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Japan and South Korea: pragmatism trumps politics

Korea and Japan don't mix! 

If you read the news, trawl the internet and - regrettably - listen to the politicians, you will get the impression that the Japanese and their near neighbours in South Korea cannot stand each other. And to be fair, there is a long list of current and historic grievances between the two countries, nicely summarised here. That is hardly surprising given the legacy of Japan's wartime invasion of the Korean peninsula last century.

Those were indeed terrible times. But my guess is that a sense of personal animosity is by now being felt only by the oldest members of each society. Far more people in Korea have instead been keen to emulate Japan's economic success and the social traits behind this. Anyone who has travelled or worked in both countries, as I have, will be far more struck by the similarities than the differences - the emphasis on education, dedication (not only in the workplace) and the overall good of the community at the expense of the individual. Meanwhile, cross-fertilisation is growing all the time. The export phenomenon that is Korean soap operas and K-pop and the soaring numbers of Korean tourists coming to Japan spring to mind.

The same is true when it comes to business. Superficially, there is rivalry and conflict and up to a point that is true. Many well-established Japanese multinationals, particularly in consumer electronics, have been overtaken in recent years by the best of of Korea's giant chaebol, mostly notably Samsung Electronics (here is the scoutAsia company page). Recently, the press has been full of stories about disputes over the wartime activities of Nippon Steel and companies in the Mitsubishi and Hitachi groups. In the case of Nippon Steel, a Korean court has even ordered the seizure of its assets in the country.

However, sources close to Nippon Steel tell me that relations between the company's executives and their counterparts at Posco, the top Korean steelmaker that is its local joint venture partner, have remained cordial throughout this saga. Meanwhile, work on the ground continues as before, despite the various legal rulings and political pronouncements. To me, this indicates that if business people are left to get on with their business, pragmatism will trump politics and we will all be better off as a result.

 

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