BY PHILIP BRASOR, CONTRIBUTING WRITER
The South Korean Netflix drama series “D.P.” has drawn international attention for its treatment of that country’s conscription system, which requires all able-bodied men to enter military service before they’re 29.
The main focus of attention is the show’s unflinching depiction of the bullying that goes on in the ranks. “D.P.” stands for “deserter pursuit,” and the stories revolve around two military policemen charged with catching soldiers who’ve deserted. In many cases, these soldiers fled after suffering abuse, which the show portrays as being widespread in the South Korean army.
But that isn’t the only reason soldiers run away, and what’s notable about “D.P.” is how it extrapolates its central premise to elucidate South Korean society, particularly as it applies to young people. Though the bullying, which is often brutal, makes the biggest impression, it is essentially background. Harassment of all kinds is inherent in the military and as such inextricably linked to South Korean people’s outlook on life.
In an article for Money Gendai posted on Sept. 16, Miran Tanaka, who lives in South Korea, tries to explain this phenomenon to Japanese readers who may not know much about the country’s military culture. “D.P.,” based on a web cartoon, takes place in 2014, when a lethal bullying incident in the army came to light. The South Korean defense ministry felt that it was necessary to hold a press conference on Sept. 6 about the show and clarify that there is now a system in place in which soldiers can report physical and mental abuse and expect justice. As Tanaka writes, if the government needs to hold a news conference about a fictional TV show, it must mean the show has hit a nerve, and, inadvertently, the news conference seems to have made the military’s PR situation worse while boosting viewership for “D.P.”
The purpose of conscription is to maintain a standing army in case of an attack from North Korea, with whom South Korea is technically still at war. However, mandatory service inculcates a macho mindset that gives rise to harmful power dynamics between different social levels and ages. Fathers, who themselves served, believe it is something their sons have to go through, while mothers tend to be fearful for their sons’ well-being. The current generation of young men has grown up in what Tanaka calls a “relaxed” educational environment. As a result they are more independent-minded than their parents but also less socially adept, which means they have more trouble adjusting to the peculiar rigors of military life.
Though Tanaka doesn’t make it explicit, this latter aspect may resonate with Japanese people. Since the end of World War II, Japan has also adopted a relaxed (yutori) education system that ostensibly values individuality. Tradition-minded pundits have seen this development as inimical to what they see as the intrinsic virtues of Japanese society and, as such, long for a time when everyone was united by common national purposes as defined by the authorities. These people support the idea of a national military for Japan, which the Constitution forbids, and, as Tanaka suggests, some even advocate mandatory national service that would instill discipline they think young people don’t attain in the present social environment.
Coincidentally, on Sept. 17, the website Boei Nippo posted a study of mental health in Japan’s Self-Defense Forces as a response to unusually high rates of suicide among recruits. Though bullying isn’t the only reason for the problem, there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest it is endemic.
On Sept. 16, TBS aired a report on a former SDF soldier who recorded a superior threatening to “break his skull” and kill him. The TBS investigation revealed a tangled relationship between the two men that may have started with a drunken prank that went wrong. In any case, there seems to be a difference in generational sensibility. When TBS interviewed an older officer about the incident, he dismissed the allegation as being irrelevant. If the younger recruit didn’t like it, he should just quit, which, in fact, he did.
That is an option South Korean soldiers don’t have, since they are required to complete up to 21 months of service. For SDF members, volunteering is essentially the same thing as getting a job. A lawyer told TBS that there is no real investigative function in the SDF as there is in other countries’ armed forces. In Japan, the same martial culture has been handed down since before World War II, and according to such a culture, he says, inflicting violence on a recruit who disobeys or makes a mistake is considered natural.
This culture was at the center of an appeal heard by the Fukuoka High Court last December where a former student of the National Defense Academy was suing the government for physical and mental abuse he suffered as part of the school’s program of upperclassmen instructing lowerclassmen. The academy trains officers for the SDF, and the defendant claimed the instruction resulted in a post-traumatic stress disorder he is still being treated for. The court found in his favor. In an essay published in JB Press last August, critic Koji Seko described two bullying cases in the SDF that resulted in death. He says the SDF routinely covers up such violence while insisting it is addressing the problem internally, but the only redress available seems to be through civil and criminal courts.
Media coverage of the problem is spotty, owing not just to the insularity of the SDF but also to public complacency. It can’t be compared to the situation in South Korea, but that’s not just because military service touches almost everybody’s life there. Korean popular culture highlights social problems in often sensational ways. “D.P.,” after all, is an action TV series, filled with elaborately staged chases and fights. Such a show on such a subject seems unthinkable here. Though interpersonal abuse in the armed services is certainly not limited to Japan, lack of interest in its existence may be.