Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Tom Coyner (and Namkoong Wook) on "janmeori"

Tom Coyner
(Image from SeoulMan)

Tom Coyner, whom you see above, is an interesting fellow who's been around Korea a long time and works as a management consultant using his expertise in Northeast Asian cultures to advise foreign businessmen on how to do business in the area. He knows a lot of people, and even I have met him -- though he wouldn't remember me. He also hosts a couple of fine websites, Tom Coyner (SeoulMan)'s Home (photography) and Soft Landing Consulting Ltd. (business).

In addition to these activities, Mr. Coyner writes a regular column for the JoongAng Daily. Yesterday's column, "The peculiar power of a small mind" (May 4, 2009), was about the fascinating Korean concept "janmeori" (잔머리):
Struggling with the Korean language, a week ago I was introduced to the word janmeori. I was told that, literally, it means "small mind" [sic., "small head"]. While it has a similar connotation to the English pejorative "small-minded," it has a broader and yet more specific meaning.

Any adult who has lived in Korean society for more than a few months will readily recognize the janmeori aspect of this culture. That is, daily most Koreans are constantly working the angles, pushing the envelope in small, quiet measures so as to get some kind of incremental advantage -- while not paying attention to the larger consequences of their cumulative behaviors.

In an extremely competitive society as this one, Koreans truly excel in janmeori. It can often be a way of not only getting ahead but also keeping up with the pack. The obvious downside is that these creative and industrious individual behaviors often sabotage the group's vitality overall. This concentration on the janmeori level may explain in part why Koreans are not generally well regarded for strategic or long-term planning. On the other hand, janmeori's positive aspects include Koreans being justifiably recognized as world-class tacticians, capable of leveraging special opportunities and/or psychologically wearing down their opponents -- often with little or no preparation.

Discussing this aspect of Korean culture with some mature Korean friends, we surmised that while this kind of behavior is common in most cultures, it is unusually strong in Korea. Our best guess why this may be so goes not so far back to when Korean life was confined to small villages and neighborhoods of larger town and cities. There was little mobility in Korean life.

Everyone knew each other in their immediate environment that they rarely ventured away. There was marginal horizontal mobility.

At the same time, by living within a strict Confucian culture, everyone knew his and her place in society. That is, there was also very little vertical mobility.

In other words, Koreans have learned to live within narrow social constraints. Naturally, most people are not satisfied with social limitations, particularly if they see others about them trying -- and succeeding -- in beating the system whenever possible. Since so many people are engaged in this kind of activity, most people are capable of getting away with various dodges, with only a few unlucky individuals getting caught and being punished.
Mr. Coyner is too polite to say directly, but "janmeori" implies a kind of clever deceptiveness, as the journalist Namkoong Wook explains in "When tricks are the trade, it's survival of the cleverest" (Samsung Website):
Moxie is not traditionally considered a positive character trait in Korea. Known as "janmeori," which usually means skills to deceive or manipulate others without having to take responsibility, it implies a strong sense of chutzpah.
Mr. Wook gives an example:
Interpark . . . is one of the many popular Internet shopping malls in the country. Since the "e" and the "r" are next to each other on a keyboard, a lot of people tend to accidentally transpose the two letters when they type fast, writing "intre" instead of "inter." Yet somehow they wind up at the right place. Little do they know that their poor typing skills are money in the bank for Shin Yeong-gwon, 28, owner of the "intrepark" domain name. Mr. Shin bought the rights to the domain about seven months ago. Yet instead of creating a faux online shopping mall for the typing-impaired, he approached Interpark with a proposal: he would redirect his site visitors to the real Interpark for a small fee. The shopping mall agreed to pay Mr. Shin 1 percent of the profit from each transaction logged by a customer who was redirected from his site. Mr. Shin bought the domain address for only 19,000 won ($19). He now makes 100,000 won a month off the Web site. A man who knows an easy deal when he sees one, Mr. Shin went on to buy seven more addresses similar to the Intrepark address, earning him an extra 4 million to 5 million won a year.
I suppose that one could say that Mr. Shin is performing a service for Interpark, but from another perspective, he's skimming a profit from something that Interpark could have done for itself without cost if someone there had just had a bit more foresight. Moreover, the economic cost adds up if everybody is doing a bit of janmeori. Mr. Wook provides some figures for this sort of "cleverness":
To a question, "How clever are you?" only 4 percent said they don't try to rely on cleverness, but "work honestly." About 42 percent said they occasionally resort to trickery, while 17 percent said subterfuge was their standard method of operation. Asked how they used their moxie, 31 percent said they used it to goof off at work, while 26 percent said they did so to make excuses to skip group gatherings such as office parties or company picnics. "To cover up mistakes made at work," and "to get vacation time from the boss" were other common answers.
As Mr. Coyner would point out, "these creative and industrious individual behaviors often sabotage the group’s vitality overall," and one can see why, for they rob the overall system of efficiency. Coyner offers as example the greatest practitioner of janmeori ever:
One may also say that janmeori is at work in North Korea at the highest levels.

