Monday, July 13, 2015

Japan and Korea, Wartime Legacy

Today, relations between the Republic of Korea and the State of Japan remain relatively poor (relations between the State of Japan and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are all but non-existent) and most would say that this is a result of the legacy of World War II. Primarily, it is that many in Korea have a problem with Japan but trying to determine the precise reason for this can be difficult. The usual reason given, by the Koreans, is the rather vague statement that the Japanese have not “faced up” to their history and the crimes that Japan committed during World War II. How is one to answer an accusation that is so vague? What exactly is Japan supposed to do that would be accepted as proof that they have “faced up” to their history? If that sounds difficult, it is actually worse than that. The call for the Japanese to apologize for their actions in World War II has been one of the most common demands from Korea and yet the Japanese can point to an extensive list of occasions in which their leaders have apologized but which many Koreans have not accepted, sometimes because they have a problem with the wording of the apology, sometimes because the person making the apology was not sufficiently important, other times because the apology was taken to be a personal one rather than one on behalf of the entire country and so on.

Crown Princes of Japan & Korea
This can, obviously, be extremely frustrating for anyone trying to get at the root of the problem and, as usual, both sides make some fair points. Given the number of times Japanese officials have apologized, it is perfectly understandable that many in Japan would say that it needs to stop because there is no sense in continually apologizing if the apology is never to be accepted. Yet, if arguments about wording seem pedantic, the Korean accusations are not always baseless. A case in point is the preference for many Japanese leaders to express “regret” or “remorse” for events of the past which, for them, is politically safe and seemingly sufficient. They have said, “I am sorry”. However, there is a difference between telling someone, “I am sorry your car was stolen”, and telling them, “I am sorry I stole your car”. It is on such occasions that Koreans have a valid point, putting aside the issue of whether you think Japan should be apologizing or not. To express regret at events that have happened is not the same as accepting responsibility for those events. Some Japanese have given apologies that include the acceptance of guilt but others have not and there have always been those in Japan who argue that such leaders should not have apologized and that Japan has nothing to apologize for.

That is essentially what seems to be at the root of the on-going problems between Japan and Korea. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the populations of the two countries view the war in very different ways. In Korea, it is pretty simple and there is very little diversity of opinion on the subject; the Japanese were the bad guys. In Japan, however, things are not so simple. Many people don’t think about the war and don’t really care to. They have other priorities and this group, in my view, seems to be the majority. However, there is another group that has adopted the self-hating attitude of the liberal west that thinks Japan should be constantly apologizing and should expunge all remnants of the Empire of Japan that existed prior to 1945. This crowd is, not surprisingly, very well represented in the media and education. Finally, there is another group in Japan that takes the other extreme which does not want to apologize for anything because they firmly believe that Japan has never done anything wrong to anyone in their entire history and they focus on the period including and leading up to World War II in particular. This is the group that is most antagonistic in regards to Korea in this case.

call for Japan-Korea teamwork
When dealing with that particular group, the Koreans certainly have a valid case. The problem is, the Korean government and assorted pressure groups do not tend to confront the big issue head-on. The only possible reason I can come up with is some trepidation over the different way World War II is viewed in East Asia compared to the rest of the world. Instead, they tend to focus on affiliated issues that really make no sense. The most well known example is probably that of the comfort women, which has been discussed here before, as well as more general accusations of criminal and cruel behavior on the part of the Imperial Japanese Army and attacks on symbols of the Empire of Japan. None of these make much sense. If anyone gives it more than a minute of thought, such attacks are positively bewildering. Rather than making their case on an issue wherein the facts are on their side, these pressure groups and sometimes the Korean government itself, focuses on issues that result in making Korea look bad as well as Japan. After all, Korea was a part of the Empire of Japan throughout World War II. Koreans served in the Imperial Japanese military, availed themselves of the services of comfort women and were themselves often guilty of vicious behavior according to the Allied investigations after the war. Over a hundred Koreans were convicted of war crimes and 23 were sentenced to death.

Targeted Japanese naval flag
Another odd habit is the constant attacks on the flag of the Imperial Japanese Navy which is, today, the flag of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. This is sometimes used as an alternative national flag simply because it is an attractive and thus popular design that is probably more recognizable than the actual national flag. Why the naval flag in particular should be singled out as offensive or symbolizing something villainous, I have never heard explained. Many who attack it have said it is the equivalent of the Nazi flag (and comparing anyone or anything you don’t like to the Nazis has really become a tired tactic in my view) but exactly how or why is never explained. Certainly the Japanese navy never committed any specifically horrendous crime against Korea and it is simply baffling that one particular flag, which happens to be popular with many people, even non-Japanese people around the world, should be singled out as offensive or more offensive than others. Again, if there is a reason for this, I have never heard it. You can hear a long list of Japanese crimes and accusations of despicable acts but never one word about how any of that relates to this one particular flag.

