East Asia

Is Confucianism Responsible for South Korea’s Demographic Collapse? Or Could It Be Modernity Itself?

In the United States, fertility rates increasingly correlate with religiosity. Those who regularly attend religious services have more children than those who irregularly attend, who, in turn, have more than nonreligious people (see the graph below). Does this generalization hold for South Korea, a predominantly secular country with substantial Christian and Buddhist minorities? (A 2021 Gallup Korea poll found that 60 percent of South Koreans have no religion, with 16 percent following Mahayana Buddhism, 17 percent Protestant Christianity, 6 percent Roman Catholic Christianity, and 1 percent other religions.) Apparently, it does so only to a slight degree. According to a study published in Demographic Research in 2021, the Total Fertility Rate by faith in South Korea in 2015 was as follows: no religion, 1.13; Buddhist, 1.33;  Catholic, 1.16; Protestant, 1.28; and “other religion,” 1.20.

A number of scholars, however, have linked South Korea’s ultra-low fertility rate to Confucianism, a largely secular philosophical system with religious undertones. In the Joseon period (1393-1894), Confucianism was the dominant belief system of the Korean elite. Confucian ideas and practices still pervade South Korean society, probably to a greater extent than any other country. Intriguingly, other countries of Confucian heritage also have low (North Korea, Vietnam) or ultra-low (Japan, China, Taiwan) fertility levels (although that of Vietnam is just under replacement level and is currently holding steady). Japan and China are also, like South Korea, afflicted with high rates of withdrawal from marriage and the work-force by disaffected young people, a phenomenon known in China as the “lying flat” movement (tang ping).

Scholars who have posited a link between Confucianism and ultra-low fertility in South Korea have generally focused on women, highlighting the increasing numbers of whom are intentionally foregoing marriage and childbearing. Standard Confucianism is decidedly patriarchal, with wives placed in a subservient position to their husbands. Family solidarity is highly valued, with mothers expected to devote themselves to their children. As a result, pursuing a career is often deemed incompatible with childbearing and rearing. Faced with such a dilemma, increasing numbers of young Korean women are choosing career development over marriage and motherhood.

In an interesting article called “Ultralow Fertility in East Asia: Confucianism and Its Discontents,” Yen-hsin Alice Cheng argues that the East Asia has a unique fertility regime characterized by male-skewed sex ratios at birth (due to son preference), low rates of non-marital birth, rising prevalence of bridal pregnancy, and low rates of cohabitation. These attributes, she argues, are “closely linked to a patriarchal structure based on family lineage through sons, strong parental authority, and emphasis on women’s chastity (i.e. sanctions for premarital sex and ‘illegitimate’ births outside of marriage) and the belief that women are obliged to bear sons to continue the patrilineal bloodline” (p. 98-99). Faced with such expectations, she argues, many young women are simply opting out.

Although the connection between low fertility and Confucian patriarchy has been made by many others, Cheng also links it to Confucian-inspired “credentialism.” Here she focuses on the legacy of the highly prestigious imperial civil service examinations that selected elite bureaucrats based on their exam performances. This heritage has resulted, she argues, in a “low regard for vocational education and craftsmanship in Confucian societies,” with “academic success in the educational system considered a life goal that is of paramount importance …, with parents doing their best to make sure their children advance as far as possible academically” (p. 102). Today, academic success translates into coveted positions in South Korea’s world-class corporations and allows entry into prestigious professions. Such jobs, however, are limited, relegating even some of the most diligent students to non-prestigious jobs that are regarded as humiliating. Faced with such pressures, many young people prefer social withdrawal.

Scholarly attitudes toward Confucianism in the West have oscillated from condemnation to commendation, depending in part on economic and political conditions in East Asia. In the eighteenth century, when Qing China was the world’s most powerful country, Enlightenment philosophers celebrated the rationalism, secularism, and meritocracy of Confucianism, marveling at a society in which elite status was determined more by exam performance than by aristocratic birth and in which the military was subservient to civil society. Some writers even claim that Confucius was the “patron saint of the Enlightenment.” But as China declined in the nineteenth century while the West advanced, attitudes changed. It eventually came to be argued that the inherent conservatism of Confucianism, marked by undue submission to authority and rigidly hierarchical lines of power, prevented innovation, adaptation, and modernization in East Asia. But the mindset shifted again in the second half of the twentieth century as Confucian societies underwent extraordinarily rapid economic growth and modernization. It then came to be argued that Confucianism’s profound respect for education propelled economic development while its emphasis on family cohesion ensured social stability. But now the tables are again turning, with Confucian patriarchy and credentialism blamed for South Korea’s demographic collapse and the concomitant crisis of disaffected young people abandoning social expectations and dropping out.

None of these interpretations are either “correct” or “incorrect,” and all probably contain an element of truth. A belief system as comprehensive as Confucianism has many different aspects and pulls in different directions. It influences social structures but does not determine them, and thus provides partial explanations at best. A significant amount of evidence, moreover, suggests that today’s supposedly Confucian-generated social pathologies are not limited to East Asia. Ultra-low fertility, for example, is found elsewhere, including much of Europe. But here too historically patriarchal social structures seem to play a role, as Europe’s more gender equalitarian societies now have higher fertility levels than those with traditionally stronger gender roles; compare, for example, the TFR charts of Sweden and Italy posted below.

The most important issue is probably the extent to which the social withdrawal phenomenon is unique to South Korea and other countries of Confucian heritage. Similar although less extreme developments do seem to be occurring in the United States and Europe, as is noted in the Wikipedia article on South Korea’s Sampo (“Giving Up”) Generation. Rates of depression, anxiety, and social isolation among young people in the U.S., moreover, are also surging. Although many explanations have been offered and debated, this phenomenon is complex and pervasive, leading some to suspect that modernity itself is the ultimate culprit. By this interpretation, modern societies are much better at generating goods and technologies than meaning and real social connections, yet meaning and real social connections remain essential for psychological health. Jon Haidt has been arguing for some time that social media, particularly Instagram and TikTok, are responsible for much of the mental-health crisis among American girls; he now argues that the much more gradual psychological decline found among boys began decades earlier with the arrival of computerized gaming, which pulled them out of real-world encounters and into simulated environments. In some regards, South Korea is the most technophilic and modernistic country in the world, and, by this reasoning, it would be expected to be at the leading edge of a modernity-generated social crisis.

Is Confucianism Responsible for South Korea’s Demographic Collapse? Or Could It Be Modernity Itself? Read More »

“Hell Joseon”:  The Paradoxes of South Korean Development

The paradoxes of South Korean development are profound indeed. On the one hand, the country’s rise from crushing poverty to glittering prosperity over the past 60 years has been nothing less than astounding. In 1960, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita gross national income of a miserable $120; today it is one of the wealthiest, with a median household income above those of France, the United Kingdom, and Japan. It has triumphed in the cultural sphere as well, with its music, films, and television shows gaining a huge global audience. Yet for all this success, there is a widespread mood of despondency among many South Koreans, signaled, some argue, by their unwillingness to reproduce. The country’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR) has recently plummeted to 0.7 children per woman, by far the lowest rate in the world. If this trend persists, the South Korean nation will soon begin to rapidly contract. Although mass migration could slow the decline, it faces substantial opposition on cultural grounds. It thus seems to many that South Korea faces a singularly bleak future of national decline.

