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Japan-ROK relations: History debate a dangerous indulgence

Japan-ROK relations: History debate a dangerous indulgence

The Korea-Japan dispute over history is back yet again, with the Japanese Government this week releasing a 'review' of the drafting of the 'Kono Statement.'

That statement is the 1993 Japanese admission, by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, that the Imperial military during the Pacific War organised military brothels in which Korean women were often forced to serve. The Japanese euphemisms for this is 'comfort women' and 'comfort stations'; in reality, this was enforced prostitution that inevitably included beatings and other abuse. As the Japanese empire expanded, the practice spread across Asia, including women in Japan's Southeast Asian holdings.

Much of this is well known and widely accepted outside of Japan. There is a fairly substantial literature on it, especially in Korea where the practice was widespread (this is a good place to start). Even within Japan, it is really only the hard right which disputes this history, insisting that all these women were voluntary prostitutes (for a colourful example of the sort of hate mail I get on this, try here). Kono himself says there is nothing to add to the previous statement, and even the US has urged Japan to leave it alone.

But of course, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly returned to war-time remembrance in his career. Although elected this second time to the prime ministership for economic reasons — the much hyped 'Abenomics' — Abe just can't seem to resist the siren-call of nationalist revisionism. Hence this 'review' of the Kono Statement, which determined that Korea and Japan bargained over the text of the 1993 statement. The implication is that Japan made concessions to Korea over the interpretation of history for political reasons; had Japan acted alone, it might not have come to the same finding (although Abe has said he will not alter the statement).

Predictably this has led to a sharp response from South Korea. Seoul has insisted that the findings and wording are Japan's alone.

This is just the beginning. If there is one thing that infuriates all Koreans, North or South, right or left, it is Japanese historical revisionism. Korea's most widely-read newspaper, the Chosun Daily, refers to Abe's government as no less than a 'gang of revisionist thugs.' Relations will fall into a freeze, and we will be debating this for months, like we always do.

The pathway out of this rut is well known but bears repeating. [fold]

1. Japan needs to stop undercutting its otherwise admirable contrition

This 'review' of the Kono Statement is a perfect example of what angers the Koreans and Chinese so much regarding the war. The Japanese do in fact have a long history of apologising for war-time brutalities. Korea and China should be more cognisant of this. My Korean students, for example (I teach in Korea), regularly claim that Japan has not apologised, while China obviously cynically manipulates the war to regionally isolate Japan.

In my own experience with Japanese diplomats, scholars, and journalists (I write for Newsweek Japan), I have routinely found them aware of and embarrassed by the imperial military's behaviour. Most have genuinely confused feelings about the Yasukuni Shrine, think the Kono Statement should stand, and so on.

But Japanese contrition is routinely undercut by post-hoc partial walk-backs, outbursts from important officials or public figures in the media, visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, claims that the atomic bomb drop made Japan a 'victim,' and so on. This is something of a pattern now and sends confused signals to everyone, including the Americans. Japan's war guilt is well established. The idea that Japan 'had to' invade China, 'modernise' Korea, or bomb Pearl Harbor is laughable.

This most recent 'review that isn't really a review' captures this maddening ambiguity. Abe launched the review for no obvious reason, because he has said it will not alter the Kono Statement. So what was the point? A sop to his conservative base? But they vote LDP no matter what. To pointlessly infuriate the South Koreans? A sheer vanity project for his own nationalist fascinations?

Whether or not there was 'bargaining' on Kono, Japan did sign it. And most people think this was the right thing to do. Reopening this debate while disclaiming any intent to alter the statement serves no purpose other than to signal once again that the Japanese right is caught in a time warp.

2. Korea needs to recognise the liberal-democratic character of contemporary Japan

There is movement to be made on the Korean side as well. It is long overdue for Koreans to recognise the inherently liberal and democratic nature of modern Japan. Since the war, Japan has been a model global citizen. It has shown great restraint in the development of its military capabilities; it has been generous in development assistance, including to Korea; and it has supported multilateral institutions and solutions robustly.

Yet I rarely see recognition of this in South Korea. Instead there is an obsession with the war and the colonial period. I see this in class frequently, but I find the media astonishingly inflammatory. If all you read were Korean newspapers, you would think that Japanese expansionism is waiting to burst out at any moment; that the Japanese are just a few aircraft carriers or nuclear missiles away from invading Asia once again; that Japanese behaviour in Korea was akin to the Holocaust; or that Japan has invaded Korea dozens, if not hundreds, of times. That Chosun Ilbo quote is fairly typical, and outlandish conspiracy theories get far too much play (my favorite is here).

Much of this 'Japanophobia' (my term) stems from Korea's national division. The Republic of Korea should be the anti-DPRK; it should be the successful capitalist twin competing North Korea into illegitimacy. But it cannot be, because North Korea manipulates the language of Korean nationalism to delegitimise the South. For example, it instrumentalises its control of Mount Paektu, the mythic birthplace of the Korean people, and plays to Korean race-nationalism by regularly indicting South Korea as the globalised, bastardised 'Yankee Colony.' Pyongyang also enjoys enough sympathy in the South that an aggressively anti-DPRK foreign policy is impossible. The South Korean left often excuses the North, and South Korea's most 'progressive' president, Roh Moo-Hyun, thought Japan and the US were a greater threat to South Korea than North Korea was.

This creates a weird dynamic: South Korean conservatives are 'internationalist' (ie. they support the US alliance), while the left (or 'progressives' in local jargon) are the nationalists. Strangely then, North Korea and the South Korean left are more nationalist than the South Korean right. 

Japan usefully resolves these topsy-turvy national identity tensions. If South Korea cannot be the anti-DPRK because of Pyonyang's cynical manipulation of Korean nationalism, then South Korea can legitimate itself as the 'anti-Japan' instead. Japan as historical villain avoids a painful intra-South Korean debate on the legitimacy of North Korea, the appalling human rights record of a fellow Korean people, and its seductive nationalist race ideology.

But if South Korea wants a normalised relationship with Japan, it will eventually need to jettison Japan as a whipping boy. To elevate the comfort women above North Korea's vastly worse human rights record for nationalist reasons guarantees continued Japanese recalcitrance.

One final thought deserves mention. The revisiting of the Kono Statement is an indulgence made possible by the US security shield, despite a very dangerous neighbourhood that cries out for Japan-Korea cooperation. Barry Posen's recent book Restraint points out that US allies free-ride on US power, and the Korea-Japan case strikes me as a perfect example. Despite the fact that Tokyo and Seoul neighbour North Korea, China, and Russia, both put enormous effort into demonising one another and competing for American favour against the other. It is yet another way that America's alliances generate large dysfunctions that few want to recognise.

Photo by Flickr user joonyoung kim.

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