Monday, June 3, 2013

A Lesson for Future Korea-Japan Relations from Social Media: Don’t Feed the Trolls

To call the relationship between Korea and Japan a troubled one would be an understatement. For most Westerners, the relationship between the two countries seems to be mostly about lingering resentment from the Second World War, economic rivalry, and territorial disputes. Though that view isn't wrong, it only manages to scratch the surface. The feud between the two countries has been going on for centuries.

And truth be told, as much as the war of words that go back and forth across the East Sea (or the Sea of Japan, if you prefer) about Dokdo (or Takeshima, again, if you prefer) or comfort women can become bitter and hurtful, it’s still preferable to the types of ‘negotiations’ the two countries have relied on in the more distant past.

As bitter and frosty as the relationship can become, however, due to geography alone, the fates of both countries are intertwined with one another. That is why even after the harshest of exchanges, like a married couple, both countries always come back together and try to get along the best they can.

Considering that this interstate relationship is fraught with enough difficulties as it is, it surely does not need any help from trolls. Yet there they are doing what trolls do best – provoking people to anger for the sake of provoking people to anger. Toru Hashimoto, the mayor of Osaka, is such a troll.

Troll Level: Master Troll

In a speech that Hashimoto gave in May, he said, “When soldiers are risking their lives by running through storms of bullets, and you want to give these emotionally charged soldiers a rest somewhere, it’s clear that you need a comfort-women system.”

Considering how the issue of comfort women is still a festering wound between Korea and Japan, what Hashimoto did was the verbal equivalent of poking a sleeping badger with a hot poker. While it’s a 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the worst drought of the century. And while the badger is on menopause.

The response from Koreans was, of course, predictable to the point of being perfunctory. Naturally, there were calls for retractions, apologies, and resignations. Others called for trade boycotts. As economically devastating a real trade boycott between the two countries would be, however, it was a mild statement compared to the likes of an editorial, which was written by Kim Jin, a troll in his own right as well, from the JoongAng Daily, which suggested that it’s only a matter of time before God (yes, God) decides to smite Japan with another atomic bombing because that obviously sounds reasonable.

Because a nuclear war is always a cause for celebration.

Japan’s response was just as predictable to the point of being perfunctory. Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, according to the Daily Mail, was reported to have said that the editorial was ‘quite dishonorable’ adding, “Our country is the only atom-bombed nation. We will never forgive such remarks.”

Considering how prominent Japanese politicians have belittled comfort women and the Rape of Nanking recently, obviously, that was the reasonable statement to make because Japan was really the victim of World War II; and not one of the perpetrators, because, as Suga reminded everyone, Japan is after all the only atom-bombed nation in the history of the world.

Perhaps it wasn't fair of me to say that trolls provoke people to anger merely for the sake of provoking people to anger. In Hashimoto’s case, he most likely has higher political aspirations and like all politicians in the world, seems to be trying to achieve his ambition by pandering to the lowest common denominator. In Kim Jin’s case, for all intents and purposes, he appears to be a populist writer who is also pandering to the lowest common denominator. It is no secret that traditional print media is a dying industry and I suppose that the newspapers would stoop to any level, no matter how low, to retain readers.

Regardless of their personal motives, it doesn't change the fact that they are trolls and unfortunately, both average Koreans and Japanese people seem to be getting swept up in fits of hysterical nationalism over past events which neither side would actually accept apologies for no matter how much they insist that a ‘sincere’ apology is all that they want.

If past behavior is any indicator, inevitably, this political storm will also pass. Both countries will briefly keep aside their political rhetoric and will read each other's mangas and listen to each other's factory-produced bubble gum pop music. At least until the next time a politician feels that he needs to shore up votes ahead of an upcoming election and says something stupid.

In social media, whenever a troll leaves behind a deliberately provocative statement, he/she does so specifically for the purpose of angering the other person because they get a kick out of it. They relish the thought of having ruined someone’s day. And the best advice anyone has ever given in regards to treating trolls is to not feed them. Like parasites, when they see that their intended host is not providing them the sustenance that they require, they tend to go back to the dark and silent edges of the internet from whence they came.

There is nothing a troll hates more than being ignored.

Though neither Hashimoto nor Kim Jin meets the exact definitions of internet trolls, their behavior comes pretty close. Whenever trolls like them rear their ugly heads, and they will, both Koreans and Japanese should just ignore them. And they will disappear.

The relationship between Korea and Japan needs further fine-tuning. Both countries need to work very hard to make things better. And it won’t be easy. But by ignoring the trolls, at least it won’t be harder than it necessarily has to be.

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