The Pyongyang ruling oligarchy has been absolutely brilliant in going it alone, playing friends and adversaries against each other, while confounding the rest of the world from a remarkably weak position.

At the same time, it is painfully obvious the North lacks a genuine, long-term survival strategy other than to continue to practice janmeori statecraft until some unforeseen miracle happens.
Absolutely right. The North Korean leadership are astonishingly adept at surviving through deploying all manner of subterfuges, and they've done brilliantly at this game, but it's mere tactics without a long-term strategy. The North has a long-term aim, of course, and that aim is to keep the nomenklatura in power. But tactics alone cannot ensure the survival of this shortsighted, inefficient juche system.

But the Korean people, both North and South, will certainly survive, for they've got moxie!

UPDATE: An interesting discussion of janmeori is taking place at the Marmot's Hole.

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At 7:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

North Korea's janmeori diplomacy.

So refreshing to read a new idea about North Korea.

Even foreigners who've dealt with Koreans outside of Korea pick up on janmeori without having an exact word for it.

At 7:44 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Actually, I'm pretty dense, for it took Coyner's article to clarify the concept by giving a word to something that I'd been only vaguely aware of beforehand.

I went from having an unnamed notion to having a named concept.

But Coyner didn't provide a clear, concrete example, and for that, I had to find Wook's article.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:35 AM, Anonymous Renato said...

Great post. I see that each and every day, at work.

At 9:41 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Renato, but all credit goes to Tom Coyner and Namkoong Wook.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:04 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...

Mr. Hodges,

Here's what I posted regarding this op-ed by Mr. Coyner at Mr. Koehler's Blog. I am copy & pasting it:

"I was writing a brief response at Mr. Hodges Blog (I’ve encountered the Blog the first time via your link), but let me actually transfer what I was going to write there to here.

The basic problem is this. Mr. Coyner seems to define the term as a combination of being “parochial” and “ad hoc” in one’s approach and thereby empties the term of its all-important moral content altogether. In his definition, it describes a mind-set that emphasizes the short-term over the long-term, tactics over strategy, etc.

But both “잔머리” and its etymological ancestor “잔꾀” are often attached to people who are deceptive and untrustworthy. Mr. Hodges’ original post has the term right when he defines it as “clever deceptiveness.” When I think of the term, the image I conjure up is Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton, not Park Chung Hee. (And as NetizenKim wrote, I would not have agreed with Mr. Coyner’s characterization of Park Chung Hee as a master practitioner of “janmeori,” even if we were to empty the term of its moral connotation.)

Now, Mr. Hodges has speculated in his own Blog that Mr. Coyner knows that the term is a morally loaded one but did not fully develop it out of politeness. This may be, but you must understand that I get very, very sensitive when it comes to Park Chung Hee. He is the one Korean sacred cow I am willing to defend to the edge of precipice (but not over it, to paraphrase Montaigne) :) "

At 11:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Won Joon Choe, thanks for the clear and well-written, substantive comment. I can't take much credit for the definition of "janmeori" as "clever deceptiveness," however, for I cobbled that together from Mr. Wook's article.

I had an interesting conversation about this term with my wife over breakfast this morning. I don't actually know much Korean, so I go to her for assistance.

Thanks for visiting.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:12 PM, Blogger Charles Montgomery said...

Brilliant discussion.

But it always hurts me when I see a substantive comment like Won Joon Choe makes here, and then click the user name and it is revealed that the commenter has no blog of their own!


At 1:28 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, I was also disappointed. Perhaps Won Joon Choe is a scholar and has no time for blogging . . . unlike me.

Thanks for visiting.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Please take note.
My true and thrilling tales of youthful adventure were merely for the amusement of you and your faithful readers. An attempt to take over your blog never once entered my mind.
Have no fear.


