( Surprising by superlocal )
Like Michael Hurt said back in February, ajosshis ruin everything, and his post quickly went viral because so many people could relate to it. For not only is there a huge sense of male entitlement in Korea that begins when young and “continues unabated with the implicit knowledge that you can feel up, push, or even hit women with minimal social consequences,” but also there is the fact that “public drunkenness and rudeness – which are crimes in many other countries - are par for the course here.” If both are added to a legal system heavily stacked in favor of natives, then whole subway lines and areas of cities can be rendered virtual no-go areas for foreigners.
Is it really that bad? Well, yes. While the passion and dynamism of the place and – let’s face it – the eye-candy mean that long-timers like myself can (almost) tolerate the pollution, the habitual flouting of laws and the pervasive irrationality in exchange, the ever-present possibility that some drunk guy will not only attack my family members or myself but will also get away with a light punishment because of his inebriation, or hell, even his “troubled home situation,” is more than enough to make my time remaining in this country limited. It doesn’t matter that in 8 years here I’ve only suffered two very trivial, racist incidents myself; there’s enough of a critical mass of testimony from foreigners of all stripes here that I perceive the threat, and that’s good enough for me.
Ready access to cheap, strong alcohol is certainly a lubricant for this, and in many senses present-day Korea strongly resembles the “Gin Lane” of pre-Victorian England, a connection first pointed out to me by Gord Sellar and one which I hope he explores soon. But it is also a profoundly gendered social malaise too.
I’ve covered many ostensibly “women’s issues” on the blog in the past year, not originally my intention but I ended up doing so because, well, where do “social issues” begin and those concerning women stop? But a study of Korea also forces the subject upon you in a way that studying, say, France or Brazil would not, for, in short, gender here cuts across society like a virtual apartheid system.
( Source: jeremyallen )
Exaggeration? Well, I’m just as guilty of it as any expat in my rants about the place, but something is seriously flawed in a society when it’s first-world standard of living coexists with levels of female empowerment more akin to Middle Eastern monarchies (update here). No, really: South Korea has numbers of female politicians, business leaders and so forth similar to those in countries where, variously, domestic violence isn’t illegal, men can have four wives, or rape victims suffer “honour killings” by their families. Even Pakistan, that well-known bastion of feminism, is a better (if less hygienic) place to live for women. Yes, Pakistan. And say I’m reading too much into it, but I’ll be damned if Korea’s having one of the lowest birth rates in the world is a mere coincidence.
Why is this division so common and yet so unquestioned, “in the same way that the fish doesn’t notice the water around it”? Unusually for Michael, he doesn’t analyze the causes, instead focusing on the consequences. Admittedly that particular post is a self-confessed rant, but still, he hasn’t covered the subject since. Hence, this series is an attempt to fill the gap.
( Source: wit’s )
Let me say straight up that invoking Neo-Confucianism doesn’t explain it. For sure, it provides an ideological bedrock, and the two are intimately related, but “explain” it? I’ve been guilty of attributing so much in Korean society to it, and feeling pretty damn clever about myself when I did so too (one does have to distinguish oneself from the newbies after all), but after eight years here I realise that the term has become like a mantra for me, as reflexive as the “That’s Korean culture” line from Koreans and almost as unhelpful. Knowing something about Neo-Confucianism is useful for Westerners first trying to make sense of the place, but beyond the most general of observations it should be avoided. It would sound absurd to English speakers to, say, discuss levels of domestic violence in Sweden in terms of, say, Protestantism, yes? But links like that are par for the course here.
What does explain it then? Part of the reason this situation exists is because, as Roboseyo puts it, the link between Neo-Confucian privilege and responsibility has been broken. The catalyst for that was people’s hand-to-mouth existence in the immediate post World War Two period, as ably described by Matt here in Gusts of Popular Feeling. Possibly the Korean War and its immediate aftermath were responsible too, although in Europe for one, the shared experience of war is universally regarded as leading to the exact opposite, leading to a half-century of social democratism, with some commentators even going so far as to argue that the Norwegian welfare state is more generous than that of its Swedish neighbour, for instance, because of the former’s experience of occupation by the Nazis.
