'Minjok/Minzoku' in Korea and Japan

Posted by christinejaylee
2017.03.07 22:13 EDITORIAL/국제 :: Worldpost


Korean writer and scholar Henry H. Em discusses the word ‘minjok’ extensively in his work “Minjok as a Modern and Democratic Construct: Sin Ch’aeho’s Historiography”. He seems to equate the word ‘minjok’ to a ‘nation’, or the people that belong to and make up a ‘nation’. There are slight technicalities he explains in the creation of the terms—‘minzoku’ originated from “…Meiji Japan. In the early 1800’s” as a translation for a French term (337). Then came ‘minjok’ in Korea, and ‘minzu’ in Chinese. Here Em makes it very clear that the term ‘minzoku’ and subsequently ‘minjok’ comes from the West and the Western word ‘nation’. Em acknowledges that while the term may have come from the West in the late 19th century, the idea may have existed in East Asia in both Korea and Japan. However, he ultimately sides with the belief that even the idea itself of a ‘minjok’ or “ethnic nation” came into place in modern times from the need to adapt to the Western nation-state model and modern historiography.

Before analyzing the differences similarities and differences in the understanding of the words ‘minzoku’ and ‘minjok’ in its respectful countries, I want to pose questions toward Em’s claims. While Em points to the horizontal division and lack of collective pride and identity as the main reason the idea of ‘minjok’ could not have existed on the peninsula before interference of Western powers, I tend to believe that horizontal and rigid class distinction does not necessarily deny the existence of a collective ethnic identity. Although a nationalistic sentiment may not have been strong enough to override “attachments to the village, clan, and family”, in dynastic and earlier periods, people on the peninsula saw themselves as separate from those of the Chinese empire, northern barbarians, or other entities in East Asia (342). In fact, “Korea had a central bureaucratic state that employed a class of people whose job was to maintain and articulate difference vis-à-vis- competing, neighboring states” (338). The people held a sense of “us” and “them” despite the aristocratic family seeing themselves as “members of a larger cosmopolitan civilization centered on China” (338). This seems to mean that the royal class held connections and similarities based on class. It is, for the lack of a better comparison, like an extremely wealthy Korean today finding more similarities to another wealthy person of the Chinese ethnicity than say, another poor Korean. Ethnicity is and has been an entirely different concept.

Em constantly credits the West as the main factor for both Korean and Japanese finding the need to adopt ideas of national identity or a collective identity. He seems to deemphasize the existing separations and unities that were prevalent in the peninsula for hundreds of years. Even Anderson speaks about nationalism in a Western oriented fashion, claiming that print capitalism is what led to the concept of the nation as people imagined a larger community of similar individuals. While this is an interesting idea, it seems Western-oriented since East Asia may have had other methods of mass communication, and therefore other ways of fostering the imagined community.

Now to compare the meaning of ‘minzoku’ and ‘minjok’, they seem to hold the same definition since they are spelled with the same Chinese characters. In both cases it seems to define a group of people of the same ethnicity or ‘volk’. However when the words are being used to describe themselves, for example, the Japanese people stating Japanese minzoku, or the Korean people speaking of the Korean minjok, the connotations and sentiments must differ slightly. As stated in Em’s article, in history the Japanese people used the term ‘minzoku’ to justify its imperialism, while the Korean people used the word ‘minjok’ in order to defend its independence. When spoken about themselves (Japanese minzoku, Korean minjok), it can be assumed then that the word ‘minzoku’ may hold connotations of superiority while the Korean word ‘minjok’ could hold more connotations of uniqueness and distinctiveness.



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  1. thank you for sharing such ideas. probably this is why term minzoku is not used as widely as minzok

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