One can argue, however, that that there is nothing particularly paradoxical about South Korea’s situation, given that all other highly developed countries, bar Israel, have below-replacement levels of fertility. But the broader paradox remains: can seemingly successful socio-economic development really be considered successful if it proves to be demographically unsustainable, dependent on continuing migration streams from less-developed countries whose own birthrates are declining, and which are increasingly opposed by populist-inclining, anti-immigration electorates?

But as many writers have argued, concerns about the current birth dearth may be no more firmly grounded than the earlier fears about a “population explosion” that would supposedly generate mass starvation across the world by the late twentieth century. Indefinitely extrapolating almost any trend can indicate impending calamity, but few persist long enough to reach that point. South Korea’s fertility rate could certainly rebound. And, as many argue, if one considers the fact that South Korea is one of the world’s most densely settled countries, population reduction should not necessarily be considered a negative outcome. Some would also contend that by foregoing childbearing, South Korea’s young adults are better able to enjoy the fruits of their country’s extraordinary economic ascent. Despite its paucity of children, South Korea can therefore still be regarded as a resounding success. As the noted economist and public intellectual Tyler Cowen has recently quipped, “South Korea in 1960 was as poor as Central Africa. Today, it’s a very nice, pretty wonderful country.”

The problem with such thinking, however, is that large proportion of young South Koreans strongly disagree, regarding their country as anything but “nice [and] pretty wonderful.” Since 2016, many of them have been denigrating it as “Hell Joseon” (“Joseon” being the name of early modern Korea, a poor, class-bound, and rigidly hierarchical society.) They have concluded that they have no worthwhile future to anticipate regardless of how hard they work. According to a Wikipedia article, “by 2019, the phrase [Hell Joseon] had been superseded by a new term, ‘Tal-Jo,’ a portmanteau comprising ‘leave’ and ‘Joseon,’ which might be best be translated as ‘Escape Hell.’” To do so, many are simply opting out, giving up on marriage, family, children, and more. Some evidence indicates that this trend is intensifying, propelled by the COVID pandemic but remaining firmly ensconced in its uncertain aftermath. According to one interpretation, many discouraged young adults are now abandoning all hope (see thetable below).

Those who have “given up,” however, represent a small minority of South Korea’s youth, with many more soldiering on through their country’s grueling educational and career-advancement systems. But the problems that the disaffected young have identified afflict the entire country and partially underlie its fertility collapse. These problems, it is essential to note, are not unique to South Korea. They are also found in Japan, China, and Taiwan, and are thus characteristic of East Asia as a whole. But they are more extreme in South Korea, where they have apparently generated an immediate demographic threat.

Ironically, the same trait that allowed South Korea’s breathtaking rise is now contributing to its pending decline: extraordinarily hard work from childhood until retirement. For a compelling fictionalized account of the grueling nature of South Korea’s educational system, I recommend the “Pied Piper” episode of the acclaimed television show Extraordinary Attorney Woo (season 1, episode 9). According to one poll, a lower percentage of South Korean children reported being “happy at school” than those of any other country. Exhausting schedules are also typical of the workplace. As reported in an insightful Washington Post article:

In this working culture, 14-hour days are the norm. In 2012, a left-leaning presidential candidate ran on the slogan: “A life with evenings.” Most frustrating of all, many young people say, is that their parents, who worked long hours to build the “Korean dream,” think the answer is just to put in more effort.

It is not just the long hours that that dishearten young adults, but also the conviction that they will not be able to succeed no matter how hard they work, feeling that the system is rigged against them. Although South Korea purports to be a meritocratic country in which anyone can get ahead by dint of diligence and intelligence, inherited class position, family and school connections, and even place of birth still matter a great deal. But for most parents, the belief in, and the desire for, upward class mobility for their children remains paramount, leading to huge investments in after-school schools and other forms of educational enrichment. The required expenditures are so large that having a second child often becomes financially impossible. This combination of financially stressed and educationally obsessed parents and emotionally stressed and deeply disillusioned children contributes to a yawning generational gap, undermining the cohesion of South Korean society.

As is the case in many other wealthy countries, the high cost of housing is another factor in South Korea’s declining birth rate. Many young couples cannot afford an apartment, let alone a house, large enough to accommodate more than one child. The lack of affordable housing in a country that is beginning to experience population decline might seem surprising, but it has been propelled several factors, including the continuing aggregation of people in a few major cities. Roughly half of the nation now lives in the greater Seoul metropolitan area. The country’s rural population, moreover, continues to shrink, although it is now so small (4.15 percent) that the pace of decline has slackened. Governmental policy, however, is probably more important – and far more perverse. As reported in a 2021 article in Foreign Policy:

The average price of an apartment in Seoul has doubled in the past five years under the current government’s misguided policies on mortgage rules and tax penalties. Four years ago, it would have taken 11 years’ worth of South Korea’s median annual household income to buy an apartment in Seoul. Now, it costs more than 18 years’ worth of income. Rents have shot up, leaving young people with limited savings and without a shelter.

Some observers have linked South Korea’s fertility implosion to its Confucian heritage, which will be the focus of the next GeoCurrents post.

“Hell Joseon”:  The Paradoxes of South Korean Development Read More »

South Korea’s Fertility Collapse

Recent reports indicate that South Korea’s Total Fertility (TFR) rate has dropped to 0.7 children per woman, a staggeringly low figure. Although below-replacement fertility is now found in all high-income countries except Israel, all others have significantly higher birth rates than South Korea. According to the United Nations Population Fund (2023), no other sovereign state has a TFR below 1.0. Other sizable countries with very low rates, such as Italy, Spain, Ukraine, China, and Japan, report TFR numbers of 1.2 and 1.3.

The fertility collapse in South Korea is generating a lot of attention, with many observers warning of a pending disaster. Ross Douthat, writing in the New York Times, claims that:

There will be a choice between accepting steep economic decline as the age pyramid rapidly inverts and trying to welcome immigrants on a scale far beyond the numbers that are already destabilizing Western Europe. There will be inevitable abandonment of the elderly, vast ghost towns and ruined high rises and emigration by young people who see no future as custodians of a retirement community. And at some point there will quite possibly be an invasion from North Korea (current fertility rate: 1.8), if its southern neighbor struggles to keep a capable army in the field.

Such warnings may be overblown. The possibility of a demographic-led invasion, moreover, is  complicated by North Korea’s own low and declining fertility, which reportedly brought Kim Jong Un to tears earlier this week. It must also be mentioned that not everyone regards demographic collapse as a negative phenomenon. Many environmentalists welcome it, viewing the Earth as grotesquely overpopulated as it is.

The South Korean government, however, is deeply very concerned about its birth dearth. It now offers significant subsidies for childbearing, including $10,500 in cash. At least one city has set up its own match-making services. According to a recent NPR story, “South Korea has moved aggressively to stem the decline in births, and its actions provide a model for steps other governments can take to address the issue.” Such framing, however, is little short of bizarre; as South Korea’s demographic initiatives are clearly failing, they can hardly be regarded as a “model.” Other countries, most notably Czechia, have significantly increased their fertility rates and thus provide much better models. But it remains doubtful that South Korea could successfully follow their lead.

The next GeoCurrents post will examine some of the explanations offered for South Korea’s fertility collapse. For today, we will simply look at birth-rate variation across the country, looking for geographical patterns that might help illuminate the issue.