But these don’t explain why it is primarily older Korean women who are notorious for their impoliteness and inconsideration towards others, whereas the sense of male entitlement that Michael describes is universal. I argue that the universal male conscription system is responsible, an institution much more entrenched in society, much more integral to notions of citizenship, and much more transformative an experience for its subjects than face-value comparisons of other countries with conscription like Russia, Germany and Israel would suggest. Being so central, the subject of gender must now take a backseat for the remainder of this post and the next as I discuss the background to conscription and to the South Korean military instead, albeit via a very circuitous route at first. Readers only interested in gender may well be tempted to bail, but I hope they don’t – I aim to convince all readers that, ultimately, any discussion of the origins of the gender gap in Korea without reference to the military is woefully inadequate.
( With a nod to my female readers; source: coplover )
One caveat and one point about sources before I get started. The caveat is that I’m not saying that conscription and/or military experience makes one sexist per se. While I do think that there’s a case to be made for the former’s existence in a society making that society more sexist overall, based largely on what I know about the German and Czech Republic’s records relative to their neighbors, I haven’t studied the subject enough to make any definitive conclusions like that. Also, whatever my gut instinct says about the tendency of militaries to be deeply sexist institutions overall, I’ve heard from reliable sources that the US military, for instance, is one of the most meritocratic institutions in the country. So I’ll try to keep my own prejudices and preconceptions to a minimum, and will reiterate here that I’ll only ever be referring to the South Korean conscription system.
Finally, this series of posts is loosely based on the journal article “A Feminist Exploration of Military Conscription: The Gendering of the Connections Between Nationalism, Militarism and Citizenship in South Korea” by Insook Kwon in The International Feminist Journal of Politics (3:1 April 2001, 26-54), and the book Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea by Seungsook Moon (2005), although neither get much mention in this post. If you can’t wait, you can read an excellent review of the latter here.
My Militarized Institute
( Source: wit’s )
Conscription in any country isn’t just about the actual service time, variously 22, 24 or 26 months in Korea. Kwon describes it as being “most usefully understood as a social process that can be divided into three sub-processes: (1) pre-conscription socialization; (2) miliary service; and (3) post-conscription interpretation of that miliatary experience”, and notes that none of those processes is an all-male affair. When I began this post over a week ago I tried to stick to the same format, but really, those neat-sounding divisions are actually very problematic: where do workers, civil officials, teachers, military personnel, and parents’ own interpretations of those experiences end and younger Koreans learning about conscription through those sources begin? Any starting point for discussion being somewhat arbitrary then, describing life at the institute I work at is as good a place as any.
I am the only Westerner amongst eighty staff at my branch, and only one of perhaps five out of the total of 1500 or so staff at all ten branches. With those numbers, I think I can be forgiven for thinking that my presence makes little impact on office culture there, and that it’s not substantially different to any other Korean workplaces either (especially public schools). But still, I’d be interested to hear how much my experience there and assumptions about the rest of Korea based on it match those of readers’.
The bizarreness begins as soon as I arrive, as I must loudly announce “반갑습니다” (literally “Nice to Meet You”) to all sixty people already in the staff-room, who reply in kind. Later, when I’m going to class and come across individual teachers in the corridors, we must say “수고하십시오” to each other (“Do a good job”), unless I haven’t already greeted them with my collective staff-room greeting, in which case it’s “반갑습니다” again (it can be difficult to keep track). And after class and when leaving for the day we have to say “수고했습니다” (“I did a good job”) to each other. With 100 staff in total at my branch, you can imagine how grating all that soon gets.
