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Random thoughts of a worried mind on Japan

Publication Date : 20-03-2014


Here in Korea and other countries of East Asia that suffered from Japanese imperialist aggression, people often ask why the Japanese do not learn from the German model of historical contrition, best exemplified by Willy Brandt’s “Warsaw Genuflection” in 1970. The answer, I believe, lies in the psychological differences between the two peoples, rooted in their religious cultures.

For Germans, their basically Christian faith requires repentance - for any guilt, sin or crime committed individually or collectively - as the single condition for salvation. In everyday prayers, they confess their wrongdoings to be forgiven by their god and thus earn a degree of moral cleansing. The Japanese culture, as I understand it, does not have such a process of thinking. Contrition - the admission of guilt - should only be answered by death, often self-inflicted.

This may sound a little too simplistic but it can explain why the East Asian victims are unsatisfied with the many “apologies” made by Japanese officials and regret the absence of real atonement. The Japanese Foreign Ministry has a dossier of formal apologies from as many as 50 occasions, stretching from Emperor Hirohito’s statement to Gen. MacArthur in 1945 to former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s as late as October 2013. Still, 82 per cent of Koreans believe Japan has not properly apologised, according to a recent survey.

Shinzo Abe, who began his second term as prime minister in December 2012, has become by far the most hated Japanese head of government for Koreans in recent decades. He set a breathtaking pace, alerting and angering his Korean and Chinese neighbours with one nationalistic move after another. He made a strong push for the revision of the 1947 “Peace Constitution” to abrogate the no-war clause. He visited the Yasukuni Shrine and asserted that the war criminals enshrined there committed no crimes under Japanese laws.

During the past few years no particularly grave or violent ethnic incident has happened in either country. The March 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami raised a wave of sympathy, prompting people from all walks of life to send relief goods to the disaster zone. However, Japanese politicians’ sudden initiatives on the Dokdo Islets, with some lawmakers attempting to land on Ulleungdo Island near Dokdo, quickly changed the mood.

President Lee Myung-bak visited Dokdo in August 2012, becoming the first Korean head of state to do so, and remarked that Japanese Emperor Akihito should first issue an official apology to Koreans if he wanted to visit the country. The reasons why the president performed these abrupt acts near the end of his tenure were not clear, but he raised an uproar in Japan, while some of his compatriots said he was out of line.

When Park Geun-hye succeeded him, largely helped by her father’s legacy as the founder of industrialised Korea, she knew that Park Chung-hee’s affinity toward Japan had better be swept under the carpet. Since her inauguration last year, she has remained inflexible with Tokyo as Abe has escalated his nationalist drive. Only when Abe took a small step back last week, vowing to honour earlier government pronouncements on past history, including Yohei Kono’s statement on the “comfort women,” Park said it was “fortunate.” And Tokyo “welcomed” her reaction.

It is likely that Park and Abe will hold their first meeting in The Hague during the Nuclear Security Summit next week, with or without U.S. President Barack Obama joining them. But I wonder how constructively the leaders of Korea and Japan can talk to each other in the present environment of chilly, if not frozen, bilateral ties. They may perfunctorily reiterate the “strategic partnership” between the two countries and emphasise common efforts to denuclearise North Korea.

Politics and politicians cannot bring the two peoples any closer. Since diplomatic normalisation in 1965, 20 years after liberation at the end of World War II, economic cooperation and cultural exchanges have steadily moved ahead, but historical issues have gone from bad to worse because of nationalist appeals and agitation in the political sector on both sides. Heated controversies have included the issue of history textbooks, the semantics of apologies, wartime sex slavery and now the constitutional amendment scheme.

While we Koreans are fed up by the Japanese evasiveness regarding historical responsibility, Japanese intellectuals complain that no words can satisfy Koreans, Taiwanese and Chinese. In the media space, perhaps the most radical analysis has been made by Katsuhiro Kuroda, a columnist for the Japanese right-wing newspaper Sankei who claims to have been branded anti-Korean in Seoul and pro-Korean in Tokyo.

The 40-year specialist on Korea believes that the root of Koreans’ antipathy toward Japan lies in their frustration with having been passively liberated from Japanese rule without the chance to remove the colonizers through their own independence war, unlike the Vietnamese, Indonesians and Indians. There is no other way for Koreans to resolve their anti-Japanese sentiment than fighting a war with Japan and winning it, he argues.

There may be some other pessimists here who would agree with the 74-year-old Kuroda, even if they would not accept his categorisation of the disputes over the Dokdo Islets, “comfort women” and East Sea as part of an unending war in the minds of Koreans. Then is there really no future between the two neighbours?

Remedial steps are suggested by respected thinkers who find great value in the common ideological identity of the two countries, both of which believe in liberal democracy and the free market. Lee Sang-woo, director of the New Asia Research Institute, proposed that “a multi-tiered complex system” be applied to the relationship. A “value alliance” is desirable between the two neighbours to pursue economic, cultural and security interests on separate spheres of cooperation. The global community in the 21st century operates through a multi-tiered complex system that does not allow for interference across different planes, he observes.

Yes, our neighbourly relations will have a future as long as some restaurants in Myeong-dong and Insa-dong are half filled with Japanese patrons regardless of Shinzo Abe’s politics or the weak yen, and as long as there are conscientious voices reprimanding anti-Korean demonstrators in the streets of downtown Tokyo and Osaka. These are aspects of the multi-tiered system. Anyway, history will advance undisturbed by nationalist-populist noises, without Kuroda’s “war.”

Kim Myong-sik, a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald, has served as head of the Korea Overseas Information Service. - Ed.


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