We begin with a simple map of South Korean TFR by province and other first-order administrative divisions. As can be seen, fertility rates are extremely low across the country. The only area with a TFR above 1.0 is Sejong (officially, Sejong Special Self-Governing City). Sejong was established in 2007 as a planned and spacious city that will eventually replace Seoul as South Korea’s capital. Most governmental ministries have already relocated there. As the Wikipedia article on the city notes, “Sejong uses its new development to market itself as an alternative to Seoul, offering luxury living at a fraction of the cost.” It is not surprising that uncrowded and relatively inexpensive Sejong would have a much higher fertility rate than Seoul – 1.12 as opposed to 0.59 –  as the density and costliness of Seoul are often offered as explanations for its extraordinarily low birthrate.

Otherwise, it is difficult to find any specific factors that might contribute to South Korea’s fertility variation from province to province, which are not, in any event, particularly pronounced. Per capita GDP, for example, does not appear to be significant, as can be seen in the paired map posted below.

Province-level mapping, however, offers a crude and cloudy window into population dynamics. Unfortunately, the only detailed fertility map of South Korea that I have been able to find dates to 2010, when its TFR was a 1.2. As can be seen, several parts of the country at the time had fertility rates over 1.8. Comparting this map to one of population density reveals some interesting but not unexpected patterns. To clarify one of them, I have outlined the areas with relatively high fertility (over 1.8) at the time on a dot-map of population density. As can be seen, all these higher-fertility zones were characterized by low or moderately low population density, at least by South Korean standards. Some areas of very low population density, however, also reported extremely low birth rates. Also unsurprisingly, major cities in 2010 were also characterized by extremely low fertility. An interesting partial exception, however, was the extraordinarily economically productive city of Ulsan in the southeast. From 2010 to 2015, Ulsan’s TFR rose from 1.37 to 1.49; since then, however, it has plummeted to 0.85 (2022).

Although off-topic, the source of Ulsan’s economic productivity is heavy industry. As noted in the Wikipedia article on the city:

Ulsan is the industrial powerhouse of South Korea, forming the heart of the Ulsan Industrial District. It has the world’s largest automobile assembly plant, operated by the Hyundai Motor company the world’s largest shipyard, operated by Hyundai Heavy Industries and the world’s  third largest oil refinery, owned by SK energy. In 2020, Ulsan had a GDP per capita  of $65,352, the highest of any region in South Korea.

South Korea’s Fertility Collapse Read More »

Nationalist Defacement of Maps at Stanford University


Mapping the world is becoming an increasingly fraught endeavor, with both cartographers and those who use their products being taken to task for their failure to depict the geopolitical framework in a certain way. I have received threatening email messages, for example, after posting maps of India that did not include areas claimed by that country but controlled by Pakistan and China. More recently and more seriously, Russian MP Oleg Mikheyev has asked prosecutors to “list the Coca-Cola company as an ‘undesirable organization’ due to the fact that the soda giant did not include Crimea on a Russian map in an online ad.”

Those who object to certain ways of depicting the world sometimes respond by defacing maps and globes that they regard as objectionable. Unfortunately, Stanford University has seen several examples of such cartographic vandalism. Interesting, the three cases that I am familiar with are all focused on issues of nationalism in East Asia.

Defaced Stanford GlobeI first became aware of this problem several years several years ago when I was admiring a large and gorgeous glass globe in the Stanford Library. As can be seen in the detail posted to the left, someone—almost certainly a Korean nationalist—had scratched out the word “Japan” in the label “Sea of Japan” and had replaced it with “East Sea.” Stanford librarians are aware of this defacement, but there is little that they can do, as the cost of restoration would be prohibitive.

More recently, wall maps hanging in the Stanford Department of History have been subjected to similar forms of defacement. This issue is somewhat different, however, as the maps in question are historical documents, showing regions as they existed in earlier periods. Evidently, the depiction of such historical reality is unacceptable to some viewers, who are instead determined to change these maps so that they reflect current conditions. The result is a misdemeanor not merely against property but also against history.

Defaced Stanford Map 2The first of these maps depicts southeastern Asia in 1968. As can be seen in the detail posted here, someone has crossed out “U.K.” under “Hong Kong” and added “China,” evidently wanting to wish away the period of British rule in this former colony. Oddly, “Port.” (for “Portugal) under Macao was left alone, as were several other markers of colonial status elsewhere on the map.

The final example comes from an undated map of eastern Asia that must have been made before 1971, when the United States returned Okinawa and the rest of the Ryukyu Islands to Japan. The fact that this archipelago had been controlled by the U.S. for a prolonged period is fascinating and too-little known, but it is evidently disturbing for some, as someone has inked over the Defaced Stanford Map 1red lines indicating what had been the U.S. zone of control. The same person also crossed out the name “Formosa,” as well as that of “Mt. Morrison” (alternatively, “Yushan” or “Jade Mountain”), evidently unwilling to tolerate European terms on historical maps of this corner of the world.

I can only hope that the persons who defaced these maps were not Stanford students. If they were, it certainly reflects poorly on the university.


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Mapping Early Modern Japan as a Multi-State System

Europe 1000 mapAs numerous GeoCurrents posts have noted, the basic world political map is a misleading document, as it implies that the geopolitical order is much simpler than it actually is. The deceptive simplicity of the standard view is doubly problematic when applied to earlier times, when sovereignty was generally even more slippery than it is at present, and when clearly demarcated boundaries were often absent. In some times and places, particularly those conceptualized as “feudal,” sovereign power was parcelized in such a complex manner that political entities become almost impossible to map. The usual cartographic expedient is to simply depict the highest levels of the feudal hierarchy, such as the Kingdom of France circa 1000 CE or the Holy Roman Empire around 1500 CE, despite the fact that the actual powers of these large political entities were at those times quite limited.

world political map 1700Early modern Japan of the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) was similarly characterized by a complex division of sovereignty among many unequal political entities. To be sure, one of these—the Tokugawa shogunate—effectively dominated the county as a whole, even though it was symbolically subordinate to the Emperor and his court. This dynasty of shoguns imposed peace on what had been a fractious and war-torn archipelago in the 16th century. As a result, world historical maps typically depict early modern Japan as a single, unified state, as seen in the Wikipedia “world in 1700” map posted here. (Note: This particular map erroneously portrays the entire northern island of Hokkaido as fully part of the Japanese realm, when in fact only its southernmost area was under direct Japanese control.)

The only acknowledged zone of ambiguity in the greater Japanese archipelago on many of these maps is the Ryukyu island chain, stretching between southern Japan and Taiwan. On the Wikipedia map posted here, this area is labeled as “near Japanese vassals.” In actuality this collection of islands formed the separate Ryukyu Kingdom, which paid tribute both to China and Japan—a useful strategy for maintaining profitable trade relations at a time when diplomatic ties between these rival East Asian powers had broken down. But although the Ryukyu Kingdom was a ceremonial vassal of the Tokugawa Shogun, in terms of actual power it was a foreign vassal of the Japanese daimyo (lord) of Satsuma, who ruled the southern portion of Kyushu Island under the suzerainty of the Tokugawa. As noted in the Wikipedia:

Japanese were prohibited from visiting Ryukyu without shogunal permission, and the Ryukyuans were forbidden from adopting Japanese names, clothes, or customs. They were even forbidden from divulging their knowledge of the Japanese language during their trips to Edo [Tokyo]; the Shimazu family, daimyo of Satsuma, gained great prestige by putting on a show of parading the King, officials, and other people of Ryukyu to and through Edo. As the only han* [domain] to have a king and an entire kingdom as vassals, Satsuma gained significantly from Ryukyu’s exoticness, reinforcing that it was an entire separate kingdom.

