What Japan and South Korea Could Learn from Europe

What Japan and South Korea Could Learn from Europe


It was a great photo-op earlier this month, when Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se held their first direct talks on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Brunei. But any goodwill arising from that meeting is overwhelmed by the rapid deterioration in bilateral relations between Tokyo and Seoul in recent months. Issues officially considered resolved, such as the forced prostitution of thousands of sex slaves across East Asia or the visits by Japanese government officials at the Yasukuni shrine, have reopened wounds all over again.

Deep rooted nationalistic sentiment in both countries threatens to undermine decades of political efforts to normalize ties. So how can these two proud nations overcome their historical differences when all efforts to date appear to have failed?

Relations between Tokyo and Seoul began to sour two months after South Korean President Park Geun-hye took office. In late April, 168 Japanese Diet members and several government officials decided to visit the controversial Yasukuni shrine, prompting Seoul to abruptly cancel ministerial meetings with Japan. Matters deteriorated when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe questioned the definition of aggression in the Murayama Statement of 1995, and reaffirmed one week later his goal to revise the Japanese Constitution. Comments by Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto in early May, defending Japan’s use of comfort women during World War II, and Abe’s appearance in a jet fighter with the notorious number 731 put even greater pressure on the bilateral relationship.

South Korean media outlets responded with aggressive anti-Japanese rhetoric, grieving the missed opportunity to prosecute Emperor Hirohito for crimes against humanity, ridiculing Abe’s drive to abolish the Peace Constitution, and arguing that the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were divine punishment. Meanwhile, Park’s remark in Washington that Japan needs to have a correct perception on history fundamentally failed to understand the deep rift.

For many South Koreans, the re-election of Shinzo Abe as prime minister of Japan signaled a move to the political right and carried with it the implicit notion of re-militarization and the rise of Japanese nationalism. Yet Abe worked to strengthen ties during his first term in office, despite his stance on the Yasukuni shrine, the comfort women issue, and the sovereignty of Dokdo/Takeshima.

The election of Park Geun-hye has meanwhile caused mixed feelings abroad and at home. While praised as the first female president, with the potential to bring change to South Korea’s male dominated society, the memory of her father General Park Chung-hee persists in raising doubts about her interpretation of democracy and ability to lead the country.

It is indeed ironic that history is as much at odds with Park as it is with Abe. A Q&A in Washington on February 22 brought this overlap into sharp relief, when Abe mentioned that Park Chung-hee had been a close friend of Abe’s grandfather, former Japanese Prime Minister Kishi Nobosuke. Instead of seeing this reference as a friendly gesture to his South Korean counterpart, Abe’s comment revived painful memories in Korea of Park Chung-hee serving in the Japanese Imperial Army. It also underscored the notion that Abe was the grandson of a convicted war criminal.

In light of these antagonizing events it is difficult to recall that Abe and Park campaigned primarily on economic issues. Park called for “economic democratization” in South Korea, while Abe laid out his plan to revive the struggling Japanese economy. Yet time and again, nationalistic sentiment in both countries has undermined progress on the economy and instead sparked yet another debate on history.

March 13, 2014 at 22:05

Finally! Someone has coherently written down my thoughts on why South Korea is so over the top emotional about being anti-Japanese.

My paraphrase: South Korean leaders have decided that teaching South Koreans to hate Japan is advantageous to South Korean’s political identity.


December 31, 2013 at 01:17

@Rising Sun – “Japan is the one who were fighting for the freedom of Asia from the white-supremacy and the rise of the communist ideology at all fronts. ”

I can’t believe I’m reading this! what….huh…? “Fighting for freedom”? Then why kill the people in the country if Japan is trying to save them? Why plan human experiments on Russians, Chinese, Koreans, Americans, POWs, under Unit 731 when you’re trying to save them?

What kind of warped education did you receive???

July 18, 2013 at 13:24

It is not about who is right or wrong. We have moved beyond that point in history.
It is time for the leaders in Japan and Korea to leave the past behind and make history on their own.

