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     Mar 10, 2005

Roh reopens Japan's war wounds
By Kosuke Takahashi

KAWASAKI, Japan - The shrill voice of one old woman with humped shoulders still leaves a distant but lasting memory. When I was an elementary and junior-high-school student in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, I frequently visited my ethnic-Korean friends after school. One day, when I was on the way to a Korean friend's house, an old woman just down the way suddenly snarled at me, saying, "Ilbon ka!" I was stunned. Later I found that what she meant by those few words was something like "Hey, Japanese!" or "Are you Japanese?" (Literally, Ilbon means "Japan" in Korean, and ka is an interrogative word in Japanese.) She had expressed her deep-seated distrust of any and all Japanese nationals, even against a boy like me. I was definitely intimidated. As can be readily understood, the older the Koreans, the more distrustful they were. Today I understand why.

Although my parents are Japanese, I grew up in a Koreatown in the southern part of Kawasaki city, adjoining Tokyo, and still live nearby. Kawasaki is known in Japan as a working-class city and is famous because so many South and North Koreans live here. Thousands of ethnic Koreans live in my neighborhood alone. There is also a pro-North Korean elementary and junior high school, one of the 110 affiliated schools of the Chongryon Society (the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan), the organization of North Korean residents who for years boasted iron-clad solidarity with their motherland.

Today relations between Japanese and Koreans, from the South and North, are much improved in the old neighborhood. The assistant principal of my junior high school says the school is promoting cultural and sports exchanges. For example, at the school's annual cultural festival and annual sporting meet, students of the pro-North Korean school participate and meet both Japanese and South Koreans who go to Japanese public schools. And vice versa. Japanese students also take part in the cultural and sporting events of the pro-North school. This represents an extraordinary change in grassroots thinking among young people about both Koreas across Japan, though anger still simmers about the Japanese abductees.

This racial melting pot was created by the Japanese military regime, which forced people on the Korean Peninsula to work at military establishments in Kawasaki, such as steel and shipbuilding industries, namely NKK Corp and Hitachi Zosen Corp, while Japan was colonizing Korea between 1910 and 1945. From this historical background, in my boyhood, the Japanese and Koreans in Kawasaki were always at odds. I often saw Japanese and Koreans scuffle with each other on the street, which frequently resulted in injuries, and sometimes murder. Racial problems never ceased in those days. Today, I am 36, and I still remember that old woman and her bitterness. Now I also understand why she was so deeply resentful.

Because of my personal background, I have very much welcomed the recent South Korean culture boom called Han-Ryu (Korean wave) in Japan. Korean soap operas such as Winter Sonata and movies have become very popular, as symbolized by the immense popularity of South Korean actor Bae Yong-joon, or "Yon-sama" (sama is an honorific), as his admirers and Japanese media call him. Meanwhile, Japanese entertainers are seen on Korean TV, and young Koreans like to listen to Japanese pop songs called J-pops on their MD (mini-disc) players. The two countries' youngsters, especially teenagers and those in their 20s, are well connected by the Internet and increasingly communicate with one another through e-mails and chat rooms on personal computers (PCs), using automatic translation software. (The Japanese and Korean languages are amazingly similar, especially grammatically.) Young people are capitalizing on the two countries' extremely high Internet-diffusion rates, which are both more than 50% of the populations. Many scholars both inside and outside Japan have pointed out that this kind of phenomenon - this exchange and familiarity - has never happened before in the history of Japan-Korea relations. Times have changed, indeed, in the bilateral relationship.

South Korean president brings up issues of history
Against all these recent favorable social and cultural exchanges by the peoples of the two countries, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun recently, on February 25 and March 1, repeatedly urged Tokyo to continue grappling with its past. On March 1, in his speech commemorating an uprising against Japanese colonial rule 86 years ago called the March 1 Independent Movement of 1919, he urged Japan to offer a heartfelt apology and settle its past history with Koreans - invasion, occupation, enslavement and forced labor, comfort women - by paying compensation if necessary in order for real reconciliation to take place.

