (Well, Dankook university has been compiling a multiple volume Classical Chinese-Korean dictionary. But that is essentially a Korean tranlation of all the entries in Hanyu da cidian AND Dai kanwa jiten) Almost all Korean books written in classical Chinese before the 20th century are only available in photocopy forms of the original woodblock printing. Although simple punctuations are provided for lots of literary collections (moonjip or wenji in Chinese) from the Chosun dynasty, there is no comparison to the quality of collation and detailed punctuation so easily available in Chinese and Japanese texts. Of course, many of literary collections of Chosun authors as well as the Veritalbe Records of the Chosun Dynasty have been translated into “modern” Korean by the collecctive efforts of many low-paid, hard working researchers. But their Korean translation is anything but modern. Neither classical Chinese nor modern Korean, it may require foreign researhers a special training to read these translations.

    Given this kind of weak foundation, it is rather miraculous that Korean scholars have produced some extremely fine historical works. But it seems very unlikely to me that the future of Korean studies, especially history and literature of “traditional” Korea, will continue to thrive, whether home or abroad, on this same foundation.

  2. That is interesting, and while it wouldn’t stop serious scholars (any serious scholar of Chinese or Japanese history should be able to read original texts from their period of speciality) it does raise the entry barrier somewhat higher. What would be the reason for this lack of typeset collections? I can think of a few possibilities (eg 1910-45 occupation, postwar nation-building issues, Korean War issues that might affect the development of historical scholarship), but would be interested to hear what people who might actually know have to suggest.

  3. Sorry, but as for the person who commented that UCLA was the only real serious Korean Studies Dept. in the US, I strongly beg to differ. The 2 strongest programs by far are Harvard and the University of Washington, with Washington coming a very close second to Harvard. Sorry, but UCLA is a distant 3rd at best. Not only does UW have the oldest Korean Studies dept. in the country, it also has one of the oldest language programs. The overwhelming majority of Korean history PhDs have come out of UW in the last 2 decades, all of whom studied under Dr. Jim Palais, considered the top Korean historian in the West, and perhaps even in the world. His “Palais Mafia” of PhD students teach Korean history across the US and Korea. The Korean Studies dept. at UW was also recently awarded a huge grant from the Korean gov. (with no strings attached as far scholarship goes), beating out Harvard, Oxford, UC Berkely, and yes, UCLA. UCLA has a good language program and a decent history program, but that is it. When I talked to my professors about pursuing my PhD in pol sci (with a research focus on Korea and Northeast Asia) none of them recommended UCLA if you want to study Korea. Go UW!!

    Neil Choudhury
    Univ. of Washington MA 2007
    Korean Studies

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