Prince Yi Wu of Korea
All of these issues relating to World War II, stand out as odd for Korea to take issue with because, again, Korea was on the side of Japan in that conflict. Most Koreans who served in the war, served in the Japanese military. The Crown Prince of Korea was a lieutenant general in the Japanese Air Force and a member of the Supreme War Council. Prince Yi Geon of Korea was the instructor of cavalry at the Japanese Military Academy and served in the war, Prince Yi Wu was a lieutenant colonel in the Japanese army, served in China and Manchuria and was killed in the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. In the case of Prince Yi Wu, his Japanese adjutant committed seppuku afterwards because of his sorrow at not being able to save the life of his commanding officer. Many thousands of Koreans served in the Japanese military and the vast majority of them were volunteers. Many more volunteered, in fact, than were accepted for military service and Koreans were not conscripted until the last two years of the conflict.

Of course, this does not mean that all Koreans were happy about their situation or supportive of the Japanese war effort. No doubt many volunteered simply to raise their social status, to have a regular salary and employment and so on. Yet, there were doubtless those who were truly loyal to the Empire of Japan as there had always been a segment of the Korean population that favored the annexation of Korea by Japan. There was no consensus on this issue just as there was never such a consensus in virtually any such similar colonial relationship. This is partly why the level of antagonism between Korea and Japan stands out so much because there are very few similar examples one could point to of relations being so bad between a former colonial subject and colonial master, even in cases in which colonial rule lasted for centuries. There may be little love lost between countries such as Ireland and the United Kingdom or Mexico and Spain but their leaders do talk to each other, they do meet and cooperate and are not consumed by arguments over historical guilt or innocence.

Nationalist activists in Japan
It is not that the Koreans have absolutely nothing in their history with Japan to complain about. The problem is that most seem to focus on the wrong issues such as ridiculous, trivial obsessions with a flag or issues such as the comfort women which the Koreans themselves were complicit in. These groups also tend to present their argument in a bad way. The oft-repeated demand that Japan should apologize is an example for this. Japan has apologized, in various ways, numerous times but what, I think, is really bothering a great many Koreans is not that Japan has never apologized but that certain segments of the Japanese population keep trying to ‘take back’ those apologies or bemoan the fact that they were ever made in the first place. Many Japanese are rightly frustrated that they keep being asked to apologize again and again but a large part of that is because one segment of their population is continuously un-apologizing. This goes back to the previous point that while there is widespread consensus in Korea about World War II and their history with Japan, there is no such consensus on the Japanese side. Some people in Japan think that their country committed great crimes in the past, others think some crimes were committed but that these were no worse than any other country and still others think that Japan has never done anything wrong to anyone and has nothing to be sorry for. So, you have one group saying, “We are sorry” while another group says, “No, we’re not” and the Koreans condemn the Japanese for being misleading and contradictory.

Nationalist activists in Korea
Without getting in to the nature of Japanese actions in World War II right now, the bottom line that needs to be understood in regard to Korean-Japanese relations is this: there is never going to be uniformity of opinion or agreement on these issues. Those in Japan who deny any and all wrong doing on the part of Japan in World War II are never going to change their view. There are no facts or no evidence anyone can present that they will not dismiss as being falsified in some way. Present them with thousands of examples of victim testimonies; they say first-hand accounts are inadmissible. Present them with Japanese documents ordering attacks on civilians or the execution of prisoners, they say they are forgeries. There is just no point to it. Likewise, their counterparts in Korea are just as oblivious to reality as they seem committed to carrying on as they are until absolutely everyone in Japan accepts their point of view and imposes the Korean view of Japanese history on the people of Japan. And that is, frankly, never going to happen. So, at the end of the day, the only way the wartime legacy of Japan and Korea is ever going to be overcome is for the bulk of the two populations to simply ignore these two groups and get on with the business of nations. Until that happens, this bickering will just go on and on with no change for either side.


  1. To get a understanding of how that time period is perceived in Korea today, you really need to watch the mini series Bridal Mask on Drama Fever, which is set in the early 40s, leading up to the war.

  2. What are your thoughts on North Korea?


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