It is tempting to dismiss the literal interpretations and argue that they are really effectively “Hi” and “Bye” respectively, but that would be very misleading. It is certainly convenient to explain to learners of Korean that ”주세요”, for instance, is “please give” in English, but as soon as you realise that it’s really just the “요” conjugation of “주다” (give) with the honorific term “시” added, then as an English teacher of Koreans you suddenly understand why Koreans rarely say “please” in English, as there is no Korean equivalent, and overall that the Korean language reflects, at the very least, a completely different mode of social interactions. And on a higher level, “우리나라” – “our country” - supposedly meaning ”Korea” in the same way that I think of the concept of “Korea”? Don’t get me started.
( 夏 summer estate by nicoloacassa )
To return to my workplace then (which by the way is “직장” in Korean, by coincidence also meaning “rectum”), anyone that doesn’t think that these thousands of empty greetings said at my workplace are anything but virtual salutes should see the manner and gusto with which they’re said when the boss walks into the staffroom….it’s virtually “Captain on the bridge!”.
That’s bad enough, but then every hour my boss turns on the loudspeaker and loudly berates the students for 5-10 minutes for chewing gum and using their cellphones too much. Nothing wrong with that per se, but then they heard exactly the same at the end of class an hour ago, the hour before that, and three times the day before that too, and so they give his mini-lecture precisely the attention it deserves. Sometimes names of students who didn’t, say, do their homework will be called and they will have to go to reception, and as I go through there on the way to the staff-room later I may pass 30 of them squatting on the ground with their hands on their heads being screamed at by a male teacher, and after 20 minutes of that they’re jumping up and down in unison (still with their hands on their heads) chanting “We will try harder!” after him. And their parents pay money for this? Well yes, precisely this.
Sure, kids need to be disciplined, but then every day my department head makes sure to scream at all English teachers for 20 minutes or so too (as do the other department heads to their teachers). My Korean skills don’t extend to translating screaming in real time, but I think the contents are irrelevant: it’s all just a show of authority. Every other week the boss, the nicest of guys most of the time, comes into the staffroom and does the same to all teachers, for exactly the same reason I’m sure: it’s quite a transformation. I should also point out that there are no separate offices for most staff regardless of their position, so when a teacher has screwed up (I’m still not entirely sure how one does so…the students only got a 95% average or something?) he or she has to stand in front of his or her superior, be loudly and publicly berated by him or her in front of sixty colleagues, all the while staring at the floor like an 8 year-old who’s being told off by their mother.
My chain of institutes is bit tougher, well a lot tougher than most – it only began hiring women to teach English and Maths a few weeks ago, after 19 years in business, and the teachers walk around with big sticks to hit students – but still, it’s going to be difficult to persuade me that the screaming and the constant displays of authority and hierarchy at any workplace are a result of Neo-Confucianism rather than what male workers learned in the military…you too would think “boot camp” if you walked into it, not an image Confucius usually invokes. And considering what they learned at the receiving end as youths and then themselves as young adults, I strongly suspect that many Korean men know few alternatives to shouting, embarrassment, shaming and physical violence to getting others to do what they want. Of course, there is much more to Korean protest culture than that, but recent events certainly haven’t dispelled me of the notion.
If Korean dramas are any indication, this workplace culture is the norm rather than the exception. Let me pass on a description of it (which I’ll paste in full because the original requires registration) and ask you from where else would a workplace culture arise that tells people that not only should work never be for pleasure or personal development and fulfillment, but also that have to accept any crap from their bosses for the rest of their working lives? No wonder so many Koreans are self-employed:
Koreans’ Motivation to Work
( Source: Christian Bjork )
Samsung Economic Research Institute
Jun. 11, 2008
Job-switching is rampant today with the percentage of new workers who quit within a short time growing every year. This is a genuine matter for concern, given the huge costs incurred by businesses to recruit and train new workers.
To prevent new workers from quitting early, P&G has introduced a new employment system differentiated by job type. Based on its understanding that young workers prefer interesting work, P&G has attempted to minimize the disparity between aptitude and work content by presenting them with a clear description of tasks they will undertake from the beginning.