Japan has offered its apologies and, in effect, compensation in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars in loans and grants. South Korea, however, has been planning a probe of collaborators with Japanese occupiers, a sore point with Japan and something that could embarrass some of South Korea's top families who benefited during the occupation. The opposition wants to probe collaboration with North Korea (see Japan frets about Korean collaborators probe, September 1, 2004).

"Japan should take a more positive attitude with a belief that before it is a legal issue, this is an issue of universal ethics in a human society and a matter of trust between neighbors," Roh stated. Moreover, a bit surprisingly, he linked Japan's colonial-era atrocities to North Korea's kidnapping of ordinary Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s. "In the same light, Japan must put itself in Korea's shoes and understand the anger of our people, who suffered thousand and tens of thousands of times as much pain over issues such as forced labor and comfort women." A day earlier, Roh himself had added this section to a draft of his speech, which his officials had already drafted, according to the Japanese media.

The most commonly accepted view among Japanese scholars is that about 700,000 Koreans had been taken and forced to work in Japan in coal-mining regions, munitions factories, dam-construction sites and other places across the country during Japan's colonization of Korea. Kawasaki was one of those places. The South Korean government has claimed that at least a million of its citizens were mobilized to Japan. Many Koreans were also carted off to other places such as Manchuria, northern China, and Sakhalin Island, also in forced-labor industrial projects and coal mining.

As to the issue of comfort women, or women rounded up in Korea, China, the Philippines and elsewhere and forced into prostitution to "comfort" Japanese troops, an estimated 100,000-200,000 were forced into this sex slavery, about 80% of them said to have been Korean girls and women. Others were Filipinas, Chinese and a handful of Westerners.

On both February 25 at the National Assembly and on March 1 Roh also urged Tokyo to acknowledge past wrongdoings fully, face up to its history and move toward the future. "The different attitude in Japan and Germany in handling their past history is giving us a lot of lessons to learn," Roh said in the February speech marking the second anniversary of his inauguration. Japan "should be candid about the past and, only by doing so would Japan move toward the future without being tied to the past".

Although Roh said, "There is no change in Seoul's position not to make the two countries' past history a diplomatic issue," Japanese political circles were thoroughly abashed and concerned by his remarks. This is because Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Roh had previously agreed to develop bilateral relations in a forward-looking manner. Roh said after their meeting last July on the South Korean resort island of Cheju that he had no plans to make history a formal issue with Japan while he remains in office until the presidential election in 2007.

Moreover, on January 13, at a nationally televised news conference from the Blue House presidential office in Seoul, Roh said that if Japanese Emperor Akihito visits South Korea, he would be "met with the most cordial reception". A visit to South Korea by the Japanese emperor is a highly sensitive issue because anti-Japanese sentiment remains prevalent there, due to Japan's colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula. Tokyo has been reluctant to proceed with such a visit, afraid of arousing latent anti-Japanese sentiment there. The current Emperor Akihito has never been able to visit Seoul, let alone his father, the late wartime Emperor Hirohito.

Faced with Roh's seemingly sudden change of policy stance toward Tokyo, calling for apologies and reparations, Koizumi said on March 1 that Tokyo and Seoul had agreed on a future-oriented friendship. "He must be thinking of domestic situations as well as friendship with Japan," Koizumi said, apparently downplaying Roh's harsh words to Tokyo. "As the president, I think he has made the remarks based on those viewpoints." Koizumi emphasized that the two countries need to move forward in a future-oriented manner.

Experts in Japan are more critical of President Roh's speech. "Roh is just taking another populist line," said Lee Young-hwa, an associate professor of economics at Kansai University and a third-generation Korean resident in Japan. "His analogy comparing the issue of Japan's colonial rule to Pyongyang's abductions [of Japanese] is inappropriate." Lee pointed out that North Korea involved and used innocent ordinary Japanese, mostly believed to be have been forced to teach Japanese language and culture, for its covert operations and subversive activities against South Korea.