At 8:15 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, you mean to say that you weren't practicing janmeori? I have no fear of that. But your fans all hope for another tale soon.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:23 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...

Mr. Hodges,

Thanks for the compliment (I think), but I am not a "scholar"--though perhaps an aspiring one.

As for why I don't Blog, the temptation has in fact been a persistent one, and other friends/acquaintances have vigorously tried to steer me in that direction as well.

It comes down to two determinative factors:

1. I am not a native English speaker, so I write very slowly. Combine that with the fact that I am a compulsive re-writer, I think Blogging would simply take too much time away from my other intellectual pursuits.

2. Given that I am a rather straight-talking, impulsive Korean, I greatly lack rhetorical moderation. So I am afraid that I will post something in the proverbial "seat of the pants" manner that will embarrass me or otherwise haunt me.

As Plato's Socrates says in the Phaedrus, one of the many disadvantages of writing is that--once published--you cannot take it back.

P.S. The verification code for this particular comment is "mycoc." LOL.

At 3:26 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...

By the way, I am glad that--due to Sonagi's link at Mr. Koehler's Blog--I've found this Blog. In addition to the fact that I greedily devour any intelligent commentary about Korea, our intellectual interest may converge to some degree, as my intellectual specialty is philosophical hermeneutic.

At 5:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Mr. Won Joon Choe, your English looks pretty good to me . . . but what do I know?

Philosophical hermeneutics? As in Gadamer? I read his Truth and Method many years ago. I've forgotten most of it.

You might be interested in a far more intelligent blog than my own. Google the expression "Maverick Philosopher" and you'll find Bill Vallicella, one of the best philosophers on the web.

He also has a great book published, A Paradigm Theory of Existence. It's metaphysics rather than hermeneutics, but Bill knows a lot about that sort of thing, too.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:09 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...

Mr. Hodges,

Gadamer is an influential thinker in the field, but my intellectual allegiance is to Gadamer's friend, the much-reviled and misunderstood Leo Strauss. And really, I employed the term "philosophical hermeneutics," because I could not think of the most apt description, and that particular term was rather current.

I will definitely take a look at Mr. Vallicella's Blog, though my interest has more to do with political philosophy and rhetoric, rather than "pure" philosophy. (I am modest enough to concede that I likely lack the natural equipment for metaphysics, etc.!)

At 7:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe our humble Mr. Choi is an Ivy League graduate as one might guess by his prose. One can become fully proficient in a number of languages, so the native speaker label merely denotes whether the language was first acquired very early.

At 7:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry for the orthographic slip, Mr. Choe.

At 7:36 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...


Oh, no. Not this debate again. I assure you, I do not speak (nor write) like your completely Americanized gyopo.

Perhaps some day we'll meet, and you will finally become persuaded that I am a FOB ajeossi!

At 7:58 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Won Joon Choe, when I was at Hebrew University, I met a doctoral student who was working on a thesis about Strauss's political ideas. We had some interesting conversations about Strauss's ideas on writing in a way to convey one's ideas while simultaneously obscuring them. That might be applicable to my thoughts on Bulgakov's 'orthodoxy' in The Master and Margarita, written in Stalinist times.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:24 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...

Mr. Hodges,

That's fascinating and indeed right down my alley. Who was the student? If his dissertation has been published since then, I may have read it.

I am actually writing a book currently precisely on that topic (well, it's really about Locke and executive/emergency power, but the entire first chapter--and the premise of the whole book--is right out of Strauss).

At any rate, I am absolutely amazed that Strauss' doctrine of "esoteric writing" is so controversial, given that:

1. The fact that many philosophers EXPLICITLY and INCONTROVERTIBLY say so (e.g. Plato's 7th Letter, Machiavelli's letter to Vettori, I believe, etc.);

2. The fact that most philosophers wrote/taught esoterically was accepted among the intelligentsia right up to at least the 19th century (consider, as a good indicator, Aristophanes' Clouds that attribute such a teaching to Socrates, and Lucian's comedy doing the same to Aristotle);

3. The fact that Strauss thesis is widely accepted among academic specialists--even those who are his most prominent critics (e.g. Stephen Holmes and Richard Tuck, who both agree that the relevant philosophers wrote esoterically and only differ with Strauss regarding the substance of the relevant esoteric doctrines);

4. The fact that esotericism is an enduring, persistent aspect of non-Western philosophies as well, including--most tellingly--Legalism (which, if anything, seems on the surface incompatible with esotericism);


5. The fact that esoteric writing as a mode of communication is simple common sense, not some implausible fancy theory--in fact, urged by every major manual of rhetoric I've examined (including obviously those of Cicero and Quintilian).

