History drags on Japan and South Korea
By Suvendrini Kakuchi
TOKYO - Economic ties between Japan and South Korea are becoming stronger by
the day, and the neighboring countries have also been collaborating more
frequently on the cultural front.
But as the 100th anniversary of Japan's August 29, 1910, formal annexation of
the Korean Peninsula nears, it has become clear that mistrust remains deep
between the two nations that share a bitter history.
Japan let go of the peninsula in 1945, after being defeated in World War II.
But its occupation left deep wounds among Koreans, who up until now insist on a
show of sincere remorse
from Japan for what it had done.
Many Japanese, meanwhile, view the South Korean position as frustrating and one
that willfully ignores repeated apologies by their political leaders who have
been keen to kickstart a new start in Tokyo-Seoul relations.
Just this week, the leading Japanese daily Yomiuri clucked over Tokyo's
decision to postpone the release of a defense white paper to "avoid friction
with South Korea over the disputed Takeshima group of islets" that is described
in the paper as an "inherent part of our nation".
Yomiuri scolded Japan's current left-leaning government, remarking, "Prime
Minister Naoto Kan does not take territorial issues, which can be described as
the substance of the nation, seriously enough."
The group of uninhabited islands in the Sea of Japan (East Sea to Koreans) is
called Takeshima by Japan and Dokdo by South Korea, which also claims it.
Territorial disputes, however, are not the main flashpoints between Japan and
In June, the Asahi newspaper released the results of a survey it conducted in
both countries that showed Koreans to be still bitter over Japan's past brutal
occupation of their country. Among other things, Koreans were forced to give up
their language and culture and had to work as unpaid labor and even soldiers of
the Japanese Imperial Army.
Three thousand people were polled in Japan and 1,000 in South Korea. In
response to the question on whether the two countries had solved their past
differences, an overwhelming 97% of the South Koreans said "no" while only 30%
of the Japanese respondents said "yes".
South Korean respondents maintained that Japan had made no honest attempt to
make amends for its army's atrocities - while the Japanese believed that their
leaders had already said "sorry" many times.
For sure, while conservative leaders of the Liberal Democratic Party have been
criticized for making piecemeal apologies in the Japanese Diet (parliament),
most Japanese believe a June 1995 speech by socialist prime minister Tomiichi
Murayama was a strong statement that acknowledged the "profound suffering" of
victims of past Japanese acts of aggression in Asia.
Murayama had also brought up the "scar of wartime comfort women", referring to
the forced conscription of Korean and other women in occupied Asian countries
as sex slaves for the Japanese army.
Still, experts remain optimistic that Japan-South Korea relations can improve.
Shizuoka University professor and Korea expert Kobari Susumu, for instance,
commented in Asahi in June that Japan and South Korea could bridge the huge gap
created by history by intensifying cultural and sports exchanges.
It is a suggestion with basis. The Asahi survey itself showed that 80% of both
Japanese and South Korean respondents were enthusiastic when it came to the
other country's food and arts.
As long as they steer clear of the past, Japan and South Korea work together
just fine. For one, the two nations have no problems sharing technology and
investing in each other's economy, resulting in a robust bilateral trade that
is now at US$35 billion annually.
And when Seoul recently pointed a finger at North Korea regarding the sinking
of a South Korean corvette, Tokyo joined the South Korean and US governments in
taking a strong stance against Pyongyang.
Still, some experts say it is time Japan and South Korea patched up their
differences. After all, notes Lee Young Che, an expert on post-war ties between
Japan and South Korea, most Korean survivors of World War II are now in their
80s and deserve closure as much as compensation for their suffering. According
to Lee, a top priority must be a re-examination of the 1965 normalization
treaty between South Korea and Japan.
Tokyo pledged $800 million in grants and soft loans as compensation for the
more than one million Koreans conscripted into its workforce and the military
during the colonial period. But South Korean World War II survivors contested
the treaty, while Japanese courts rejected lawsuits filed by survivors and
their kin seeking compensation.
Lee observes, "It was the height of the Cold War when Japan and South Korea
signed the treaty and we also had a military leadership that did not demand for
individual compensation. Both factors were unlucky omens."
Haruki Wada, former head of a recent Japanese-South Korean study of history
books, adds, "There is no doubt Japanese conservative politicians have played a
role in obstructing an honest appraisal of the colonization period on the
In fact, he says, the joint textbook study of which he was a part was the
result of protests from Seoul after Japan published schoolbooks whitewashing
its colonization of the Korean Peninsula. Says Wada: "The time has come for
Japan to start on a new path."