The geopolitical situation of early modern Japan, in short, was much more complex than what is indicated by most maps; it was not a politically unified country in the contemporary sense of the word. Its geopolitical character at the time has been vividly captured by Fabian Drixler, whose work on Japanese Buddhism and infanticide was described in a previous GeoCurrents post.

Drixler begins by noting that Japan experienced an unusually long reprieve from war under the Tokugawa, and then goes on to claim:

The Great Peace is even more remarkable if we think of Japan as not one country, but a collection of some 250 states and statelets. Each state had its own castle and samurai army, as well as a daimyo descended from men who had won power on the battlefield. Some of these states were no more than portfolios of widely scattered villages. But others were compact territories, called “countries” by their hundreds of thousands of inhabitants.

The Tokugawa maintained the peace not by crushing
all their competitors, but
by creating a system in which—for the first time
in centuries—Japan’s ruling elite no longer needed to fear destruction at the hands of their peers.

Tokugawa Japan Map2To be sure, some specialists have attempted to map the complexity of Japan’s geopolitical order during the Tokugawa period, but even in Japanese publications, the political cartography of the Tokugawa period is often surprisingly simplified. The most common strategy, seen in the maps Tokugawa Japan Map 3posted here, is to distinguish the domains controlled directly by the Tokugawa shoguns from those controlled by the daimyo, and then to subdivide the latter in terms of their relations to the Tokugawa clan. The fudai domains seen on these maps were ruled by hereditary vassals of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the dynasty, whereas Tokugawa Mapan Map 5the shinpan were distant kin of the Tokugawa clan. The tozama lords, in contrast, were “outsiders” who only became vassals of the Tokugawa after the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 that paved the way to Tokugawa dominance. Their domains tended to be located in the peripheries of Japan, and many were relatively large. When the shogunate fell in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, it was defeated by the combined military forces of three tozama domains—Satsuma, Chōshū and Tosa—all of which were located far from Japan’s centers of political and economic power.

Maps showing the distribution of power in Tokugawa Japan among these various categories are useful, but even these tend to be somewhat crude, aggregating sizable numbers of small lordships into composite categories. More important, as Drixler notes in a private correspondence, “the distinction between tozama, fudai, and shinpan may also have been less important than such maps suggest.” Significant territorial discrepancies are also found in the various maps posted here. A more comprehensive map of the geopolitical order of Tokugawa Japan would thus be highly beneficial.

Daimyo Territories Japan MapFortunately, such a map is now available, thanks to the efforts, yet again, of Fabian Drixler. Drixler maps more than 200 different domains, yielding a landscape of stunning detail. His main map** sacrifices the larger aggregations of fudai, shinpan, and tozama, instead using separate colors to denote each domain in order to invite viewers to think of Tokugawa Japan as a multi-state system. He has made a separate map, however, that does distinguish these three different kinds of political territories while also differentiating the lands of shrines and temples as well as those of the court and emperor.

Western Japan Daimyo Territories MapThe most striking feature of the resulting map is the extraordinarily fine spatial divisions found in the core areas of Japan. While large domains predominate toward the edges of the archipelago, both the western heartland or Kansai (the greater Osaka/Kyoto region) and its counterpart in the east, the Kanto (a large plain surrounding Edo [Tokyo]) Eastern Japan Daimyo Territories Mapwere political shatter-zones; both areas were fragmented among scores of loyal retainers. Intriguingly, this mirrors the spatial structure of the Holy Roman Empire at the time, whose larger constituent entities were similarly in the margins (particularly the east).






Domain Categories Japan Map








Holy Roman Empire 1648 MapIn both Japan and Germany, political unification*** was propelled from the periphery (Prussia in the case of Germany; Satsuma and Chōshū in the case the case of Japan). But whereas the new German Empire was centered in Prussia’s Berlin, the new rulers of a unified Japan returned the seat of power to Edo, renaming it Tokyo—the “Eastern Capital”— in the process. In Drixler’s view, this reflected an astute awareness that the new country might otherwise splinter into separate eastern and western states.


*Drixler notes that the term “han,” used in this Wikipedia article, is a loaded term, as it “encapsulates the perspective of the Tokugawa center, the ceremonial version of reality in which the other lords were just heading private clans rather than ruling their own states. Internally, domains did not call themselves ‘han,’ but used terms such as kuni or ryōbu.” The term “kuni” is often translated as “country.”

**Drixler’s map is based on a series of maps in Nishioka Toranosuke and Hattori Shisō, eds., Nihon rekishi chizu (Tokyo: Zenkoku Kyōiku Tosho, 1956) and correcting discrepancies between them with reference to the territorial grants from 1664, in Kokuritsu Shiryōkan, eds., Kanbun shuin-dome (Tōkyō Daigaku Shuppankai, 1980) and the Kanbun inchi-shū in Kokusho Kankōkai, eds., Zokuzoku gunsho ruijū vol. 9 (Kokusho Kankōkai, 1906).

*** Such a comparison, however, may be a little too facile, as it evades the so-called German Question of the 1800s. This contentious issue divided those who conceived of German nationalism in terms of all German-speaking people from those who wanted to exclude the German-speakers from the Austrian (later, Austro-Hungarian) Empire. The envisaged states of these two camps were often referred to as Kleindeutschland (“Lesser Germany”) and Großdeutschland (“Greater Germany”). The proponents of “Lesser Germany” may have won the struggle in the 1860s and ‘70s, but the issue was not definitely settled until much later. As Drixler again perceptively notes in a private correspondence:

By calling itself the “German Empire,” the new state came to claim that name for itself, but it was really only in 1945 that Austrian and German became mutually exclusive categories. We now generally conceive of 1871 as “Prussia unifying Germany,” but I think this is reading history backwards.





Mapping Early Modern Japan as a Multi-State System Read More »

Is Japan a Religiously Divided Country? Fabian Drixler on Japan’s East/West Divide


Japan Religion MapI was surprised by the depiction of Japan in Scolbert08’s map of world religion. The map depicts the main island of Honshu as essentially bifurcated into a more Buddhist west and a more Shinto east and northeast*; Shinto is also shown as more prevalent on the island of Shikoku and to a lesser extent in southern Kyushu, whereas Hokkaido in the far north is also shown as slightly more Buddhist. Okinawa in the far south, in contrast, is mapped as “other,” which in this case evidently refers to the semi-animistic, indigenous Ryukyuan religion. Significantly, no portion of Japan is shown as having a majority or even plurality of people with no religious affiliation, quite in contrast to neighboring South Korea.

Japan Religion ChartIt has long been my impression that Japan is a largely secular society—certainly less religious than South Korea, where Christianity is strong and Buddhism well established. Such an impression is partially justified by figures on membership in organized religious bodies, which indicate that over 50 percent of South Koreans belong to a religious organization, whereas in Japan only around 40 percent supposedly do, although most Japanese are buried with Buddhist rites. The religious situation in Japan is further complicated by the presence of so-called folk Shinto, which refers to beliefs and practices that are not affiliated with any formal religious group. As folk Shinto is present over most of Japan (although levels of belief and devotion vary considerably from person to person and region to region), South Korea Religion Chartareas in which relatively few people belong to a specific Buddhist sect might correspondingly be mapped as “Shinto.” Only a few percent of the Japanese population, however, actually belong to formal Shinto organizations.