Lee also pointed out that Roh made speeches directed to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, urging Pyongyang to return to the still-unscheduled next round of six-party talks on defusing the North Korean nuclear crisis by showing some understanding and sympathy to Kim. (On February 10, North Korea official declared that it possessed nuclear weapons and was building more because of United States hostility. It also said it was suspending participation in six-party disarmament talks, though Pyongyang said it later might rejoin the talks under certain conditions.) Lee is the representative of Rescue the North Korean People! (RENK), a Japan-based citizens' group supporting North Korean asylum seekers in China since early 1990s.

Well, indeed, the historical backdrop from 1910 to 1945 is grim, while the social climate (in the 1970s, 1980s and today) has been warm and more peaceful because of the Korean culture boom and other developments; the historical backdrop and the social climate are different. Korean residents here have been free to travel in and out of Japan, to both South and North Korea, while North Korea is said to have confined Japanese abductees in what Pyongyang calls "invitation centers".

Behind Roh's policy change is clearly a sovereignty dispute over Takeshima (known in South Korea as Tokto), a group of uninhabited islands in the Sea of Japan (known in Korea as the East Sea). On February 23, a group of assembly members in Japan's Shimane prefecture submitted a bill to set up a prefectural ordinance to establish "Takeshima Day" to raise public fury in Seoul. A comment on February 25 from Toshiyuki Takano, the Japanese ambassador to Seoul, who said that the island is part of Japanese territory, also exacerbated the situation.

The timing of this bill and Takano's comment was very unfortunate because it could easily be associated by South Koreans with the anniversary of a 1919 uprising against Japanese colonialists. For Koreans, a series of recent unfavorable rulings by Japanese courts toward former conscripts and comfort women also fueled public anger toward the Japanese government.

The situation worsened. Last Friday, the South Korean government decided to postpone indefinitely a visit to Tokyo by Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon, originally scheduled for this week, because of a row over the Takeshima/Tokto islands. Ban was scheduled to visit to consolidate friendship between the two countries as they mark the 40th anniversary of the normalization of bilateral ties. The visit was to include talks on the North Korean nuclear standoff.

Last August 15, the day his country celebrates liberation from Japanese occupation, the Roh administration and his ruling Uri Party looked into the history of South Korea's collaboration with the Japanese. This settlement of past issues is becoming a billboard for his administration. Indeed, his call for reparations from Tokyo or for Seoul to renegotiate the 1965 treaty that normalized relations between Seoul and Tokyo came after it was revealed by the documents - compiled in 1963-65, the final years of the country's 14-year normalization talks with Japan - that the government of then president Park Chung-hee had agreed not to make further compensation claims on Tokyo. This was after Seoul received US$800 million in loans and grants from Tokyo. The late president Park was the father of Park Geun-hye, head of the main opposition Grand National Party.

The unspoken warning
While Roh is apparently trying to maintain buoyancy for his administration - his ratings have fallen significantly, far below the 70% in his prime just after his inauguration in February 2003 - by playing politics with the past, he also seems to have conveyed an unspoken warning to Tokyo, reflecting domestic public opinion: Many Koreans are alarmed by changes in Japan's traditional pacifist military posture and growing right-wing bias in Japanese politics and society.

Historically, just like China, South Korea has always been worrying about any sort of remilitarization, projection of military power and social conservatism. In the early 1990s, Seoul harshly criticized Japan's participation in United Nations peacekeeping operations, despite its own participation in them. But the situation drastically changed at the end of 2001, after terrorist attacks on the US and the subsequent US attack on Afghanistan. As a US ally, it was difficult for Seoul to criticize Tokyo self-righteously for modifying its self-defense posture, even though Tokyo remains unwilling to look squarely into its past wrongs. So now Roh appears to be using historical issues with Japan as a counterweight against a more military posture in Japan.

