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. hi, i thought folks interested in the job market in asian history might find useful the following page on the academic careers wiki:


    the state of the market in language/literature/culture might also be relevant:


    please circulate the links!

  2. Well, the Japanese Government, or at least the Mombusho, paid for a good deal of my own schooling, and funded my postdoc as well, but I certainly wouldn’t say my work was “bought and paid for” in the academic freedom sense. Of course there is the chance that they wouldn’t have funded it if they didn’t agree with it, but I can’t claim that.

    As I see it, your outline here is essentially the reasons for the more immediate lack of knowledge/attention I mentioned in my post. Why isn’t Korea more popular? Lack of interest. Why the lack of interest? The reasons given here. The “why” of anything tends to boil down to how it got there – its history – but this doesn’t seem to offer an solution. Korea cannot change its history (revisionists etc aside), but it can change its global branding. So that is where it has to work at. Hence the focus of my earlier post.

    Leaving aside the issues you raised, I wonder how Korea was seen by the Great Powers in the short time between when it was cracked open and assimilated into the Japanese Empire. I haven’t done any work on Korean history myself, but don’t recall reading much about it even in the “Travels in the Orient” or “The Orient Explained” books that were popular at the time (and now!), at least the ones that I have read. However, and this is just a hypothesis, could there have been an idea that Korea was essentially a vassal state of Qing, and thus not truly an independent nation? And therefore not really “worthy” of much attention – about the same as Mongolia or somewhere.

    It would be an interesting exercise to compare the evolution of the syllabi of Japan, Korea, and China in a major Western university over the past century.

  3. Overthinker: I’m not really disagreeing with you, but trying to put a stronger historical context behind it: in particular, the colonial/wartime era’s effects. Given the increasing popularity of Korean food in the US — much of which was piggybacked on Japanese restaurants — the “branding” may be further along than either of us credit.

    On the historiography of China, you might like Paul Cohen’s Discovering History in China: American Historical Writing on the Recent Chinese Past (1986, Columbia University Press) though it doesn’t cover pedagogy.

  4. It would be interesting to see just how far branding has come. Since I neither live in the US, or study Korea, I have absolutely no idea. I do know that it’s big in Japan in certain areas – my local video chain still has large sections devoted to Korean dramas and films, despite those who say the boom is over.

    Dr Dresner likens it to the state of Japanalia in the 1970s, but even back then the Japan Brand even at its most basic of geisha and ninja and stuff was pretty well rooted, I would say. So what can (and does) Korea offer to compete with the Japan Brand? I mean, even after living in East Asia for fifteen years, I’m still not really aware of distinctively Korean imagery, aside from the traditional dress (and while I am aware of* the old yangbans, they don’t really seem very comparable with the samurai in branding terms, if nothing else), and know some of the basic forms of the traditional architecture and some of the food, I don’t really know much at all. Partially of course that is my fault – I’ve just never really been that interested in Korea…but then again, isn’t that kind of the Catch-22 under discussion?

    But on a more serious note, and please remember I am asking this from ignorance, not a stance of saying “there isn’t anything anyway”, what CAN Korea offer in terms of historical/cultural branding to compete with China and Japan? Or is it even pointless to ask the question before the “masses” have decided what they like (cf, who was it who first hyped ninja, and why? Sure, we think they’re ultra-cool now, but most of that is the hyped image anyway…)?

    Anyway, this is waffly and hopefully not as controversial as it might sound – I’m not trying to diss Korea here by suggesting it has no history or culture. I’m saying that I, as a reasonably-educated Westerner who has lived in Japan (right next door) for a good many years, and has even taken university classes in the language and culture (though that latter turned out to be all about the zainichi), know very little about it; have little mental branding of it. So how much less would the average Westerner know? And what aspects of Korea can be branded as much as Japanese?

    *I generally write literally in posts. So here I mean I know they existed and were a noble class, and could probably tell their costume apart from a peasant’s, but nothing further about them – save from some aspects of their involvement in the Korean court around the time Japan started to take a serious interest. So in other words I don’t know bupkiss about them. Which is my point, really.

  5. PS: The New York Times on Korea: “An Indolent but Harmless Race That Is Being Oppressed by Japan”
    Note that this WAS way back in 1908, but I wonder how many Korean experts looking for jobs see the small number of listings and think the same, at least about the “oppression” part….

  6. Interesting discussion. There is one more reason, though, that Korea studies has not developed to the level of Japan studies. This reason is that many of the best and brightest Korean historians and political scientists were recruited, with Ph.D. in hand, by the CIA. With a divided Korea during the Cold War and not many Korean studies jobs out there… the best and brightest were likely to move into the CIA. Or so I have heard.

  7. Drunken Monkey: CIA/NSA has always been in the market for area specialists, its true, but that’s not too different from the demand for Japan specialists and China specialists.

    Overthinker: Korea in the US is mostly represnted by Taekwondo, Kimchee (and other Korean food) And M.A.S.H. and Samsung, and Hyundai. And, for people who know something, the Hwarang and their hatred of the Japanese. It’s not quite as dramatic as Ninja (which were mostly fiction anyway) and Geisha (though Kisaeng are similar: most societies have some form of high-class courtesan), but Korea ought to get some points for Christianity and for having more dramatic color palattes than Japan.

    Given the divided history, I’m a little surprised there hasn’t yet been a Korean version of the Joy Luck Club/South Pacific: a multi-generational family history with romance, adventure…. someone with more talent for dialogue than I could make a killing.

  8. While it’s interesting to see what is currently known about Korea in the US, the main thrust of my previous comment was to get any hints from Korea specialists about what aspects of Korea that perhaps are not yet big could be. As Dr Dresner suggests, ninja and geisha are quite “dramatic” (even if most of the drama is hype): what is there waiting in Korea that can be hyped as well? The turtle ships have a pretty good coolness factor, but might need a major motion picture etc to bring them into the public consciousness. And will we ever see movies like “The Taekwondo Kid”?

    I’m not convinced Korea necessarily has more dramatic colour palettes – true, the temples etc are nicely painted, but Japanese art and design is not limited to the drab earth tones of Sen-no-Rikyuu and the downplaying of high fashion by the Edo sumptuary laws. Momoyama style is very flash, and in fact it seems to me that the current drabness (relatively) is the result of an enforced aesthetic as much as anything (though this does not affect the actual result I suppose, it’s always nice to put things into context). And Korean domestic interiors (traditionally) seem just as earth-toned as Japanese.

    Not sure how big a role Christianity might play – it doesn’t seem to have held Japan studies back, but then maybe it would be even bigger if Japan was about 20% Xian as well. Is Xianity a significant part of current Korean studies?

  9. We should take this discussion over to the Korea blog where it might get more of that specialist attention it deserves. From what I can see, Korean cinema and the Korean War (both the active and truce phases) are the two areas which could see real growth.

    I’m a huge fan of Japanese textile and paper designs, actually, for their color as much as anything else. But I’ve always felt that Korean fashion and architecture is more tuned to color than texture (which is stronger in Japanese style).

    I do think that the strength of Korean Christianity and its expansion in the US in Korean communities offers a bridge, potentially, to American audiences. There’s scholarship on Korean Christianity, but Area Studies people tend to focus on the exotic, so shamanism and Buddhism get most of the attention, from what I’ve seen. Another area for growth.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.