As diplomatic and nationalist tensions simmer over disputed territories, Korean and Chinese business owners in Japan are concerned that the fallout could devastate their livelihoods.
On a normal weekend, the alleys and streets of the bustling "Korean town" in the Shin-Okubo district of Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward are packed with visitors enjoying the variety of Korean restaurants, sweets stands, cosmetics shops and stores selling “Hanryu” (Korean wave) pop culture items.
But the usually festive atmosphere turned tense, and anger simmered in the humid summer air on Aug. 25 when a large group of self-proclaimed “patriots” launched an anti-Korea demonstration over the disputed Takeshima islets.
The protesters shouted that “Takeshima belongs to Japan!” and “The Koreans must apologize to to the emperor!”
They then targeted Korean shop clerks for verbal abuse, yelling “Koreans go home!” “Disappear from the planet!” To Japanese shoppers, they screamed, “You are the shame of this country!"and “Let’s burn down the peninsula!”
Hearing the hate-filled abuse, the 57-year-old owner of Korean restaurant “Taishikan” (embassy) said that the rising tensions between Tokyo and Seoul may already be damaging cultural and grassroots exchanges between the two countries.
Tensions have been escalating over the South Korea-controlled islets in the Sea of Japan that Japan also claims since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited them and then followed with provocative remarks, including that Emperor Akihito should apologize for Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
“Living in Japan for 30 years, I understand what the emperor means to Japanese and why they are angry,” said the restaurant owner. “But should a bully like that demonstration be forgiven? This area is not just our basis for earning our living but also an iconic place representing the new era of Korean-Japanese exchange.”
Her concern is widely shared not only by Koreans across Japan but also by Chinese residents here, as Tokyo is now waging a two-front territorial strife. The row with China over the disputed Sekaku Islands has increased since Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara proposed his controversial plan in April to purchase them. They are claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu Islands.
With tensions being ratcheted up, ethnic concerns are running high all over.
On Aug. 25, Umeko Abe, the 51-year-old owner of Umechankimuti Corp. in Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, was standing anxiously at her company’s Korean food stand at the annual summer festival in the Azabu-juban shopping district in Tokyo’s Minato Ward.
Abe, whose maiden name is Kim Mae-young, immigrated to Japan as a “rural bride” and started the venture with fellow farm wives in Tsuruoka. The company sells “Umechan” brand quality Korean pickles nationwide.
Abe said it literally breaks her heart to see the territorial confrontation between Tokyo and Seoul, given that her son is a cadet in training at the National Defense Academy of Japan.
“People’s lives are intertwined and depend on each other, and I do not understand why politics stays just as dogmatic as in the past,” she said. As Abe was invited to participate at the two-day Azabu-Juban festival held last weekend, she feared that Tokyoites would avoid her stand.
But Abe's fears proved unfounded. Her stand sold 480,000 yen ($6,100) worth of pickles and other Korean food in two days, as festival-goers lined up amid the sweltering heat. “I was relieved. That was the Japan that I know,” Abe said after the event.
DAMAGE FOR JAPAN
Emotional reaction to the diplomatic tensions is not limited to Japan. TV news footage of protesters rallying and vandalizing Japanese restaurants in major Chinese cities reminded Lee Longde, a Chinese dealer at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo's Chuo Ward, of the nightmarish days following the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011.
His Longde Trade Co. exports quality seafood from Tsukiji to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and China, to be served at top-rated Japanese restaurants in those countries.
In the months following the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the company’s sales dropped to less than half the previous year, due to import restrictions by some of the countries and consumers’ fear of contamination.
Exports saw an abrupt turnaround in July, and Longde Trade is set to post unprecedented sales of 2 billion yen this fiscal year, but deteriorating public sentiments over the Senkaku dispute could emerge as destabilizing factors in the long run, Lee said.
“It was the ‘Japan brand’ that helped my company recover from even the worst environmental disaster as the Fukushima accident,” said Lee, 44, who has worked at Tsukiji since he came to Japan as a student in 1995.
He set up the company in 2005, hoping he could help “bring back the glory days of Tsukiji” against the backdrop of declining transactions at the market.
“It makes no sense for Japan to give up its good image through shortsighted political standoffs at a time when it needs its neighbors as economic partners more than ever,” he said.
The manager of “The Shiny” Korean cosmetics store chain in Shin-Okubo agrees with Lee that the escalating political tensions between Japan and its neighbors can only harm the Japanese.
During the Aug. 25 anti-Korea rally, demonstrators approached her and pressured her to respond to, “Takeshima belongs to who?” They were asking the wrong person, because the manager is Japanese.
A YouTube posting by the rally organizers shows the beleaguered woman answering back in the end, declaring “Takeshima is … mine! Takeshima is mine!” It stunned demonstrators and eased the tension.
“There are many Japanese who make their living in Shin-Okubo and enjoy working with Koreans,” said the woman in her 30s, who set up the chain with her Korean friend last year.
“As a Japanese, I was really ashamed by those people, their language and attitudes. They are the wrong people in the wrong place, not knowing what we have here.”
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