From a Japanese perspective, Japan's imperial aggression since the 1890s was, indeed, brutal. The assassination by ruthless Japanese bandits of Korea's Queen Min in her palace in 1895 was one of the most heinous crimes. Most Koreans considers that Japan has arrogantly still refused to face up to the historical issues and its wartime crimes. Koreans, however, might want to know that Japan's dealing with the past got off to a bad start soon after World War II. Then, the United States' occupation policy absolved the last Showa Emperor of war responsibility, especially his moral responsibility, as wartime head of the nation, in order to control then-turbulent Japanese lands and people.

Moreover, the US released from Sugamo Prison many suspected war criminals, including political and business leaders, such as two right-wing godfathers, Ryoichi Sasagawa and Kiyoshi Kodama, as well as Nobusuke Kishi, who served as minister of commerce and industry during Hideki Tojo's militaristic administrations. Kishi became prime minister in 1957 and he was the grandfather of Shinzou Abe, a former Liberal Democratic Party secretary general, No 2 position in LDP after the party presidency, which Koizumi has been filling since he took office in April 2001. Abe is now an acting LDP secretary general and known for his hardline stance against North Korea.

Thus to touch upon the past wrongs leads to criticism of the policies of the United States, Japan's strongest ally, and harms the legitimacy of the imperial family, the Chrysanthemum Throne, the world's longest continuous monarchy, supported by the majority of Japanese for more than 1,000 years. For any Japanese journalist to touch upon the last emperor's war responsibility requires extraordinary courage, indeed. One so daring would still have to be ready for bullets and bombs from right-wingers day or night.

Further, believe it or not, many Japanese feel that they have apologized and expressed regret on many occasions. In addition, although South Korea, China and others waived war reparations and Tokyo has no legal obligation to compensate war victims, including men forced to work as laborers and comfort women, not a few Japanese have tried to make efforts to compensate in some way for their ancestors' crimes. The Asian Women's Fund (AWF), which was privately established in 1995 to follow Germany's "Germany-Poland Reconciliation Fund", is a good example. The fund collects money from the Japanese public for former comfort women.

For Japan's part, it should reconsider postwar education policy in its modern history. Japanese education appears to have emphasized postwar Japan as a defeated nation, which suffered from aggression by great Western powers and which received two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war - not as aggressor and victimizer in Asia. Because of this reluctance to face up to the past, in the postwar period Japanese education and ordinary parents seem to have avoided teaching much about neighboring countries' history and geography. Perhaps most high-school students cannot cite the name of five cities in South Korea now, although they can probably cite names of five cities of the US. (This, of course, is thanks to major-league baseball, Japanese baseball players Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners and the New York Yankees' Hideki Matsui, among others.)

For Japan, to face up to its troubled past and reconcile with neighbors is also strategically important to establish regional diplomacy, especially when South Korea and China are vigorously opposed to Japan's permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council.

Including China, the three countries' trade volume now exceeds 15% of the total world trade volume and calls for establishment of an East Asian Community emphasizing economics, social and cultural issues (see Council on East Asian Community) are growing among intellectuals here and elsewhere. By narrowing perception gaps and removing the thorn of festering past issues, Japan and South Korea could and should lead the concept of that community, bringing about better relations in the region.

Kosuke Takahashi is a former staff writer at the Asahi Shimbun and is currently a freelance correspondent based in Tokyo. He can be contacted at letters@kosuke.net.

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To His Majesty, the Emperor Akihito of Japan (Nov 6, '04)

Tortuous tangles over Japanese textbooks
(Oct 26, '04)

Time the best healer, except in North Asia
(Oct 6, '04)

Japan collaboration probe divides South Korea (Aug 20, '04)

China vs Japan - it's not just a soccer game (Aug 7, '04)

South Korea's tortured reckoning with collaborators
(Apr 26, '04)


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