The LA Times has a story on how an activist group in South Korea, sinisterly named the “Anti-English Spectrum” has been following foreign English teachers to ferret out suspected wrong-doing:
The volunteer manager of a controversial group known as the Anti-English Spectrum, Yie investigates complaints by South Korean parents, often teaming up with authorities, and turns over information from his efforts for possible prosecution.
Outraged teachers groups call Yie an instigator and a stalker.
Yie waves off the criticism. “It’s not stalking, it’s following,” he said. “There’s no law against that.”
Since its founding in 2005, critics say, Yie’s group has waged an invective-filled nationalistic campaign against the 20,000 foreign-born English teachers in South Korea.
On their website and through fliers, members have spread rumors of a foreign English teacher crime wave. They have alleged that some teachers are knowingly spreading AIDS, speculation that has been reported in the Korean press.
The debate over foreign English teachers is symbolic of a social shift taking place in a nation that has long prided itself on its racial purity and singular culture, South Korean analysts say.
In less than a decade, the number of foreigners living in South Korea, with a population of nearly 49 million, has doubled to 1.2 million, many of them migrant workers from other Asian nations.
Also included are the foreign English teachers, most from the United States, drawn here by compensation packages that may include as much as $2,500 a month plus free rent and a round-trip ticket to teach a Korean population obsessed with learning from native speakers.
While the idea of vigilantes following English teachers around is definitely unnerving, the effort seems much smaller and more reasonable than I expected from the headline. No reports of violence and just one threatening e-mail. If there are troublemakers in the country I think the citizens have a right to their activism. The “activists” seem more like a community of Internet hobbyists going after a group that’s done nothing to them for no reason other than self-satisfaction, very similar to the incidents of “enjo” flaming campaigns in Japan (or scambaiters, “Anonymous” protests against Scientology, etc. in the English-speaking world). I am tempted to write it off, but given what I am reading here and all the reports on English teachers smuggling drugs and getting into other trouble, the relationship between the foreign English teachers and the local Koreans seems genuinely strained.
Given the relative similarity of the situation in Japan (homogeneous Asian population, fetish over learning English from natives), it struck me how nothing like this has sprung up yet, especially given the industry’s business/hiring practices and the excesses of some of the teachers. There are stirrings of anti-foreigner sentiment here and there, but what strong feelings there are tend to come from fringe rightist groups railing against Koreans.
It’s possible there is a difference of degree in Korea – the Internet is a more integral part of life, there are proportionally more English teachers there, and foreigners in general are a more visible presence. That said, it could offer a glimpse at where Japan might be headed.
Korea remains one of the most connected nations on the planet, and has become famous for flaming campaigns. There was a recent string of celebrity suicides, some apparently a result of internet harassment.
In Japan, these attacks are quite common, though I have yet to hear about any high-profile suicides. Japanese net users have turned their ire on Westerners before, most notably in the “WaiWai incident” when they became outraged over lewd, liberally translated articles on the Mainichi Daily News site. If a foreign English teacher commits a heinous crime (or the police decide to play it up), it’s possible the 2ch crowd could start something a “Spectrum” of its own. If it comes to that, we will all no doubt back our dismissive comments about Debito and beg him for help (I am guessing there is no Debito equivalent in Korea – prominent Korea blogger Marmot has very little sympathy with his wayward fellow Westerners). Even so, I don’t get the impression that average Japanese people feel uneasy about Western English teachers – quite the contrary, they tend to be treated very well. Maybe we can thank the JET program for bringing in more “high quality” talent with its more rigorous selection process.
Next, there are a lot of English teachers in Korea! If the article’s figure of 20,000 is correct, it’s even more than the roughly 14,000 in Japan (and shrinking) even though Korea’s population is just 40% of Japan’s. If Japan had the same proportion of English teachers there’d be 36,000 of them, and businesses would probably have to lower standards even more to fill all the positions.
According to the article, foreigners make up 2.4% of South Korea’s population. In Japan that number is 1.74% and growing. Also, from all accounts the US military presence is felt a lot more in Korea, be it from soldiers on the street or the daily awareness that the country remains in a state of imminent war.
But with the foreign population on the rise in Japan, its greater visibility means there will definitely be some kind of reaction. Some might feel the kind of anger that’s directed at the government’s proposal to give permanent residence the vote. Those protests have yet to produce any violence or anything worth calling an “incident” but it’s a potential rallying point, and the bill hasn’t come up for debate yet.
The article draws a link between the Anti-English Spectrum and the overall issue of dealing with foreigners in “racially pure” South Korea, noting there have been some recent racially motivated attacks. I think there’s a clue in this for people watching Japan. When the net activists start wielding the hammer of anti-foreigner rage, Western English teachers might start to look more and more like a nail.