South Korean boycott of Japan grows ahead of crucial trade decision

By Thomas Maresca
A protester in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul holds a sign calling for a boycott of Japanese products. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
1 of 4 | A protester in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul holds a sign calling for a boycott of Japanese products. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, Aug. 1 (UPI) -- As a trade spat with Japan threatens to intensify, South Koreans are striking back with a movement to boycott Japanese products that is growing in scale and organization.

Consumer boycotts began after Japan placed export restrictions on key materials used in semiconductors and digital displays at the beginning of July, threatening to disrupt South Korea's crucial high-tech manufacturing industry. The restrictions are seen by many as retaliation for an ongoing dispute over forced labor during Japan's 1910-45 colonial occupation of South Korea.


South Korean consumers have responded by cutting purchases of everything from Japanese beer to luxury cars to travel to Japan.

"I've stopped buying Asahi," Pang Ju-il, an NGO worker in Seoul, said during a rally outside the Japanese Embassy on Wednesday. "It was my favorite beer. But we need to replace Japanese products with Korean ones. We aren't shopping at any Japanese stores either. It is the only thing we can do and we hope this will change Japan's policy."


Another protester, Kim So-hee, said the boycott movement draws on the same energy as the "Candlelight Revolution," the massive street protests that led to the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye in 2016.

"We are demonstrating the power of the people," said Kim, who is a representative of a fledgling progressive political party called the Future Party. "This boycott is continuing to grow bigger and bigger."

A survey released by pollster Realmeter Korea on Thursday found that support for the boycott movement has been steadily growing, with almost 65 percent of Koreans taking part, up from 48 percent earlier in the month.

Since the export restrictions decision, anti-Japanese protests have been regularly held near the Japanese Embassy and in central Seoul, with weekend rallies drawing thousands of participants. A major march is being organized ahead of the Aug. 15 National Liberation Day, a holiday that commemorates the end of Japanese occupation.

"We could not participate in the movement for independence but we can take part in the Japan boycott," read one sign that a protester was carrying Wednesday.

Around 23,000 retail outlets had joined the boycott as of mid-July, according to local media reports, with many convenience stores removing Japanese products from their shelves. Japanese beer brands Asahi and Kirin have voluntarily pulled their TV advertising in South Korea, and stores that are not participating in the boycott report plummeting sales.


"Some foreigners are still buying Japanese beer, but Koreans have stopped entirely," said one convenience store manager in downtown Seoul. "And we have stopped including Japanese products in sales and promotions."

The travel industry is also feeling the brunt of the boycott. South Koreans accounted for 24 percent of all foreign tourists to Japan in 2018, second only to China, according to data from the Japan National Tourism Organization.

The number of Koreans who traveled to Japan during the July 16-30 period fell 13 percent compared to the previous month, Korea's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport reported.

Korean airlines have reduced or suspended routes to Japan. Korean Air, the national flag carrier, announced it would suspend its Busan-Sapporo route starting Sept. 3 and Asiana Airlines will use smaller planes on flights to three major Japanese cities due to falling demand. Low-cost carriers such as T'way have halted some routes to smaller destinations.

The boycott movement is growing in visibility online as well. The hashtag #BoycottJapan is spreading across Twitter and Instagram and has begun drawing celebrity endorsements. Actress Lee Si-young posted her support on Instagram last week with a note saying that she was changing her Japanese-made table tennis equipment for Korean brands.


A website called NoNo Japan compiles information about Japanese products and suggests Korean replacements for everything from sneakers to electronics to instant noodles. A related smartphone app even allows users to scan the bar code of an item to find its country of origin.

Korean labor unions have gotten in on the act, with a major parcel delivery union announcing it would no longer handle packages from Uniqlo, the Japanese fashion retail giant. Some 20,000 stickers from a transit worker's union were also plastered on subway cars this week in Seoul, denouncing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and imploring passengers not to buy Japanese products or visit the country.

While the boycott is having an impact, its effects are only temporary at this point. However, if Japan goes ahead with removing South Korea from a "white list" of trusted trade partners, which could happen as soon as Friday, the stakes look to go much higher, analysts say.

"Fundamentally, the boycott is not that serious yet," said Lee Sang-hyun, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute, a South Korean policy think tank. "It's being driven by emotion right now. But if Japan takes South Korea from the white list, things could cross a line of no return. There is much less room for political response, and a lengthy boycott could have a much more serious impact."


Japanese officials say that South Korea has undermined trust in the relationship with lax controls over re-exporting products, with some media reports citing concerns that restricted items were making their way to North Korea.

An Japanese official in Seoul told UPI that communication between the two governments has been lacking, particularly since the South Korean Supreme Court decision last year that found that Japanese companies must provide compensation to their victims of forced labor. Japan has argued that all reparations claims were resolved during the 1965 accord that normalized bilateral relations between the two countries and that South Korea is going back on its word.

"It's not about North Korea," the official said. "It's a matter of trust."

Deliberations between South Korean and Japanese diplomats Thursday during a regional summit in Bangkok did not appear to make progress in resolving the diplomatic and trade disputes.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told reporters that Japan's decision to strip South Korea's preferential trade status would have "grave ramifications" and could trigger a review of the countries' bilateral security relationship.

The intensity of the boycott is clearly fueled at least in part by the historical grievance against Japan that many South Koreans feel, but some participants are quick to point out that their anger is not directed toward ordinary Japanese people.


"Sometimes there feels like there is an invisible wall when we meet Japanese people, but we can get along with the ordinary citizens," said protester Kim So-hee. "It's the people in power we don't like."

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