“Teacher, what’s your blood type?”

One of the many rather personal questions you may be asked when you arrive in Korea is ‘what is your blood type?‘. I remember being asked by my 9 year olds on my first day at school and being a little confused. I hadn’t got a clue what my blood type was, but more importantly, why on earth were they asking??

In much the same way that many Westerners view star signs, some Asian cultures consider someone’s blood type to be a prediction of their personality, temperament and compatibility with others.

Whilst today the concept is trivial and something of a joke to people, it’s origins are rather more sinister. The idea of blood types being an indication of someone’s character can be traced back to the early 20th century. It was used by Nazi Germany, before being adopted by Imperial Japan, to promote their supremacist ideology over other races. As the distribution of blood groups can be somewhat disproportionate across the world, the Nazis realised that blood types A and O were much more common in German people, while Asians and Jews had a higher percentage of type B, and so having the ‘right’ blood type became part of their Aryan ideal.

By the 1920s the theory was gaining ground in Japan, and the government had ordered a study aimed at breeding the perfect soldier through different combinations of blood types. After a Taiwanese revolt against the Japanese occupying forces in the 1930s, research found that over 40% of Taiwanese people had blood type O, which is deemed to be the least submissive type, and therefore their dissidence was thought to be genetically predetermined. The same study found that only 20% of Japanese people had type O, and so the solution was to ‘dilute’ the rebellious blood by increasing intermarriages with the Japanese.

Having lost it’s dark roots, the theory was renewed in a much more light-hearted nature during the 1970s by Masahiko Nomi, a Japanese journalist, in his best selling book. It then spread to nearby countries like South Korea and Taiwan and remains a part of pop culture today. There are films, songs and books that focus on blood types, and dating agencies take them into consideration when matching people up. You can even enter your blood type information into your Korean Facebook profile.

USB sticks with Park Dong Sun’s blood type characters

But what does your blood type actually say about you?

TYPE A is often seen as the best type to have, and so people can sometimes be quite smug about it. They are the ‘goodie-goodies’ of blood types as they tend to follow the rules, and they dislike disruption or confrontation. Often introverts and perfectionists, they are said to be reliable and punctual, but they also have a tendency to over-analyse things and worry too much. They are very considerate and loyal, and they take everyone’s opinions into account as they don’t like to upset anyone. Although they take care of other people’s emotions, their own can get hurt very easily and they are not ones to forgive and forget. They can be rather indecisive, fastidious and stubborn, and they will weigh up all the risks in doing something before they actually do it. It is also said that they can’t hold their drink…

The total opposite of type A, people with blood TYPE B are egomaniacs and extroverts. Type B has possibly the worst reputation of all the blood types, as type B men are seen as unreliable ‘players’ or commitment-phobes and they are not considered to be suitable marriage material. A popular Korean film called ‘My Boyfriend is Type B‘ centres around a (type A) young woman who is advised by her family and friends not to date a boy she likes, who happens to be Type B. They can be selfish, irresponsible and they tend not to care what other people think. They are often very opinionated and usually get their own way as they have charisma by the bucket-load. They hate being bored and want to be amused at all times, so they are creative and often do things on a whim. They are rather lazy and lack the perseverance to see things through. They have short fuses, and they’re not afraid to speak their minds, and this leads them to be quite argumentative. However, they forgive and forget easily.

My Boyfriend Is Type B‘ poster

TYPE O is the joker of the group. They have a strong physical presence, they thrive on being the centre of attention and they rarely take anything seriously. They are seen as friendly, happy-go-lucky and extremely ambitious. They like to be the best at everything  and they have a fierce competitive streak. Their sometimes obsessive drive for success can make them difficult people to live with. They’re the most likely to go over the top with things and throw extravagant parties to show off to their friends. Once they put their mind to something they usually see it through to the end, as they are very practical and diligent. They are blessed with good memories and small details rarely escape their notice. Although they are normally so cheerful, when they get angry they get seriously angry, and they can be ruthless and insensitive. Type Os make natural leaders as they are not afraid to take a gamble. They hate to be lonely so they tend to trust people completely, and they take it pretty badly if that trust is broken.