Florida-based power firm CHELCO is running a career coach system that is designed to promote understanding of the work orientations and aptitude of employees through dialogue, enabling them to improve their work capabilities.
As seen above, global companies are increasingly reflecting on the importance of work orientations in the process of personnel and organization management. “Work orientations” refer to the attitude and thinking of employees. Work orientations are inseparable from job satisfaction, commitment, the acquisition of talent, and the retirement rate.
Today, we’ll take a close look at how Koreans think of their jobs and how their workorientations are shaped.
Based on the International Society Survey Program (ISSP) for 2005, an international survey conducted with 31 out of 43 ISSP member countries, SERI classified people’s work orientations into four types: relationship-oriented, self realization, livelihood, and value-oriented compensation, by using two axes’ value of work and interpersonal satisfaction.
“Self realization” refers to countries like the US, in which jobs are expected to bring high value of work. The exemplary case of the “value-oriented” type is France, a country in which employees enjoy high motivational rewards but suffer rampant skepticism about authoritarianism.
Korea belongs to the “livelihood” type, indicating that most employees here in Korea regard their jobs as a means of livelihood with the degree of value of work and job satisfaction remaining low.
SERI also analyzed and compared the key trends and features of the work orientations of four major countries: the US, France, Japan and Korea. The Korean employees turned out to have low satisfaction regarding “opportunities for skills improvement” and “interest in work.”
The primary reasons behind workers’ low satisfaction regarding “opportunities for skills improvement” include a lack of appropriate job training and mentoring programs that are necessary for the improvement of careers and job skills. In this regard, Korea needs to learn lessons from Denso, one of the world’s top three auto parts makers, which runs an in-house job training program aimed at improving skills for less educated employees.
Even in terms of interest in work, Korea ranked last among the four countries, indicating that people here tend to place more value on the level of income, job stability and social reputation than their personal aptitude when getting new jobs. The US was positioned at the top in this category, showing that the job seekers put their personal capabilities and attributes first in the list of considerations. Not only when looking for jobs, but also when entering a school of higher grade, Americans make active use of counselor systems.
Korean workers also showed a low level of satisfaction in the category of pride in their jobs. This is quite different from US counterparts.
Smucker’s, for example, committed itself into bolstering company loyalty in close collaboration with regional partners. Thanks to these efforts, employees began to feel a strong sense of loyalty toward their company, while believing that the company loves them like a family. Smucker’s, as a result, was named one of the best workplaces in the US in 2006.
In sum, Koreans still regard their jobs principally as a means of livelihood. This mirrors the reality here in Korea where work does little to enrich the life of the people.
Many workers still take it for granted that they have to tolerate anything in return for getting paid. This kind of job atmosphere produces a negative influence on both companies and employees alike. With this in mind, businesses need to make more efforts to develop new programs, aimed at bringing a higher sense of value of work and satisfaction to their employees.
They also need to come up with a new educational training program, in which job placement and career management are performed in consideration of personal interest and growth potential. Also needed is a program to balance life and work that could be achieved by respecting personal time, providing due consideration about the families of workers, helping them upgrade their skills and supporting their leisure activities.
( My emphasis. Hat Tip to Tom Coyner’s Korea Economic Reader for the article)
Having hopefully convinced you that there’s something more to a sense of pervasive militarism in Korean society than a mere vibe on my part, in Part Two I’ll discuss why the Korean military has been and remains so uniquely involved in Koreans’ daily lives, which in turns means examining its origins. The resulting jump from gender in the beginning of this post to Japanese colonization and then “developmental states” may seem quite a leap on the surface, but like the example of my institute has hopefully at least hinted at, my intention is to show how something so abstract-sounding is in fact really so practical and relevant to ordinary people, something I’m not sure I would have been able to do in a stand-alone post devoted to the topic.
And on that note I’ll finish this post, before Safari conspires against me too!