Japan stokes regional tension

Saddled by historical trauma, Japan and South Korea inch toward confrontation

January 31, 2014 10:30AM ET
South Korean protesters shout slogans during an anti-Japan rally in front of the Japanese embassy on Dec. 27, 2013 in Seoul, South Korea a day after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine.
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Japanese Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura announced plans to revise official teaching materials for the country’s middle and high schools. The guidelines refer to the disputed islands of Takeshima, claimed by South Korea as the Dokdo islands, and the Senkaku islands, which China claims as Diaoyu, as “integral territories of Japan.”

The announcement has further exacerbated Japan’s already strained relations with its neighbors. Both South Korea and China responded with angry statements, decrying the provocative moves as attempts to falsify history.

The latest standoff comes on the heels of a Dec. 26 visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which caused great uproar across the region, especially in Korea. The memorial to Japan’s war dead includes the enshrinement of convicted war criminals and has been accused of promoting revisionist views of imperial Japan’s history in the region. Condemnation of Abe’s visit came quickly from across East Asia. Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou likened the visit to “rubbing salt into others’ wounds.”

At the root of the troubling and deep-seated problems between South Korea and Japan — two of Washington’s strongest allies in Asia — is history. The stability of East Asia and the success of President Barack Obama’s much-heralded “pivot” toward Asia now hinges on the potential outcomes of these disputes, sometimes referred as the “history wars.” The enormity of the challenge warrants a swift plan of action from the United States.

History wars

East Asia’s “history wars” are grounded in four basic issues: Japanese officials’ visits to the Yasukuni Shrine; a dispute over the sovereignty of several islets in the Sea of Japan (referred to as the East Sea by Koreans); Japan’s responsibility and accountability for the suffering of the “comfort women,” wartime sex slaves from Korea as well as China, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines who serviced Japanese imperial troops; and controversies over the accuracy of colonial and wartime history in Japanese textbooks. These countries were a part of the Japanese Empire during World War II, with Korea serving as a colony from 1910 to 1945.

Of these four questions, visits to the Yasukuni shrine remain the most contentious. The shrine is said to house the spirits of more than 2 million Japanese soldiers who served in the imperial forces during World War II. Abe says his December visit was made simply to honor those who died during Japan’s modern conflicts, and that he “had no intention whatsoever to hurt the feelings of people in China and Korea.” But given the presence at the shrine of 14 senior government and military leaders who were convicted Class A war criminals, Tokyo’s disingenuous explanation rings hollow. The shrine also houses a war museum that is widely criticized for offering a revisionist view of Japan’s World War II history, glorifying the efforts of the Japanese military since the latter half of the 19th century, allegedly, to free Asia from Western imperialism.

Apology not accepted

Japanese leaders are often criticized for failing to apologize, but in fact there is a long history of war apology statements made by Japanese officials. In 1993, Yohei Kono, then the chief Cabinet minister, acknowledged the involvement of Japan’s military authorities in the comfort women system and expressed “sincere apologies and remorse to all … who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.”

Two years later, on the 50th anniversary of the war’s end, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama reaffirmed Kono’s statement and offered “heartfelt apology” for the “tremendous damage and suffering” caused to the people of Asia by Japan’s “colonial rule and aggression.” In 1996 Emperor Akihito, Japan’s ceremonial head of state, echoed similar sentiments. Amid questions about the adequacy of the country’s formal war apologies, Abe has made public his intention to retract some of the past statements of remorse and apology.

Nearly 70 years after the end of WWII, Japan and South Korea have yet to overcome the burden of history.

Historical legacy

Domestic politics further complicates this historical trauma. South Korean President Park Geun-hye is also saddled by history. She is the daughter of Gen. Park Chung-hee, who seized power in 1961 through a military coup and later declared himself president for life, a position he held until his assassination in 1979.

Before becoming president, the elder Park served in Japan’s Manchukuo Imperial Army as an officer. In 1965, as head of state, he normalized ties with Japan, Korea’s former colonial master — largely to accelerate South Korea’s economic growth. Given this legacy, his granddaughter cannot appear to be soft on Japan. Her hard-line approach to relations with Tokyo and refusal to take steps to improve bilateral relations had put Seoul at odds with the United States — that is, until Abe’s Yasukuni visit.

Abe is similarly tainted by history and constrained by domestic politics. In an effort to appease ultranationalists, he campaigned on a pledge to revise two of the major official statements of Japanese responsibility. In addition, he is the grandson of former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, the wartime minister of commerce and industry who was responsible for the industrial development of the state of Manchukuo. Manchukuo was a de facto colony of Japan between 1932 and 1945.

After the war, Kishi was held in prison by the Allied powers for three years.  While he was never formally indicted or tried for war crimes, he was “purged,” or prevented from holding office, until after the occupation of Japan ended in 1952. Abe’s main political base already feels betrayed because he did not pursue a more rigorous right-wing agenda. The official visit to Yasukuni along with an active push to add a more patriotic tone to school textbooks, while at the same time softening or removing references to negative wartime history, are important parts of his appeasement policy.

Moreover, at the moment, there is little Japanese interest in addressing this problem. There is a real sense in Tokyo that Japan has apologized enough, and that Korea will never be satisfied by any apologies. Japan also feels it has settled the case of comfort women through legal compensation as part of the normalization agreement signed between the two countries in 1965.

Since Abe’s Yasukuni visit, Seoul has also shown little appetite to mend relations with Japan. Japan’s persistent claims to the Korean-administered Dokdo islands, which Tokyo refers to as Takeshima, raise concerns about the return of Japanese imperialism and undermines the legitimacy of past Japanese war apologies. Additionally, in Seoul, private claims for compensation for the comfort women continue unabated, with weekly demonstrations taking place at the Peace Monument across the street from the Japanese Embassy. The monument was erected in 2011 as a memorial for the comfort women.

In effect, nearly 70 years after the end of WWII, Japan and South Korea have yet to overcome the burden of history. Even the joint Korea-Japan project, begun in 2002, to write a common history of bilateral relations has failed to make substantial progress.

Need for U.S. intervention

The history wars have left two of America’s closest allies with deep-rooted suspicions and an intractable relationship. Given these domestic political constraints, it is unlikely that these differences will be ironed out through bilateral negotiations.

Recent critical statements by the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo following Abe’s visit to Yasukuni are simply not sufficient. Obama must reconsider whether it is in America’s best interests to let Vice President Joe Biden’s statement that “the United States does not intend to act as mediator” stand as the official U.S. policy. The U.S. has in the past effectively mediated between allies saddled by similarly thorny historical problems. For example, in 1996, Sen. George Mitchell, acting as President Bill Clinton’s special envoy, helped broker a deal between Ireland and Britain on the issue of Northern Ireland. Obama should immediately appoint a special envoy to mediate between these two countries in order to prevent relations from deteriorating further toward confrontation.

Now is the time for the U.S. to exercise its leadership in Asia, and to ensure that the “pivot” to Asia continues on a foundation of strong multilateral ties between Washington and its allies.

Constantine N. Vaporis is a professor of history and director of the Asian studies program at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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