TYPE AB is something of a mystery, as their characteristics are not quite as clear cut as the other blood types. They are cool, calm and collected, however they can sometimes come across as aloof or detached. They are very rational people, and they are ruled by their heads, not their hearts. Observant and analytical, they can also be very critical and unforgiving, and they keep themselves to themselves. They tend not to care what other people think of them and are often seen as being anti-social. They are not strong team players although they wouldn’t do anything to deliberately hurt other people. They usually have a wide range of interests which makes them knowledgeable and creative. Type ABs adapt easily to most situations but they can be extremely unpredictable. Other types often view them as loners who are two-faced and not to be trusted.

This picture by the popular cartoonist Park Dong Sun, shows how the situation might be if the four bloodtypes were placed in a room together. Type A would be sitting at the edge of the room so as not to attract any attention, Type B would naturally be in the centre of the room, Type O would be mingling and socialising with everyone and Type AB would most likely be daydreaming in a corner somewhere.

Park Dong Sun’s cartoon of different blood types

Dokdo Islands

Dokdo. Or should that be Takeshima? The islands located between South Korea and Japan in the East Sea. Or should that be the Sea of Japan?

The islands of Dokdo have once again found themselves at the centre of yet another political row between South Korea and Japan, the two countries that both claim them as their own.

The visit of the South Korean president, Lee Myung Bak, last weekend to the disputed islets has reignited the age old debate of who they actually belong to. The visit has shocked the Japanese government, who in response recalled their ambassador to South Korea, and summoned the South Korean ambassador to Japan for an explanation. Having made great efforts to improve bilateral relations during his time in office, this does seem rather a strange move from Lee Myung Bak. Perhaps it’s nothing more than a last ditch attempt to give his lagging popularity a boost in the run up to a presidential election in December. But perhaps there’s more to it than that.

The already strained relations between the two countries took another battering after South Korea not only beat Japan in the Olympic bronze medal match on Friday, but then one of the players, Park Jong Woo, waved a sign reading ‘Dokdo is our land’.

Park Jong Woo holding ‘Dokdo is our land’ signg

To an outsider the obvious question is ‘why?‘. Why create so much tension over an uninhabitable, isolated cluster of rocks in the middle of nowhere? But to both the Koreans and Japanese this is about so much more than that. National pride is at stake.

The islands are located in the East Sea, or the Sea of the Japan, depending on which side of it you live. They are roughly 215km from mainland Korea and 250km from mainland Japan, and the nearest landmass is the Korean-owned island of Ulleungdo which is about 85km away. Both sides insist that the islands are surrounded by valuable fishing grounds and apparently sit on potentially huge natural gas reserves, but there is no solid evidence for this.

There are two permanent residents on Dokdo, a Korean fisherman and his wife. Korean police and coastguards are also stationed there. Tens of thousands of Koreans visit Dokdo every year, despite the lack of a cafe, souvenir shop or even a public toilet. Tours run from the mainland to the islands, although the waves are so bad that only two thirds of the boats can land.

Both claims go back hundreds, if not thousands, of years, and are extremely long, confusing and take a lot of untangling. For Koreans the current argument centres around the lingering resentment towards the Japanese colonisation in the mid 1900’s and their refusal to give the islands back. The Japanese argue that the islands were never included in the treaty with the Allied Forces to leave Korean territory and began to claim legal right over them again in the 1950’s. Japanese textbooks even teach children that the Koreans ‘stole’ the islands and now won’t return them.

Despite the public’s general indifference towards the situation, the Japanese government created Takeshima Day, an annual taunt of their claim over the islands. Korea inevitably reacted with demonstrations and protests. In a more extreme show of patriotism a mother and son cut off their own fingers and one man even set himself alight. Subway stations have huge model Dokdos, museums sell all manner of Dokdo merchandise and even our local fried chicken outlet plasters its take away boxes with pro-Dokdo slogans.

In the 50’s, 60’s and again this week, the Japanese have pushed Korea to take this issue before the International Court of Justice as a disputed territory, but Korea has consistently refused, simply stating that Dokdo isn’t disputed; it’s Korean.

