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[Opinion] Learning Things Dutch

Posted February. 10, 2007 03:00,   


Biru (beer), garasu (glass), gomu, gabang, pinseto (pincetto): these Japanese words sounding somewhat familiar to Koreans are borrowed from the Netherlands. When Admiral Perry found the “Closed Country” of Japan with his fleet of “Black Ships” in 1853, he and his men were taken aback by a small-bodied Japanese official saying, “I speak Dutch.”As such, the Netherlands was the “window” of modern Japan. Japanese have called the country also dubbed Holland, “Hwaran” in Chinese characters.

Japan, just like the Joseon Dynasty, chose to stay closed to the outside world for a long time except for a single outlet: a small man-made islet called Dejima in Nagasaki. Dokugawa Makbu allowed the Dutch to reside on the islet as many as 200 years for mutual trade before succumbing to Admiral Perry’s demand. Except for Christianity, much of Western civilization made inroads into Japan via this route, including world geography, medical books, cannons, and telescopes. Those were the golden years of learning things that were Dutch.

Yukechi Fukujawa (1835~1901), known as the “Benjamin Franklin of Japan” as a pioneer of modernization in Japan’s Meiji period, was a follower in learning things Dutch. However, being aware that most Western merchants used English instead of Dutch, he shifted attention to learning things English. So he ended up founding Keio University, insisting on the so-called “Departure from Asia to Europe,” meaning, “Japan must be a member of major powers of America and Europe, departing from Asia.” The theory was an ideological starting point of the Pacific War.

In Washington, tensions are building as lawmakers await the public testimony of Jan Ruff-O`Herne (84), a former Dutch comfort woman victimized by the Japanese army, scheduled on February 15. A comfort woman usually brings to mind Asian women victims, but it is said that as many as 100 Dutch women who lived on Java, a Dutch colony during the Pacific War, were conscripted to become comfort women. It remains to be seen how the Japanese will react to her testimony as Japan even waged its war insisting on a, “departure from Asia to Europe,” having opened itself to the outside world by “learning things Dutch.”

Kim Chang-hyeok, chang@donga.com