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Further reflections on Seoul

This entry was posted by on Monday, 12 March, 2007 at

Namdemon market in Seoul, Korea
Seeing as I have been in Seoul for about a month now, I know have sufficient knowledge about Korean tradition, culture and society to make a complete comparative assessment of Seoul vs Tokyo in the 21st century…… Yeah, OK, so I am not an anthropological expert or anything and staying just a month here makes me nothing but sick of Kimchee, but I still want to take some time and give you my thoughts on Seoul as seen by the eyes of a westerner living in Japan.

Grab a cup of coffee and sit tight!

One of my first reflections when I arrived here was “wow, Seoul is so much more Asian than Tokyo,” a statement I now shall revise to “wow, Tokyo is so much less Asian than the rest of Asia.” Yes, when you think about it, South Korea is definitely a part of Asia and feels similar to cities in China or Malaysia whereas Tokyo and Japan has a completely different feel to it – it’s less Asian and just “Japanese”. It’s hard to describe in words.

As I said before, I was expecting Seoul to be sort of like Tokyo, because that is the impression you get by watching these darn Han-ryu dramas on Japanese TV. It’s all big flashy cars in modern looking cities and everyone’s rich and fabulous… Turns out – GASP – that these dramas are not so close to reality as one is made to believe! (The horror!) Seoul is a city that has grown at a tremendous speed over the last few years, and it kinda shows. There is tons of construction work going on everywhere, traffic is chaos, public transportation is crazy in rush hour and there are street markets even on the most modern and upscale street where old ladies are selling various kinds of fried foods. It’s a crazy mix of old and new and for the most part I think it’s pretty nice.

But you feel that the soul of Seoul (no pun intended) is not really in tune with the modern facade. Even though the city presents itself as a modern 21st century metropolis where money is made and spent, the “rural” poverty still shines through and it makes me kind of sad, because you see that this country is trying to evolve quicker than what is good for it. For instance, there are a lot of upscale neighborhoods here with nice department stores and boutiques that match those of Singapore or Tokyo, but take a closer look at areas such as Apgujeong, Myeong-dong or Gangnam, and what do you see? Well you see that the big department stores are filled with Chinese and Japanese tourists. You see that the streets are pretty deserted except for the ones lined with street vendors selling cheap knock-off products. You see the beggars sitting around reminding the onlookers of the tough economic reality. In an economically sound country, would you see 70-year old women sitting in the subway station selling packs of gum she bought in a store at a markup to survive? Do you see unemployed business men trying to sell brushes and whatnot on the subway train in Tokyo or Hong Kong?

One other thing that glares you in the face is what seems to be a total lack of city beautification. And I say beautification because I can’t think of a better word – what I mean is that the sidewalks, the roads, the parks, the public areas, the stations, etc. look pretty run down and are not well taken care of. It really doesn’t give the impression of strong economic growth. At the same time, property prices are skyrocketing and Seoul is becoming a city which is more expensive to live in than Tokyo. There is something that is definately bubbly about the current economic climate and it must be just a question of time before it bursts.

Photo by Min

34 Responses to “Further reflections on Seoul”

  1. Even after spending only a few days in Seoul I had very similar impressions, especially in regards to Japan being “less Asian” as well as Seoul lacking in the “aesthetics” department.

    I arrived thinking it was going to “Tokyo but everybody speaking Korean.” Three days later I’d had enough experiences with dirtiness and blatant poverty to realize that the two are very distinct.

  2. Johan

    Glad to hear I’m not imagining things or being some kind of “Tokyo elitist” or anything.

    It’s defintely a city with a quite different vibe.

  3. I have not been in Korea, but I suppose Korea look like Tsukiji Market and the outside of the market. Both seems to be full of energy.

    By the way, your blog is very interesting and could you exchange the link? I have added your blog to my links at TokyoDailyPhoto, http://artofjpn3.blogspot.com/

    Have a nice weekend:-))


  4. Johan

    Yeah, the markets in Korea are like a cross of Ame-Yoko and the Tsukiji fish market, but a lot messier and chaotic it seems….

  5. Dean

    I found your report to be extremely one sided

    I Have been both to Korea and Japan – at the moment I live in Korea and London while spending a few weeks of the year working in Tokyo.

    One thing that really struck me about Japan is their absolute obsession with sex and pornography which i found foul and sickening, but I think that this is a Japenese charachter trait – but then again we are talking about a country that only prohibited child porn in 1989 – (and even then not really) – they have booths for businessmen in Japan where schoolgirls flash/strip – oh and yes they are actually school girls!! the age of consent in Japin is 13 years of age dont forget. (same as Korea – but this type of activity is obviously illegal here – but not in Japan apparently):

    Follow this link:

    I find Koreans are more natuaral and friendly than Japenese – they tend to be chaotic and charismatic – charisma is not something that Japenese people could be ever accused of – they tend to do things with passon and because they want to rather than because they have to or it is expected of them.

    Dont get me wrong I dont hate Japan – I just think that as a race somewhere along the lines their morals have become a little twisted – well seriously twisted to be honest. I mean who hunts dolphins FFS – I know Koreans eat dogs – less and less these days – but dolphins – check out you tube

    Think that I would take Korea anyday over Japan – Like the people more –

  6. Johan

    Well, everyone is entitled to an opinion I guess. I base my thoughts on Korea on a couple of months’ stay in Seoul and 10 years in Japan; and I guess your views are based on an opposite situation.

    I am not saying that what I found in my visit to Korea be the final and ultimate truth, it’s still just one man’s opinion.

    I do find it strange to judge a whole country by what a few fisherman do, though. Further, as you might know there is a movement going on within Japan to reduce and ultimately abolish dolphin fishing.

  7. LeMartian

    I was in Korea in October and agree to your description of Seoul to a great deal. Tokyo is surely more developed and ‘Western’ like. But the city has that
    old rustiness and taste that Tokyo just does not have, something closer to Asia, something close to nature. I feel that over-organization has diminished the charm of Tokyo, just like here in Australia. I mean every patch of grass, monument (historic or otherwise), artifacts, natural sites seem to be over polished in Tokyo ( like in Melbourne), I would have preferred them to grow a little bit with time and kina ‘old’ – if that is the right word.

    You should visit China, its a much better place to see what Asia has to offer, than either Korea or Japan.

  8. tewkewl

    where were you staying… jesus, you make seoul sound like manilla. rural poverty? what the fuck are you talking about? i was an xpat in seoul last year for a year and in japan two years before that… with a stint down under in between (work for an international company … have to travel a lot). Korea is definitely grittier than japan, but there aren’t any signs of poverty on a daily basis. on the contrary, seoul was a hustling bustling metropolis. ever been to new york or rome? you telling me you don’t see horrendous driving in those cities? you don’t see street vendors there. In my opinion, of the cleanest cities i’ve been to in asia (and I’ve been to all the big ones)… it’s easily
    1. singapore
    2. tokyo
    3. seoul

    where the fuck have you been in china? i’ve been to the major cities on business, and shang hai, beijing, or qingdao (or any of the industrial centers) is as clean as seoul.

    Also, the nightlife in japan is okay, but it’s NOTHING like it is in seoul. Seoul is definitely the place to party in Asia. There are some neighborhoods in hong kong that rock as well… but it’s mostly white folks partying at those places and not asians.

    I am utterly shocked by your unflattering portrayal. After having lived all over, i can’t understand how a person who has traveled anywhere can say the things you have said.

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