Mapping religion in Japan is further complicated by the fact that both Mahayana Buddhism and Shinto are non-exclusive faiths, allowing adherents to simultaneously profess other belief systems. According to many sources, a clear majority of the Japanese people are simultaneously Buddhists and followers of (folk) Shinto, although most are not particularly religious in their daily lives. (Interest in Buddhism often grows in old age.) For about 1,300 years, moreover, Buddhism and Shinto had been deeply intertwined, and despite the state-imposed separation of the two faiths in 1868, elements of syncretism persist. Mapping separate Buddhist and Shinto regions in Japan is thus intrinsically problematic. Some evidence suggests that many areas with a high degree of adherence to Buddhism also have a high degree of adherence to Shinto. The paired maps posted to the left certainly indicate as Japan Shinto Buddhism Mapmuch, although I have doubts about their accuracy. (The second map, for example, shows Kochi prefecture in southern Shikoku as more than 85 percent Buddhist, whereas the data table in the Wikipedia article on religion in Japan claims that Kochi has Japan’s second-lowest rate of adherence to Buddhism, at 17.6 percent. The same table gives Kochi the highest level of membership in formal Shinto organizations, at 5.5 percent. Kochi also has the largest number of Shinto shrines in Japan.)


Japan Shinto Shrines Map

My current understanding is that while Japan does show a modest degree of religious regionalism, it is one that separates a more religious west from a more secular east, rather than Buddhist from Shinto regions. In trying to determine why this would be the case, I turned to Fabian Drixler, a historian of Japan at Yale University who also happens to be a superb cartographer. As Drixler notes in regard to Scolbert08’s depiction of Japan:


This map is quite unexpected. There is no prominent discourse in Japan today of a Buddhist West and a Shinto East, and in every part of Japan, most people participate in at least some of the rites of both traditions. But the map does not seem random either. For one, cultural differences between Eastern and Western Japan have a long history. Some medieval historians treat the Eastlands and Westlands as effectively separate countries. And in 1868, many of the protagonists in the war that brought down the Tokugawa shogunate believed that Japan’s fragmentation into an Eastern and a Western state was the most likely outcome, and made astonishing sacrifices to avert that outcome. This included the move of the imperial capital from Kyoto to the heart of the defeated Eastlands, the city now called Tokyo.

Japan’s religious geography according to Scolbert08 has other historical resonances. In most prefectures that are portrayed as having a plurality of Buddhists, Shin Buddhism (aka True Pure Land, Jōdo Shinshū) is the leading Buddhist denomination. In the 16th century, parts of central Japan were ruled by Shin Buddhist Japan Shin Buddhism Maptheocratic states with fearsome armies and impregnable fortresses. Although samurai warlords broke the power of armed Buddhism in the 1570s and 1580s, Shin Buddhists have continued to take their faith especially seriously. During the early modern period, Shin Buddhism dominated the religious landscape in Hokuriku, western Honshu, and parts of Kyushu. After 1870, Shin Buddhists were also numerous among the settlers that transformed Hokkaido from a thinly settled frontier into an integral part of Japan. (See my map posted here, created from a 1922 survey of religious affiliations.)

I am amused that on Scolbert08’s map, Buddhism appears so weak in Eastern Japan, because this echoes a prejudice voiced by Shin Buddhist priests in Hokuriku more than two centuries ago. To cite one of these clerics (Enkiin of Honseiji): “In the Kantō [= Eastern Japan], the spirit of people is strong and brave, but they do not understand Buddhism. They delight in the taking of life and turn their backs on official prohibitions. The folly of parents killing their own children happens frequently there. Moreover, they do not understand the paths of good and bad karma, and in their prayers only ask for advantages in this present life. Or so I hear.”

Infanticide Japan MapScolbert08’s map also reminded Drixler of the historical geography of infanticide in Japan, a topic that he has studied extensively (see his award-winning book, Mabiki: Infanticide and Population Growth in Eastern Japan, 1660-1950). As he puts it, “Most areas once infamous for infanticide appear in mid-to-dark pink [the color for Shinto on Scolbert08’s map]”


Drixler also comments insightfully on the one part of western Honshu, Okayama Prefecture, that is mapped as more Shinto than Buddhist on Scolbert08’s map. As he notes, “Areas in which Buddhism suffered destructive attacks between the mid-17th century and 1880 are generally pink [indicating Shinto dominance]. Okayama domain, for example, tried to reduce the number of Buddhist temples and priests in the 1660s.”

Had it not been for such anti-Buddhist activities, Japan would perhaps be a more devoutly Buddhist country than it is at present. The main clampdown came with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, but previous incidents were often severe, as powerful Buddhist monasteries threatened political power-holders and offered tempting treasures. According to the Wikipedia:

Haibutsu kishaku [literally “Ditch the Buddha and destroy Shākyamuni”] is a term that indicates a current of thought continuous in Japan’s history which advocates the expulsion of Buddhism from Japan. More narrowly, it also indicates a particular historic movement and specific historic events based on that ideology which, during the Meiji Restoration, produced the destruction of Buddhist temples, images and texts, and the forced return to secular life of Buddhist monks.

Another example is the policies of temple closure and monk defrocking of the Okayama, Aizu, and Mito Domains, also adopted for political and economic, rather than religious, reasons during the early modern period. These domainal policies were in general based on Confucian anti-Buddhist thought. The Meiji period form of haibutsu kishaku, based on kokugaku and Shinto-centrism, was instead dictated by a desire to distinguish between foreign Buddhism and a purely Japanese Shinto.

Drixler, however, objects to this Wikipedia description, noting that the term “haibutsu kishaku” is usually limited to the events of the 1860s. As he notes, “In Japan’s version of the OED, the earliest mention of the term listed is 1868. I don’t believe this phrase was applied to the policies of Okayama or Mito or Aizu in the 1660s, for example, nor even for Mito’s confiscation of temple bells (to make guns) in the Tenpō period (1830-1844).”

Japanese Buddhism always made at least partial recoveries after such setbacks. Currently, however, it is facing a crisis of a different kind: lack of interest, especially among the younger generation. A recent article in The Guardian claims that, “Over the next 25 years, 27,000 of the country’s 77,000 temples are expected to close, in one of the biggest existential crises facing Japanese Buddhism since it was introduced from Korea in the sixth century.”

Drixler’s take on the future of Buddhism in Japan is more optimistic:

I don’t think a reduction in the number of temples by one third is an existential crisis, even if it should come to pass. Presumably, it will be the smallest temples that will close first, and their functions will be taken over by neighboring institutions. Even after these closures, there would be one temple for every 2000 Japanese citizens or so. That sounds like sufficient coverage for me.

And even the pessimistic Guardian article quoted above ends on a note of hope for the faith:

“Japanese Buddhism has gone in a strange direction,” said Shibata, a retired businessman who traces his interest in Zen Buddhism to early-morning meditation sessions as a child. “These days most people associate it with funerals, but there is much more to it than that.”

Some priests are attempting to reverse the decline and challenge the “funeral Buddhism” image by opening temple cafes, supporting volunteer activities, and hosting music and theatre productions. In Tokyo, priests at Vowz Bar dispense spiritual guidance along with alcohol, to their young clientele.

* This region might be deemed by outsiders as the northeast, but the Japanese generally view their country in east-west terms, with the Tokyo area forming the core of the east. “Northeast Japan” conventionally denotes a well-defined region within the East of Japan, that of Northern Honshu, or Tōhoku.