Yoshimichi Moriyama
July 17, 2013 at 21:38

A misspelling: If so, shouldn't a U.S. President and U.S. Congress own  owe…

P.S.  I mentioned the emperor who was deprived of any political power and privilege under the pre-war constitution.  Japanese political modernization, therefore, started with a constitutional monarchy from the very beginnig while in the West it was one stage in the development from a dictatorial monarchy to mass democracy.  Why that was possible in Japan was that Japanese emperors, with a few exceptions in the beginning, had been priestly rather than political.

Yoshimichi Moriyama
July 17, 2013 at 12:17

Mr. Soesanto is suggesting something that South Korea has been unwilling to do, something that she has been obstructing with one big lie after another.

I know Willy Brandt was a hero of anti-Nazi resistance movements.  The photo of him kneeling down in the pouring rain was indeed moving, in spite of what Wawer said.  But (West) Germany has been fortunate, unlike Japan, in that she did not have fundamentalists in her neighborhood.  She even obtained an apology from Czechoslovakia for the cruel treatment of Sudeten Germans when they were banished after the war.  Japan has been harassed by her two fundamentalist neighbors, China and South Korea.  If interested in the Confucianist world-view, read my four comments to http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/east-asia-s-nationalist-fantasy-islands-by-ian-buruma.

Japan, Hirohito or anyone should not be blamed for what they did not do, what they did not intend or what they did not conspire for or against.  Hirohito was an Anglo-Saxonphile.  He hated the militarism of the 1930s' Japan.  He always belonged, in both thinking and pracitice of foreign policy, to the mainstream.  He liked Japan's promotion and maintenance of goodwill with the Anglo-Saxon world.  The Japanese foreign policy pivot was on Great Britain in the second half of the 19th century and on the United States in the 20th century.  Americans and English were the most popular foreigners with the Japanese.  Believe or read Japanese history.

Hirohito was politically impotent.  So were his grandfather and his father. (His father was mentally enfeebled.)  This was not due to the blood of the imperial family.  It was due to the Constitution, enuciated in 1889, of pre-war Japan.  Hirobumi Ito, who was assassinated by a Korean, and his colleagues unanimously intended to deprive the emperor of any political power.  It was a very easy job to do because they had only to put the Japanese imperial and political tradition into words.   If anyone is interested in this but too busy to have more than thirty seconds, Chapter Six, titled The Emperor, of Edwin O. Reischauer/The Japanese will serve his or her purpose.  If an interested person can spare a few hours at the weekend, I suggest Ben-Ami Shillony/The Enigma of The Emperos.

A group of people at Stanford University compared school history textbooks of Japan, China, South Korea and the United States.  A very short summary "Comparative study of history textbooks of Japan, America, China, Korea and Taiwan, conducted by Stanford University"  is available in English at http://blog.goo.ne.jp/a3513866z/e/db9751f209fc71f4445e1cf5d635c271.  

I admit that there were Korean comfort women, but they were not abducted as Koreans and Chinese are so fond of saying.  These "abducted" comfort women did sex business with new customers instead of being liberated, as the Japanese were defeated in August, 1945.  If so, shouldn't a U.S. President and U.S. Congress own apologies to them?  Shouldn't state legislatures which passed a resolution condemning the Japanese pass a resolution condemning themselves?

Little Helmsman
July 16, 2013 at 05:54

Personally I think the historical baggage that Japan and Korea carry will not be too much of a contentious issue as time goes by.  It is mostly older generations of Koreans that have the most animus towards Japan.  Younger generations of Japanese and Koreans which grew up in an open and democratic environment can understand each other better and hopefully put aside deep seated animosity.  Culturally, Japan and Korea are much more alike than different.  The past should not be forgotten but one should acknowledge that a society should not dwell on the past forever.  Leaders of militarist Japan are no longer in power so to try to lay blame on younger generations of Japanese for the sins of their forefathers is unreasonable and irrational.   The real threat is a China that is still authoritarian and who has not really evolve very much.  That is the challenge for the future Korean and Japanese generations which are living in an open environment of trade, cooperation, and commerce.  One should live for the present in order to try to build a better future. 

July 15, 2013 at 21:04

Brand attention and point of 1970 visit in Warszawa was rather towards Jewish victims than Polish. We would like to have the same same representation and rights to memory in Berlin as They have.

