During his recent visit to South Korea, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio showed sympathy for the painful past of the Korean people but did not dare to elaborate on what and who inflicted that pain upon them – Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. At a joint press conference with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, while acknowledging his counterpart’s decision to play a leading role in thawing the bilateral relationship, Kishida expressed gratitude to the Korean public for backing those initiatives “even though they have not forgotten the painful memories of the past.”
Also, speaking in the first person – and not speaking on behalf of his country – Kishida stated that his “heart ached deeply for the pain and sadness that so many people suffered under the harsh circumstances of those days.” Kishida’s expression of sympathy, which lacked any concrete details about the “past” and the “harsh circumstances” under which the Korean population suffered, is a demonstration of how domestic politics constrained his overture to South Korea.
The absence of a clear and straightforward admission that Japanese colonialism was a historical wrong, one that deprived the Korean people of self-determination and dignity, did not land well with the Korean press. The Hankyoreh newspaper published an editorial titled “Korea-Japan summit underscores future without apology for past,” criticizing Kishida’s apology as a “minimum expression of good faith” that failed to directly address Korean concerns. In analyzing the tone of editorials across the South Korean media outlets, Japan’s Sankei Shimbun also reported that the frustration aimed at Ksihida’s seemingly half-hearted admission of guilt was widespread, regardless of the partisan inclinations of the publications.
For Kishida, one of the most significant forces thwarting his diplomatic overture to South Korea is domestic politics. Within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which Kishida is a part of and which constitutes the major part of Japan’s governing coalition, conservative influence is strong. In order to become prime minister, Kishida was required to appeal to the most conservative faction of the LDP – the largest grouping of the party, led by the late Abe Shinzo – by standing for the socially conservative policies and hawkish defense initiatives that this faction relished. Therefore, since Kishida was basically brought into power by the conservatives and the center of gravity of the LDP tilts toward them, the ideas that they hold have significant sway over the handling of Kishida’s foreign policy – especially those involving South Korea, a country toward which Japanese conservatives hold animosity.
Japanese conservatives typically harbor negative feelings toward South Korea due to their perception that the complaints and accusations made by Koreans are baseless. This way of thinking is partially derived from their fundamental misunderstanding of the reality of Japan’s colonial rule. Conservatives tend to believe that the Koreans are better off as a result of Japanese colonization, a proposition that most Koreans do not accept for obvious reasons.
An example of this paternalistic belief is best exemplified by best-selling author turned conservative pundit Hyakuta Naoki’s book, “Now is the Time to Apologize to Korea.” Contrary to the title, the book details the extent to which the Japanese occupation supposedly contributed to the well-being of the Korean population, at the same time ridiculing the Koreans that do not acknowledge those feats. Given these views, from the vantage point of the conservatives, apologizing to the South Koreans is not only unnecessary but is a distortion of reality, which could make an official apology by the Japanese prime minister a betrayal in a sense.
This sort of paternalistic attitude has long roots. In 1953, during a negotiation between Japanese and South Korean diplomats, Kubota Kanichiro, one of the representatives of Japan, argued that as a result of Japanese colonial rule, “bald mountains were replaced by green mountains, railroads were built, ports were constructed, rice paddies increased greatly” on the Korean Peninsula. The statement touched the ire of South Korean officials and ultimately delayed the diplomatic recognition between both countries for over 10 years.
However, conservatives are not the only force hindering a formal apology from Kishida that would satisfy the South Koreans. The Japanese population, in general, is also partly to blame. As pointed out by multiple experts, Japanese people are feeling “apology fatigue,” a reference to the widespread exhaustion among the Japanese people who feel that they are continuously being demanded to apologize to their neighbors for their country’s past wrongdoings. The existence of this sentiment may well have been a constraining factor in Kishida’s statements in South Korea, in addition to the political opposition of the conservatives.
This gets at the crux of the historical issue: South Koreans feel Japan has never truly apologized for past wrongs, while Japanese feel their country has apologized again and again, to no avail. The key difference is what actually constitutes an apology.
For the past several decades, Japanese officials – like Kishida – have been using euphemisms in apologies for their imperialistic past toward the Koreans and other neighboring countries, in a way that satisfies their own people but leaves the feeling that they are not sincere. Japanese officials should understand that their excessive consideration of domestic public opinion when making an apology casts Japan’s attitude as insincere, which leads the South Koreans to continue demanding apologies.
While Kishida has been considerate of his domestic audience, Yoon has been defying his own regarding historical recognition. Yoon boldly stated during an interview with the Washington Post that he “can’t accept the notion that because of what happened 100 years ago,” Japan “must kneel” for forgiveness. On another occasion, he vowed that Japan does not have to apologize to South Korea anymore since they had already done so “several dozen times.”
The remarks that Yoon made went against the popular sentiment in his country, where a poll published on May 9 showed that 55.4 percent of South Koreans believe that Japan’s formal apology must precede further cooperation. The fact that he defied public opinion on the issue indicates his desire to strengthen South Korea’s relationship with Japan in order to counter the threat of China, which South Koreans are becoming increasingly concerned about.
So far, Yoon has been the one consuming his own political capital to advance bilateral ties, while Kishida seems reluctant to do the same on the delicate issue of historical recognition that has mired bilateral relations from their inception. If Kishida wants to thaw Japan-South Korean relations and adapt to the increasingly tense regional environment, he too must be willing to defy public opinion. To accomplish these things, he ought to show courage by eliminating euphemisms from his apologies, in order to gain the trust of the South Korean public, which will be essential for the bilateral relations to enter a new era.