Is Japan a Religiously Divided Country? Fabian Drixler on Japan’s East/West Divide Read More »

Slides on Conflicts in the East Asian Seas

Disputed Islands in the East Asian SeasDear Readers,

East Asian Seas MapRegular GeoCurrents posts continue to be delayed, due to a combination of illness and teaching obligations. Today’s post merely links to a set of slides that I used for my lecture last night on territorial conflicts in the East Asian Seas. I made several original maps (on Google and Google Earth base maps), which are posted here directly.

Six Seas of Eurasia's Eastern RimNext week’s lecture  will be on the 2015 UK election. I hope to write a blog post or two on the election before  next Tuesday.

East Asia Seas Conflicts

Slides on Conflicts in the East Asian Seas Read More »

Xinjiang, China: Ethnicity and Economic Development

China GDP by Prefecture MapAn impressive map of China’s per capita GDP by prefecture, reposted here, appeared in late 2012 on the website Skyscraper City, posted by user “Chrissib” Cicerone.  According to the map, the two poorest parts of China are in southern Gansu province, an area demographically dominated by Han Chinese, and in southwestern Xinjiang, an area demographically dominated by Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking, Sunni Muslim people.

As noted in the previous GeoNote, the level of economic development in Xinjiang as a whole is slightly lower than the Chinese average, as measured by per capita GDP. But as Chrissib’s map shows, Xinjiang shows striking disparities in its own regional economic patterns. As a comparison of a detail of his map with a Wikipedia map of ethnicity in Xinjiang shows, areas dominated by Han Chinese have much higher levels of economic productivity than those dominated by Uighurs. Also essential to note is the fact that the Han Chinese domination of eastern Xinjiang largely stems from relatively recent immigration to the region, a process much resented by Uighur activists.

Xinjiang GDP and Ethnicity mapChina is currently seeking to enhance the economic development of Xinjiang, along with the country’s other western regions. But as Preeti Bhattacharji explains in a recent article published by the Council on Foreign Relations, the project faces a number of ethnic issues:

Xinjiang’s wealth hinges on its vast mineral and oil deposits. In the early 1990s, Beijing decided to spur Xinjiang’s growth by creating special economic zones, subsidizing local cotton farmers, and overhauling its tax system. In August 1991, the Xinjiang government launched the Tarim Basin Project to increase agricultural output. During this period, Beijing invested in the region’s infrastructure, building massive projects like the Tarim Desert Highway and a rail link to western Xinjiang. In a 2000 article for the China Journal, Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch said these projects were designed to literally “bind Xinjiang more closely to the rest of the PRC.”


Ethnic tension is fanned by economic disparity: not only are the Han-dominated areas more productive, but the Han individuals tend to be wealthier than the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Some experts say the wage gap is the result of discriminatory hiring practices. The CECC reported in 2006 that the XPCC [Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps] reserved approximately 800 of 840 civil servant job openings for Han. This policy was changed in 2011, however, and the XPCC “left almost all positions unreserved by ethnicity.” But the 2011 CECC says both government and private sectors had discriminatory hiring practices against the Uighurs and also denied them religious rights such as observing Ramadan and allowing Muslim men to wear beards and women to wear veils.


Xinjiang, China: Ethnicity and Economic Development Read More »

Regional Trends in Chinese Economic Development

China GDP by province growth 2011 mapA widely distributed China Briefing map shows per capita GDP gains by province* for 2011. As can be seen, all parts of China experienced rapid economic expansion in that year, but the more prosperous and productive coastal zone did not fare as well as many interior areas. The mineral-driven boom in Inner Mongolia is well known, but the rapid recent growth experienced in such provinces as Sichuan and Guizhou has not received as much attention in the international press. As several of these rapidly expanding areas are quite poor by Chinese standards —with Guizhou having China’s lowest per capita GDP—such patterns indicate a slight lessening of the country’s stark regional disparities.

IChina GDP ranking by province 2010 mapt remains to be seen, of course, whether such patterns will persist. When examined over the past several decades, a strikingly different map of regional development emerges. To illustrate such differences, I have made several maps of the relative economic standing of Chinese provinces, using Wikipedia data. The first map shows per capita GDP ranking in 2010. Here blue provinces have higher than average figures and red provinces lower than average figures, with the two richest areas (Shanghai and Beijing) shown in dark blue, the third and fourth richest is a somewhat lighter shade of blue, and so on. On this map, the economic development of the coastal zone is clearly evident, as is the low economic productivity of the greater southwest.

China GDP ranking by province 1978 mapThe second map portrays the country in the same manner for 1978, just as China’s economic transformation was beginning. (Note that 29 rather 31 entities are mapped here, as at the time Chongqing was part of Sichuan, whereas data for Hainan were not tabulated). The economic pattern at the time was strikingly different from that of 2010; in the late 1970s, the northeast (Manchuria) was the clear economic leader, while much of the far west, including the entire Tibetan Plateau, ranked at a relatively high level.

China Change in GDP by Province MapThe final map shows changes in relative rankings over the same period. Three province-level municipalities, Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin, remained the same, occupying the top three positions in both years. Xinjiang in the northwest also retained the same ranking, remaining in position number 19. Other regions show significant changes. The coast surged ahead, particularly Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shandong, as did mineral-rich Inner Mongolia. The rust-belt zone of Manchuria, on the other hand, dropped significantly. An even greater drop, however, is seen in the Tibetan Plateau (Tibet proper and Qinghai) and the adjoining province of Gansu. Tibet itself dropped from the 9th position to the 28th.


*Strictly speaking, the units in question are province-level administrative divisions, including autonomous regions and direct-controlled municipalities. China’s Special Administrative Regions (Hong Kong and Macau) are not included.


Regional Trends in Chinese Economic Development Read More »

The New York Times’ Flubbed China Cartograms

NY Times China Population CartogramAn interesting story in today’s (April 9) New York Times—“Hello, Cambodia: Wary of Events in China, Foreign Investors Head to the South”—is illustrated in the print edition with two striking cartograms of eastern Asia, one of which shows population and the other economic output. The cartogram legends claims that “countries and Chinese provinces are sized according to population” and, respectively to “economic output.” Actually, they are not. On the population cartogram, for example, compare the sizes of Hong Kong and Taiwan with that of Thailand. Is Thailand shown as almost ten times larger than Hong Kong and almost three times the size of Taiwan, as an accurate depiction would have it? Hardly.


NY Times China Economic CartogramThe real problem with the maps, however, is the claim that Chinese provinces are also sized according to these metrics. In actuality, it appears that no efforts were made to depict China’s first-order internal divisions (which include autonomous regions and direct-controlled municipalities in addition to standard provinces) in the manner of a cartogram. If this had been done, China would not retain its familiar shape, as can immediately be seen on an actual population cartogram of the country, produced by Worldmapper. On an economic cartogram, the shape distortion would be even more pronounced, as production is concentrated in the coastal provinces. As the Economist map shows, the GDP of the Tibetan Autonomous Region is roughly equivalent to that of Malta.

WorldMapperChinaPopulationCartogramThe New York Times cartograms also seemingly imply that Hong Kong is an independent country, rather than a “special administrative region” of China.