As for the Bulgakov reference, he's the one great Russian novelist I have yet to read, and your post actually cemented my decision to read him. And I am not surprised that he wrote--if he wrote esoterically--in Stalinist times, because the evasion of persecution is the first and foremost reason to write esoterically.

At 6:02 PM, Blogger Sperwer said...

I'm a little amazed, but not altogether surprised, that, as WJC reports, Strauss' position regarding the esoteric nature of much sophisticated philosophical work is considered controversial. When I was studying with the Straussian coven at Cornell in the late '60s and early '70s, their many critics there then did not begrudge them that point, but as WJC observes of other more contemporaneous opponents, were more concerned to dispute the substantive claims of their (political and ethical) philosophy. I would think that the great irony of the position of those ("democratic") critics who purport to find the very idea of esoteric philosophy repugnant is that hidden among that particular flock of sheep are many who themselves are among the most skilled practitioners of the art - insofar as they are adept at deploying the rhetoric of democracy to perpetuate various elite social and political institutions and their own privileged positions therein.

At 6:24 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Won Joon Choe, I've wondered if the skepticism toward Strauss on this point is strongest among scholars in democratic traditions where free speech is simply assumed and everyone is equally protected by law. In America, people say what they think . . . or at least, they can do so.

But I may need to read Strauss to see if I might apply his ideas to an analysis of Bulgakov's views in M&M.

As for the fellow-student at Hebrew University, I can only recall his given name: "Andrew." I looked through my journals for 1998-99 but couldn't find an entry referring to him.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:29 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sperwer, I suppose that another reason for some resistance to esoteric readings is that it puts so many treasured interpretations in doubt and makes reading a harder job.

If we can't take Plato's words at face value, who can we trust?!

On a more earnest note, where does one draw the line in an interpretation? How esoteric can one get without entering the ranks of the wild-eyed and the raving?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:04 PM, Blogger Sperwer said...


Responding to your "earnest" question, i think it falls among those that are not susceptible of a meaningful response in general terms. The plausibility and persuasiveness of an interpretation, it seems to me, is directly proportional to how thick a description (in the Geertz-ian sense) of the original work it is - or to the extent that one wished for some connection between the particular and the general (and to change to reference) how persuasively dense the description remains (in order to maintain the integrity of the thing interpreted) even as one seeks to fit it into some larger Kuhnian paradigm.

At 9:27 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sperwer, if I understand you, then an interpretation should be 'thick' in the particulars but also fit within some general schema (theory, paradigm, etc.). That would seem to suggest a role for the community of scholars and their conventional understanding, but the problem that arises is when an anomalous interpretation is put forth. One might appeal to a Kuhnian paradigm shift, but I'm not sure that paradigms work that way outside of the sciences.

But I'm tired now (from flu and a long day) and need to rest, so I won't attempt to develop this further tonight.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:45 PM, Blogger Sperwer said...


"Should"? I didn't mean to imply any sort of "theoretical imperative". In fact, as time has gone by I've gotten more and more sceptical about theories, schemas and paradigms as useful tools in the humanities; they generally seem to obscure more than they reveal and distract people from attending to the richness and immanent potentiality of experience. But like you I've been feeling poorly lately and about to try for the elusive 8 hours.

At 5:28 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sperwer, I didn't think of "should" in an imperative sense. Anyway, I've picked up on some aspects of our three-way conversation in my blog entry for May 7th.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:46 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...


I cannot emphasize this point enough:

As both my own acquaintance with contemporary scholarship in political philosophy and your experience with Bloom, Berns, and his critics in the 60s attest, esoteric writing in itself is NOT controversial within academia. In fact, if anything Strauss has gained more adherents today, even among the putatively anti-Straussian scholars (as Rosen wrote in his excellent monograph on Plato's Statesman, many of Strauss' critics have silently co-opted his thesis in their recent scholarship without conceding that they've had change of heart).

Rather, the incredulity and derision emanate from the non-specialist intelligentsia.

At 6:54 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...

