Books · Reviews

Review: Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History

Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History
Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History by Bruce Cumings
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I’m one of those weirdo types that loves reading history books, especially if they’re Asian history books (I’m a dedicated Asian studies major after all). With reading an array of historical textual stuff, especially for my higher education pursuits, I can generally get a good feel for the book. In my many years of passionate sponging of information in this field, I have never encountered something that had made me physically angry at the author. Let me explain the reasoning for this rage and disgust.

History books come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors. You have your analytical types that delve into the nooks and crannies of a very narrow event or time. Maybe instead of an event, the analysis will be focused on strategy or economy. Whatever the foundation of study, it has room for some subjective input. When working on such an interpretive piece, it’s sometimes necessary to explain your perspective on the matter as the person conducting the analysis. I completely get that and agree with it, however…

This is NOT AN ANALYTICAL HISTORY BOOK. Korea’s Place in the Sun is supposed to be a book that offers us a presentation of Korea’s history. There are supposed to be facts and accounts of what helped to shape the nation of Korea into what it is today. I will admit that Cumings does a fairly decent job of offering his audience the facts with great detail, even if his interpretation is terribly incorrect (which only occurs a few times in the entire 500 some odd pages). But the way he talks about other nations with spiteful beguilement, makes me sick.

I know that there are books out there where as an author is providing a piece of information, they like to take a moment and describe how they acquired that information, especially if it helps the reader to better understand the culture or people that is in discussion. But never have I encountered an author who describes a situation in where he openly offends the person with whom he is speaking by belittling their culture, finds their offended reaction to be humorous, and then proceeds to add more fuel to the fire.

Korea’s Place in the Sun discusses the Japanese occupation of Korea and even stipulates that Koreans migrated over to Japan in the ancient era and as such the foundation of Japanese culture is inherently Korean. Cumings provides us with evidence to support this, however. While he discusses what is known as “Japanese pride,” he mentions an encounter he had with a professor in Japan where this notion of a Korean groundwork was brought up. Whether he did so intentionally or not, he ended up greatly offending the professor severely. The man ended up leaving the room and refused to answer anymore of Cumings questions. Cumings refers to this incident in the pages of his book with great mirth and while continuing with his explanation, adds this: “Maybe I deserved it, maybe not; in any case, let me say something even more offensive to Japanese sensibilities…” (38). This is not okay. There were a thousand different ways he could have continued forward, and this statement was not a good way of doing it.

This isn’t the first time he jabs at the Japanese (specifically Japanese pride) in his book. There are many more instances like this throughout the 500+ pages. I am a strong believer in putting aside your prejudices for professionalism, especially if you are writing an objective piece of literature for educational purposes. Poking fun at another culture, for whatever reason, is extremely uncalled for. Enjoying the fact that you brazenly disrespected another person, a professional that you approached for research purposes to write this book, is outright unacceptable. It takes away credibility, illustrates immaturity, and can be construed as unethical.

I had a very difficult time reading this and actually taking most of the information at face value. Once something has been tainted with a crap attitude like this, it’s extremely difficult to take it seriously. At least that is the case for me.

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