In my discussion of the job market I said “I only saw two Korea positions, which seems about par for previous years: at some point, though, Korea positions should catch up with Japan ones.” Morgan Pitelka took exception, noting (correctly) that
Other than UCLA, which continues to have one of the most productive Korean studies programs outside of Korea, and perhaps Harvard and Columbia, how many grad schools are cranking out Korean studies PhDs? I also know of only a handful of liberal arts colleges with any substantial Korean studies, and rarely language. Very few regional/MA-granting universities have substantial Korean studies. Almost all have some Japanese studies. Also, as far as I know, few colleges or universities DON’T have access to study abroad in Japan. On the other hand, most colleges and universities don’t have study abroad options in Korea.
He’s absolutely right, of course: Korean studies doesn’t have the infrastructure Japanese studies does in the US1 and that means that — like the painfully slow growth of MidEast studies and Islamic history after 9/11 — it will take real time and effort to build. But that’s a symptom, I think, not the root of the issue. As I said, “Korean history is no less interesting than Japanese history, and the US is no less involved in Korean affairs than it is in Japanese affairs.”
Another commenter, “Overthinker” offered a cultural explanation:
There seem to be three fundamental reasons why Japanese Studies is “bigger” than Korean. One is that WW2 was more significant that the Korean War, and has given us longer-lasting imagery; household words like Pearl Harbour and Hiroshima that everyone knows about, whereas to most people the Korean War is basically Klinger in a dress. Second is the dominance of Japanese products in the marketplace: while LG and Samsung etc are strong players, they have not yet achieved the dominance of Toyota, Sony, and Nintendo. Third is the generally “cooler” images of Japan. Think of Korea, and most Americans would be hard-pressed to think beyond the aforementioned M*A*S*H and perhaps Kim Il Jung singing “I’m so ronery”. Mention Japan and people think of samurai and geisha and ninja, plus robots and giant rubber monsters stomping Tokyo on a regular basis. All these three factors would seem to indicate a greater interest in Japan at the BA level, which translates to bigger graduate programs, and more PhDs in the area. To become bigger, Korea needs to become more popular – more people at the undergrad level need to be curious about the place.
This is closer, I think: I definitely agree that Japan’s lead in economic and cultural production is a part of the puzzle. The relationship between pop culture images and student demand is not always straightforward, but it is true that there is more Japanalia in American culture than Koreania2 and more interest in the cultural roots of its economic success3 because that success was so striking in the 80s.
But, as I’ve said before, “there’s no question that a historian can’t complicate by talking about what led up to it” and I think the key to this puzzle is earlier. Much earlier: I think it starts in 1853.