The New York Times’ Flubbed China Cartograms Read More »

Intense Regionalism in the South Korean Presidential Election of 2012

300px-South_Korean_presidential_election_2012.svg South Korea is usually considered to be one of the world’s most homogenous countries. Regional differences in dialect are relatively minor, with only that of Jeju island being distinctive enough to merit designation as a separate language by linguistic splitters. A pronounced sense of Korean nationalism, moreover, is found across the country. But despite these commonalities, South Korea is still characterized by intense regionalism, as is evident in election returns. The December 19, 2012 presidential election in particular revealed deep political cleavages.

South Korea 2012 Presidential Election Map Most maps of this election, however, hide such disparities. The Wikipedia map posted here, for example, merely shows the southwest and greater Seoul as having supported the losing candidate, Moon Jae-in, and the rest of the country as having voted for the winning candidate, Park Geun-hye. I have therefore made a more detailed map that highlights regional differences, using data presented on the Electoral Geography website. As can be seen, Moon may have taken only 48 percent of the vote nationally, but he gathered over 80 percent throughout the southwest, winning more than 90 percent in the important southwestern city of Gwangju. Park, in contrast, did extremely well in the southeastern part of the country, taking more than 80 percent of the vote in North Gyeongsang and in the city of Daegu. Eastern South Korea more generally supported Park. Only the northwest, including the megalopolis of Seoul, saw a truly competitive election.

The South Korean regional patterns illustrated by the 2012 presidential election are nothing new. The southwest, a region traditionally known as Honam, generally supports left-leaning candidates, and hence went for Moon Jae-in, who represented the center-left Democratic United Party.  The southeast, a regiona traditionally known as Yeongnam, generally supports right-leaning candidates, and hence went for Park Geun-hye of the conservative Saenuri Party (formerly known as the Grand National Party). Personal factors, moreover, seem to have exacerbated regional differences in this election. Park Geun-hye is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, a former South Korean leader and military strongman who declared martial law and named himself president-for-life in 1972. Park is said to have focused development on the southeast while marginalizing the southwest, which in turn became the stronghold of the democratization movement.  Shortly after Park was assassinated in 1979, a popular uprising against authoritarian government in the southwest was crushed by the South Korean military, an incident usually called the Guangju Massacre.

Korea Three Kingdoms Map Some writers have suggested that the roots of South Korea’s southwest-southeast tensions date back to the Three Kingdoms Period (57 CE to 668 CE). As can be seen on the map, southwestern South Korea was then largely coincident with the Kingdom of Baekje, whereas the southeast corresponded to the kingdom of Silla. In the struggles between the two, Silla eventually proved victorious.

In general terms, regional electoral discrepancies of the sort seen in South Korea indicate weak national foundations, with local particularism overriding unity of the nation. This does not seem to be the case in South Korea, however, where politicized regionalism does not seem to run counter to pronounced nationalism. But regardless of such widespread national solidarity, South Korea cannot be considered, strictly speaking, to form a nation-state, as the national sentiments in question encompass the people of another state as well, that of North Korea.







Intense Regionalism in the South Korean Presidential Election of 2012 Read More »

India to Send Tank Brigades to the China Border

India’s military recently announced that it would deploy two tank brigades to guard the country’s border with China, one to be stationed in Ladakh (in northeastern Kashmir), and the other in the north Sikkim Plateau. As Business Standard reports, “Such formations, equipped with main battle tanks and BMP-II infantry combat vehicles, are traditionally used for striking into enemy territory.” The report also notes that India’s decision was based on the fact that “China’s People’s Liberation Army … has deployed armoured and motorised formations in both their military regions across the Line of Actual Control, as the de facto Sino-Indian border is called.” It goes on to claim that if China attacks and grabs a section of Indian territory, India will now be able to launch a counter-offense to take over a different piece of Chinese territory. As this is the 50th anniversary year of the Sino-Indian War of 1962, which cost India the Himalayan territory of Aksai Chin, Indian military officials are keen to argue that their country’s territorial integrity will never again be violated in such a manner.

Despite such talk and actions, the Indian government, like that of China, hopes to avoid any actual conflict. As a result, the two countries are “planning to set up hotlines between army commanders in-charge of their respective border areas along Jammu and Kashmir and Northeastern states in the next three to four months,” as reported in the Economic Times. Meanwhile, economic ties between the two Asian giants continue to grow. As reported by NDTV, “India and China have entered into a five-year economic cooperation plan to strengthen the trade relationship between the two countries. Trade between China and India is expected to reach USD 100 billion by 2015…”

Map Source: Paksoldiers


India to Send Tank Brigades to the China Border Read More »

Mongolia’s Three Manly Skills, the Olympics, and Genghis Khan

In anticipation of future posts exploring the geography of Olympic medals, this post will focus on the sporting fortunes of one country in particular—Mongolia. Mongolia tends to perform very well in on the basis of medals won weighed by population or GDP. In 2012, Mongolia earned two silver and two bronze medals, placing it third in total medals per dollar of GDP and tenth in total medals per capita. Since Mongolia’s first summer Olympics in 1964, all of the country’s medals have come from just four sports: wrestling, boxing, judo, and shooting.

The sporting scene in Mongolia has remained remarkably stable for hundreds of years. The traditional Three Manly Skills of Mongolia—horseback riding, archery, and wrestling—remain the country’s most popular sports to this day. The cultural niche filled in the U.S. by the Super Bowl in in Europe by the UEFA Champions League is in Mongolia filled by the three-day Naadam festival (picture at left from Wikipedia). Most Mongolian communities have their own Naadam festival, but the national festival in Ulaanbaatar always takes center stage. At the festival, contestants gather to showcase their horsemanship, test their skill with a bow, and grapple in the traditional Mongolian wrestling style known as Bökh. The aim of Bökh is quite simple: to knock one’s opponent to the ground (picture at left from). Though wrestling is always the most anticipated event, the trick horsemanship on offer at the festival is extremely popular and immensely impressive.

Champions, or “Titans”, as Bökh winners are known in Mongolia, tend to transition fairly easily to foreign wrestling venues. Many have gone on to have successful careers in Japanese Sumo-Wrestling while others become the Olympic medalists that catapult Mongolia to its lofty position in the per capita medal rankings. Mongolia’s high position thus isn’t much of a mystery when one considers that a country’s per capita success in a sport will depend heavily on the share of its youth who are exposed to that sport. What is rather strange, then, is Mongolia’s inability to compete internationally in horse-based events.

The warriors of Genghis Khan practically lived on their horses. They could ride for days, gaining sustenance by cutting the veins of their cold-numbed horses and drinking as much blood as they could without physically compromising their mounts. In battle, they shot arrows with deadly accuracy no matter which way their horses happened to be running. The Mongols of today may not drink much horse blood, but many are still excellent riders, and riding maintains its place as a central experience in Mongolian life, especially outside of Ulaanbaatar. Horses in Mongolia outnumber people, and the winners of wrestling competitions often receive horses as a prize. According to Wikipedia, a well-known Mongolian military figure picked up coins from the ground while riding a horse at full speed. It seems that Mongolia’s relative failure in equestrian Olympic sports as well as non-Olympic thoroughbred racing is not due to a lack of horsemanship, but rather to huge differences between its style of horse competitions and those of the rest of the world.

