JAPAN-SOUTH KOREA: 100 Years Later, Mistrust far From Gone

  • Analysis by Suvendrini Kakuchi (tokyo)
  • Friday, July 30, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

But as the 100th anniversary of Japan’s Aug. 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 till 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, leading Japanese daily ‘Yomiuri’ clucked over Tokyo’s decision to postpone the release of a defence 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 that '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 South Korea.

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 labour 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 percent of the South Koreans said ‘no’ while only 30 percent of the Japanese respondents said ‘yes’.

South Korean respondents maintained that Japan has made no honest attempt to make amends for its army’s atrocities -- while the Japanese believed that their leaders have already said ‘sorry’ many times.

For sure, while conservative leaders of the Liberal Democratic Party have been criticised for making piecemeal apologies in the Japanese Diet or 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 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 percent of both Japanese and South Korean respondents were enthusiastic when it came to the other country’s food and arts.

In truth, so 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 35 billion U.S. dollars.

And when Seoul recently pointed a finger at North Korea regarding the sinking of a South Korean submarine, Tokyo joined the South Korean and U.S. governments in taking a strong stance against Pyongyang.

Still, some experts say it is time Japan and South Korea patch 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 normalisation treaty between South Korea and Japan.

Tokyo pledged 800 million dollars in grants and soft loans as compensation for the 1.03 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.

The courts pointed to treaty stipulations that say compensation claims cannot be entertained after 1965.

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 colonisation period on the Korean peninsula.'

In fact, he says, the joint textbook study he was part of was the result of protests from Seoul after Japan published schoolbooks whitewashing its colonisation of the Korean peninsula.

Says Wada: 'The time has come for Japan to start on a new path.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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