Many believe that if Japan walked away from the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute it would undermine its claims over other disputed Asian islands, like the Kuril islands also claimed by Russia and Senkaku islands claimed by Japan, Taiwan and China. It is extremely unlikely that this will end in any kind of military action, so the two countries have now reached a sort of stalemate. Where does it go from here? Will they take the debate to the ICJ for a final international ruling? Or will Koreans continue to rip heads off pheasants, maim themselves and set themselves alight while the Japanese continue with their vague indifference towards the situation?

Seodaemun Prison History Hall, Dongnimmun and Independence Park

Seodaemun Prison History Hall serves as a chilling reminder of the Japanese occupation of Korea during the 1900’s. Formerly used as a prison, the buildings are now used as exhibition rooms. Located in Independence Park in the north of Seoul, you can get to it by Dongnimmun subway.

Seodaemun Prison

Japan first tried to seize Korea in 1592, when nine separate armies raped, killed and looted their way across Korea. Temples and palaces were razed to the ground, and countless Korean treasures were stolen. Thousands of ears clipped from dead Koreans were shipped back to Japan where they were built into a big mound and preserved, to this day, as a memorial to this ‘war’. With help from Chinese troops, Admiral Yi Sun-Sin won a series of victories at sea and succeeded in pushing the Japanese back.

Records of the 5,000 activists who lost their lives during the Japanese occupation

However, Japan tried once again to colonise Korea at the end of the 19th century. After surprising defeats over both China and Russia, the path to take Korea was left open. It became a Japanese protectorate in 1905, then on August 29th 1910 Korea became a Japanese colony.

More records

This was seen as a rather strange development at a time when most colonial empires had been broken up. What also made Korea an unusual colony was that it already had most of the prerequisites to be developed nation in its own right; a language, a culture and well established borders.

Cells at Seodaemun Prison

During the occupation the traditional Confucian education was replaced by a modern Japanese system, the Korean rulers were replaced by Japanese rulers, even the Korean language was replaced by Japanese. The Korean people felt that the Japanese had robbed them of their sovereignty, their independence and their dignity.

Some of the prison buildings

On March 1st 1919 the fight to reclaim Korean independence began, with the first public displays of resistance. The death, and suspected murder, of the former King Gojong and the public reading of the Korean declaration of independence in Seoul sparked a series of protests up and down the country. Over 2 million people participated in 1,500 demonstrations. According to Korean records 7,500 people were killed, 15,800 were wounded and 46,300 were arrested, although the Japanese figures are much lower. March 1st is now a national holiday in Korea when people remember the struggle for independence.

The building where 18 year old Yu Gwan-sun, one of the main leaders of the March 1st movement, was imprisoned and tortured to death

After many years of suppression and brutality, Korea finally achieved independence on August 15th 1945. The Japanese surrender to the Allied Forces liberated Korea from their colonial rule.

The execution building

For most Koreans the Japanese rule was seen as illegitimate and humiliating, and to this day many Koreans, even the younger generations, resent the Japanese. My co-teacher often joins us when we visit places at the weekend but she said no to this. It would be too painful for her.

A Korean child bowing and paying his respects at the Reverence Monument

The rivalry between the two nations continues today as they compete with each other over technological advances, sporting achievements, and in particular over an uninhabited heap of rocks in the East Sea (Sea of Japan!) called Dokdo (or Takeshima!) that they both claim as their own.

One of the prison buildings

Seodaemun Prison History Hall focuses on the treatment of independence activists and pro-democracy activities at the hands of the Japanese during this period. Several exhibition rooms explain the history of Seodaemun, the chain of events that led to the Japanese occupation,  and the various resistance movements. One room is dedicated to displaying the records of the 5,000 who lost their lives during the fight for independence.  You can also visit the underground torture chamber, the cells, the factories where prisoners were forced to make textiles, the execution building, and the building where Yu Gwan-sun, one of the main organisers of the March 1st movement was imprisoned and eventually died during torture.

The watch tower

This is undeniably one of the darkest periods of Korea’s history, and there is still a lot of anger, hurt and resentment, but one thing I did take away from Seodaemun Prison was a sense of hope. Reading the testimonies of survivors, and how many of them are still political activists, was inspiring. Hopefully Japan and Korea can continue to build a better relationship for the future.

An old man and his dog at Independence Park