Unlike skill in Bökh, which carries over well to more international forms of wrestling, Mongolian horsemanship spurns the kind of courses that define dressage and similar Olympic events. Mongolians have little use for horses that excel at jumping or sprinting, though those events are practiced to some degree. Instead, Mongolians today seek the same quality in horses as their ancestors did: endurance. To Genghis Khan’s rivals in China and Europe, Mongolian horses looked weak, slow and haggard compared to their well-fed counterparts. Mongolian horses usually triumphed in the end, however, as their supreme endurance allowed armies to move quickly and fight in the most favorable locations. During battle, Mongolian horses could run back and forth constantly without tiring, allowing fresh troops to fire wave after wave of arrows at confused enemies who usually mistook this maneuvering for a full retreat.

Mongolia’s most popular distances for horse racing are 25 kilometers or more, distances that utterly dwarf those of the rest of the world. Mongolians also do not coddle their horses, which live outside in temperatures as cold as -40°C. Though often mistaken for ponies due to their diminutive size, Mongolian horses are arguably the toughest in the world. Currently, Olympic equestrian sports are set up to represent a Western, upper-class conception of horsemanship that features fancy costumes and multi-million-dollar animals jumping over short fences. Perhaps a more balanced formulation of equestrian sports that included endurance events would allow Mongolia supplement its medal haul from wrestling and judo.


Mongolia’s Three Manly Skills, the Olympics, and Genghis Khan Read More »

The On-Going Japan Sea/East Sea Naming Controversy

The South Korean government was severely disappointed by the April 2012 meeting of the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO), as the global body responsible for standardizing the world’s maritime place-names declined to change the name of the sea sandwiched between Korea and Japan. The IHO will continue to refer to this stretch of the ocean as the “Sea of Japan,” a name regarded by most Koreans as an unjust colonialist construct. The South Korean government does not officially object to the term “Sea of Japan” per se, but it does request that sea in question also be labeled the “East Sea,” the direct English translation of the Korean Dong-hae. (North Korea favors the more nationalistically “East Sea of Korea.”) Koreans are also irritated by the fact that the government of the United States, following its Board on Geographical Names, continues to use “Sea of Japan.” The U.S. military follows suit, resulting in what Stars and Stripes recently called a “rare public disagreement between South Korea and the U.S. military.”

The IHO will not be able to reconsider the Korean request until it meets again in 2017. In the meantime, the South Korean government has been lobbying media outlets—including lowly geography blogs—to use the dual formulation “Sea of Japan/East Sea.” A number of prominent publications now employ both terms, including the National Geographic Society, Rand McNally, The Economist, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and Le Monde. As the booklet entitled The East Sea in Maps, published by South Korea’s Northeast Asia History Foundation, specifies, more than sixty European-language atlases now use both terms. The booklet also outlines the main arguments for the proposed change:

Until the 19th century, various names had been used to designate the sea area in question while “Sea of Japan” had not been widely used even in Japan. Moreover, many maps at that time did not indicate any name for this sea area. With the rise of Japan as a regional power in Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the sea area in question came to be referred to more often as “Sea of Japan.” However, Korea was not able to present its view on the naming of the sea area in question in international fora since it was at that time under Japanese colonial rule.

The Korean position makes historical sense, and the request to use both names seems reasonable enough. As a result, I have decided to use both terms in my own writing. But I am also off-put by the vehemence expressed by some Koreans over this issue. A gorgeous $20,000 globe in Stanford’s main library, for example, has been defaced by a Korean partisan who scratched out “Sea of Japan” and penned in “East Sea.”

Frustrated that international and foreign governmental institutions have not made the requested change, some Koreans have advocated more pointed terms, such as “Sea of Korea,” suggested by South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan. In 2006, the president Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea proposed to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe that both names be dropped in favor of more accommodating alternatives, such as “Sea of Peace” or “Sea of Friendship,” but he was rebuffed. In the meantime, partisans of both “East Sea” and “Sea of Japan” continue to scrutinize old maps, nautical charts, and geography texts, looking for precedents supposedly established by the early use their favored terms.

It is perhaps not surprising that the Korean efforts to effect a name-change have often been frustrated. Most countries, as well as most international organizations, are reluctant to change the names of any large geographical features. Switching long-established terms is a cumbersome exercise, and most people like to employ familiar words. More specific objections have also been raised. Some argue that the term “East Sea” is potentially ambiguous, as a number of water-bodies are so designated in a variety of local languages. Concerns have also been expressed about setting a precedent that could result in the increased politicization of geographical names.

Such politicization does seem to be occurring. The Philippines now officially rejects the term “South China Sea,” and instead insists on “West Philippine Sea.” More contentious is the dispute over the name of the water-body located between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula, which is generally called the “Persian Gulf” in international circles, but which most Arabs refer to as the “Arabian Gulf.” As a previous GeoCurrents post noted, the resulting dispute is often heated. Judging from reader’s comments on this and other blogs, it can be difficult for disinterested observers to avoid giving offense in such circumstance: if “Persian Gulf” offends most Arabs, “Arabian Gulf” offends most Iranians, while the compromise “Persian/Arabian Gulf” alternative would likely irritate both groups. As a result, some writers simply call this body of water “the Gulf,” sacrificing geographical precision in favor of innocuous discourse.

However such nomenclatural disputes play out, the quest to find a solution through historical research in cartographic archives seems quixotic. The names of most water-bodies have changed on numerous occasions in the Western geographical tradition alone, as the creation of standardized, internationally recognized names for major geographical features is a relatively recent development. Even the names of the oceans were historically unstable, as were the lines of division separating one ocean and another. In the 1700s, for example, many European cartographers applied the term “Ethiopian Ocean” to the entire expanse of water that wrapped around southern Africa, extending from what we now call the South Atlantic Ocean to the western Indian Ocean. So too the differentiation between seas and oceans was not fixed until the nineteenth century. In the early modern period, even British cartographers commonly labeled the water-body to the east of Britain as the “German Ocean.” Intriguingly, in switching to the modern term “North Sea,” they retained a continental orientation, as from a British perspective the most appropriate label would be—again—“East Sea.” By the same token, the use of the term “Irish Sea” for the waters between Britain and Ireland has never generated much controversy in the United Kingdom.

The British are unperturbed by the term “Irish Sea” for the same reason that few residents of the United States are angered by the term “Gulf of Mexico”: the hostility between the countries in question is largely a thing of the past, while the names of the particular water-bodies are linked to the names of the less powerful states of each pair, and thus cannot be construed as conveying the legacy of imperialism. If the Irish Sea were called the “British Sea” by the IHO, would the Irish object? Perhaps. Admittedly, a much-derided proposal was recently made in the Mississippi state legislature to rename the Gulf of Mexico the “Gulf of America,” but it turns out that the measure was a tongue-in-cheek effort “to mock other bills that would crack down on illegal immigration.”

Besides the examples given above, roughly a dozen major bodies of water share their official, IHO-sanctioned names with those of sovereign states: Argentine Sea, Gulf of Guinea, Gulf of Finland, Gulf of Venezuela, Libyan Sea, Norwegian Sea, Mozambique Channel, East China Sea, Gulf of Thailand, Philippine Sea, and Indian Ocean.* To my knowledge, none of these names is particularly controversial. If memory serves correctly, a few Indonesians have expressed dissatisfaction with the term “Indian Ocean,” arguing instead that this body of water be called the “Indonesian Ocean,” but I have not been able to find confirmation. If such an objection has indeed been made, it is rather ironic, as the name “Indonesia” itself literally means—in Greek—the “Islands of India.”

*Other sea-names close to matching this criterion, such as Timor Sea, but do not quite fulfill it.


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