Tokyo Notes

Rocky Japan-Korea Ties

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Tokyo Notes

Rocky Japan-Korea Ties

Two tiny islets in the Sea of Japan continue to undermine ties between Japan and South Korea.

On his birthday in 2001, Japanese Emperor Akihito told reporters that he felt a kinship with Korea, even alluding to family roots on the peninsula. Now, almost a decade later, could the Emperor hold the key to closer ties between the two nations?

The Kyodo news agency reported Thursday that the Japanese government is considering having Prime Minister Naoto Kan issue a statement apologizing to Seoul for Japan’s rule over its former colony before Aug. 15 (the anniversary of South Korea’s 1945 liberation) and Aug. 29 (the centenary of Imperial Japan’s annexation of the Korean Peninsula).

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku implied Wednesday that some Koreans were still scarred by Japan’s occupation. ‘It’s easier for those who hurt other people in colonial rule to forget than for those who were hurt,’ he said at a press conference.

Meanwhile, the government last week delayed the release of its annual defence white paper until after the commemorations.

The decision was ostensibly to account for fresh North Korean antagonism following the sinking of a South Korean naval ship. But analysts and government insiders have suggested the move was aimed at placating Seoul over disputed islets in the Sea of Japan (or East Sea if you’re sitting in a South Korean government office).

Every year, the report states that the Liancourt Rocks (Takeshima in Japanese text books, Dokdo to South Koreans) are an inherent part of Japan, and includes them on a map of the country.

The report riles ordinary South Koreans much the same way that the persistent visits of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koziumi to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo enraged victims of the Imperial Japanese Army. The postponement of the paper will therefore likely only draw attention to these two rocks, whose only permanent residents are a South Korean octopus fisherman and his wife.

The government might have been wiser to release the report on schedule and allow any subsequent storm to subside before the commemorations, which are seen as an opportunity to forge stronger links between the East Asian neighbours (perhaps stronger than the ties built through the opportunist exports of shallow J-Pop and melodramatic South Korea soap operas).

But while an official apology over Japan’s belligerence against its neighbour could paper over some diplomatic cracks, some members of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan are reportedly concerned such a move could be seen as yet another sorry over an occupation long over and invite fresh calls for compensation from Korean victims.

So, could a more permanent bridge be built if the Emperor were to express remorse again to the people of the Korean Peninsula for Japan’s wartime wrongdoings?

The Korea Herald reported on a protest Tuesday outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul by families and supporters of independence activists during colonial rule to demand a ‘sincere apology’ from the Emperor rather than a ‘deceptive’ prime-ministerial statement.

Such an expression of regret by Japan’s ceremonial figurehead is improbable, given it would likely be met by waves of protest from Japanese rightists and accusations of using the monarch as a political tool.

But without a change in attitude any move toward reconciliation could wind up shipwrecked on the Liancourt Rocks. Both nations have unearthed countless pieces of evidence and counterevidence proving and disproving sovereignty of the islets, and are unwavering in their blinkered views. The Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Web site describes Japan’s Inalterable Position on the Sovereignty of Takeshima, while South Korea’s North Gyeongsang Province has a multilingual site for tourists that plays up the beauty of ‘Dokdo of Korea.’ 

Of course, neither Tokyo nor Seoul would kick up such a fuss if the rocks were not located in rich fishing grounds that contain potentially large gas deposits.

While apologies or diplomatic overtures are unlikely to shift national sentiments over the islets’ sovereignty, perhaps it’s time for the administrations in both countries to engage in adult dialogue about potential mutual benefits such as joint exploration rights of the contested waters surrounding them.