July 15, 2013 at 15:40

@ Andy


Japan didn’t colonize Korea. Japan Annexed Korea by the demands of Korean leaders and its process acknowledged by the international law. What to apologize in the first place?  If the Japan-Korea treaty with the compensations of the total 800millions usd (1.5 times GDP of RoK at the time) wasn’t enough, what would? Korea needs to let it go and move on.

July 15, 2013 at 15:30

So Tom F, are you saying that the US is causing the instability of the middle-east today by having the military presence? Are you criminalizing the US efforts of stabilizing the region and fighting for the human freedom? How China and Korea got messed up might be because the US during the 30’s decided to take a side with the communists. At least during the Japanese occupation, forgotten places like Taiwan, Korea, and even places like Hong Kong stayed relatively quiet. In the same tone of yours, maybe we can argue that the reason why Asia became instable after the war was due to loss of the strong and legal presences of the Japanese military.

July 15, 2013 at 15:07

Thanks, Moriyama-san.

@ TV Monitor

It makes me laugh when a communist trying to lecture what the “true democracy” is.  And again, you are showing a sign of a serious reading disability. I'm not denying if Hideki Tojo was a war criminal. What I’m arguing here is that dictatorship doesn’t apply to Tojo, who was forced to resign by the opposition group in 1944, by very democratic process. Your head is fogged with leftist/CCP propaganda and need to be treated immediately.


December 31, 2013 at 01:00

Oh and i suppose everything atrocity that Imperial Japan did to Russia, Chiina, Korea, America, POWs during WW2 was all made up by the CCP??? Tell that to the president of the United states and the countless war veterans that risks their lives to bring an end of ww2!!!

Thanks for your ignorant bashing of Korea and China, but the rest of the world knows the truth.

Yoshimichi Moriyama
July 15, 2013 at 10:19

Hull was U.S. Secretary of State.

July 15, 2013 at 09:54

So your criticism is that brandt fell to his knees only once?

July 15, 2013 at 08:58

Andy, are you Korean?

July 15, 2013 at 04:41

I would like to point out that German example is not quite adequate from Polish site of view. Of coure the case with Polish German borders were sealed by German RFN and communistic Polish goverment, under leadership of Władysław Gomułka ( NOT mentioned in the article for some reason ). But communistic authorities where disappointed that chancellor Willy Brandt nealed before the monument of ghetto heroes in Warsaw, but forgot to do the same for Polish victims of Warszawa Uprising 1944. Yes there where two uprisings in Warszawa! First in Jewish Ghetto 1943, second led by Polish Underground Movement, called AK in 1944 which lasted for 63 days and costed lives of nearly 95 thousands of citizens and partizants, including children. There is also case with polish forced labour. Over one million of Polish workers were deported to Germany for harsh labour during the war. Under PRL they havent received any compensation for their work for Germany. After joining UE they have gained ridicioulus repayment of 150$ each, for their slave labour in Germany! There is olso NO monument in Berlin commemorating the death of Polish civilians during the war!

Little Helmsman
July 15, 2013 at 00:32

@ TV Monitor, you have a strange bias towards modern Japan! Have you ever been to Japan or know any Japanese? You can only see Japan as a caricature not as a normal country with different people and outlook.

TV Monitor
July 15, 2013 at 00:29

@ RisingSun

Only the true democracies can be called democracy; Imperial Japan was like the Imperial Germany and its modern day analogue Russia; they all had ineffective and powerless parliament and the countries were governed by a handful of strong men. 

As for Tojo Hideki, he was a career war-criminal, as the head of the kwantung army from 1935, responsible for unspeakable atrocities in China. You would be crazy to not expect Japan's neighbors to not respond angrily when Japan's leading politicians and elected officials bow down before Tojo Hideki at the Yasukuni Shrine, It would be like German political leaders bowing down before Adolf Hitler today, but that's exactly what's happening in Japan today.

Yoshimichi Moriyama
July 14, 2013 at 21:13

Wrong:  unitl he (Tojo) was giving the ultimatum called "the Hull Note."

Correct: until he was given the ultimatum called "the Hull Note."

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