"Japan's politics has finally caught up with Korea's," a senior editor at a major Japanese newspaper told me during my visit to Tokyo last week. He was referring to the end of the Liberal Democratic Party's 50-year rule. Koreans think of their political system as third-class, yet it is 11 years ahead of Japan's in terms of regime change. Can the Japanese be jealous?
In a recent issue of the rightwing newsmagazine Sapio, which I glanced through at a bookstore, there was a special feature bemoaning the state of Japanese sports and how it had fallen behind Korea's, with several other magazines featuring articles about Kim Yu-na. Newspaper headlines referred to the widening gap between Samsung Electronics and Japan's own electronics industry. In areas ranging from politics and the economy to sports, Japan openly acknowledges Korea as a rival.
Ten years ago, when I was stationed in Tokyo, I watched an educational TV program where Japanese high school students were presented with a map and asked to indicate where Korea was. The responses were shocking. Almost no one knew, and one student pointed to somewhere in Africa.
This may not have been due to their poor knowledge of geography. Up to that time, Japan had been a proud economic powerhouse and Korea was practically a nonentity. To summarize what the average Japanese person thought, Korea was just the sort of developing country where bridges collapse. That is now hard to imagine, with the Japanese First Lady proudly proclaiming herself a fan of Korean soap opera.
It was in 2000 that Japan began to see Korea as a rival. While Japan had been blessed by success in the analog world, Korea successfully rode the digital revolution. The Korean Wave arrived, and growth in the Korean business sector was tempered by the IMF crisis. Korea should be proud of all the changes it accomplished and of having caught up so quickly.
But there is no reason to get overly confident. Korea's growth model has been based on Japan's. An earlier generation brought in Japanese money and technology and copied Japanese systems and expertise. Working hard for 40 years in this manner, Koreans were able to narrow the gap and bring the country within sight of Japan.
From this point on, however, the rules will be different. As soon as Japan considers Korea a rival, benchmarking it will no longer work. When the Japanese, with their enormous resources, take the competition head-on, does Korea have the capacity to beat them? So far it has been a chase. Is Korea in a position to overtake?
That is where recent comments from Chun Shin-ae, a former assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Labor, come in. Having been in charge of formulating human resource standards and policies for the U.S. government, Chun said in an interview with the Weekly Chosun that Korea's intellectual energy exceeds Japan's. She asked rhetorically whether young Japanese people are mentioned in any global news stories today.
Meanwhile, Korea's young people are being profiled in the global media as they sweep the top spots in math and science Olympiads and lead the world in breakdancing, e-sports and online games. There is the Korean Wave, led by the singer Rain. Athletes like Kim Yu-na and women golfers regularly beat their Japanese competitors.
In the past, Japan was at the forefront of innovation. The older generation invented cup noodles, the Walkman and karaoke. Japan's young generation, however, is falling behind in terms of aspiration as well as creativity. When it comes to the competitiveness of the next generation, Korea has the edge.
The narrowing of what used to be an enormous gap has been all thanks to the strenuous efforts of the older generation. The task of surpassing the Japanese, which previously seemed impossible, is left to the next generation. There is reason to expect good results.