Mr. Hodges,

You are absolutely correct to write:

"I've wondered if the skepticism toward Strauss on this point is strongest among scholars in democratic traditions where free speech is simply assumed and everyone is equally protected by law. In America, people say what they think . . . or at least, they can do so."

In fact, both Strauss and Bloom--his most famous disciple--have repeatedly emphasized that those who refuse to recognize esotericism suffer from a historicist delusion of sorts. That is, they fail to imagine circumstances beyond their own comfortable caves, where free speech is salubrious to neither the philosophic speaker nor the un-philosophic audience. (The former point is transparent, but philosophic truth is dangerous for the classical citizen as well--given that the polis could not function without citizens who were completely seduced by the putative truth of the regime and the divinity of its gods.)

At 7:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

WJC, thanks for the confirmation. Possibly, Andy (i.e., from my Hebrew University days, 1998-99) and I discussed this very issue . . . though I don't specifically recall.

Incidentally, we may be entering a new historical period when threats to free speech are once again mortally enforced by theocratic fanatics, so perhaps the non-specialist intelligentsia will have to begin practicing the art of esoteric writing and therefore understand Strauss better.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Oh, no. Not this debate again. I assure you, I do not speak (nor write) like your completely Americanized gyopo."You write better and undoubtedly speak better than the average American college graduate of any ethnicity. The only peculiarity I notice about your writing is its consistently formal tone. Jeffery can switch between formal and informal registers with ease, but you never, ever sound like someone who can prop up his feet on an adjacent chair and wash down chatter about sports and girls with a frothy beer.

At 8:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, perhaps WJC first needs that frothy beer! After that, talk about sports and girls would pose no difficulties.

Incidentally, I now think that WJC is too erudite to be a mere graduate student. He's either already a professor or someone with a professional interest in political philosophy.

But I won't speculate any further. He can tell us about himself if he wishes.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:31 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...

Lady Sonagi,

I write very formally, I agree. I am tempted to attribute that to my status as a foreign speaker, but my Korean writing is--or was--just as formal.

Nonetheless, one's writing style is not always reflective of one's conversations or personality. You'd be surprised but contrary to your presumption, it's sports & girls--not Plato & Aristotle--that are my main themes of conversation with friends. In fact, I'd wager my knowledge of the NBA or boxing far exceeds my knowledge of esoteric writing or the monarchical prerogative! :)

At 8:53 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...

Mr. Hodges,

You are right: I am not a graduate student. I think I may have misled you by identifying myself as an "aspiring" academic, but one need not necessarily have a Ph.D to have academic aspirations. I suppose I was once a graduate student, however, if one considers law school a graduate school. Yet I object to such a notion, as I tend to have a very low opinion of law school as a school. Instead, because it is a vocational training ground whose mission is antithetical to a genuine intellectual inquiry even in nominal terms.

Instead, my interest in political philosophy is indeed "professional" and more accurately existential. That is, I had a peculiar childhood that led me to seek answers to some momentous questions at a precocious age; and I thought that those answers would be supplied by the great works of the mind.

And, given that we all begin from our own particular horizons or caves, I first sought the answers in the Orient--in Confucius and Han Fei Tzu at first, and then in Lao Tzu and the Zen masters, when I thought, I had exhausted "rational" inquiry.

I suppose now I have come full circle, back to the idols of the mind; and that I am now more interested in the ancient rationalism of the West than its Eastern counterpart does not represent a change from my original orientation, given that I think Confucius and Aristotle, for instance, has more in common than is often assumed.

At 9:14 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

WJC, interesting biographical details. As for law school, you would know more than I about that, but even technical training of the mind probably hones some edge of sharp reason.

On East and West, of which Kipling wrote "never the twain shall meet" -- but thereby also unwrote, for how else could they be "twain" -- you observed:

"I think Confucius and Aristotle, for instance, . . .[have] more in common than is often assumed."

E. Bruce Brooks might well agree with you, for he argues that ideas as well as goods moved along the Silk Road.

But, of course, you're speaking about systems of thought, not merely specific ideas.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:13 PM, Blogger Charles Montgomery said...


this long conversation is merely *more* evidence that WJC needs a blog. Heck, he could work on his informality there.


At 4:43 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I think that he mentioned working on a book, so he might lack the time for a blog. But he has written quite a bit in the comments, hasn't he?

Jeffery Hodges

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