Non-ideas for fixing Japan-Korea ties

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By Fred Varcoe

I wrote this as a response to an article by Scott Snyder and Brad Glosserman on Council on Foreign Relations site Asia Unbound in which they explore problems between Japan and its neighbors, starting out with the issue of “national identity.”

“A deeper, and more compelling, dimension of the split between Japan and the ROK as it is currently framed: contradictory conceptions of national identity that stand in the way of reconciliation steps necessary to improve relations.”

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 The issue of identity is interesting. I would say your average Japanese has a very weak concept of self or identity, even less so when framed in historical terms. The average Japanese person has a poor grasp of history, if any grasp at all. The problem with Japan’s current brand of loud nationalist politicians is that they have the stage and theirs is virtually the only voice out there. So when someone like Prime Minister Abe – as intellectually disadvantaged as a politician can be – says ‘this’ happened in history and we must resist Korea because of it, quite a few Japanese will believe what he is saying because they have no points of reference to refute such claims; because – intellectual capacity notwithstanding – he’s prime minister; and because Japanese have a bad habit of believing anyone who’s always on TV.

The Koreans, on the other hand, have a very powerful sense of self and identity, and a strong sense of history (or should that read ‘injustice’) and did so long before the Japanese annexed their country. The oft-portrayed image of Korea as merely a peasant country prior to (and even during) the 20th century does Koreans a disservice. They have trailed Japan in terms of modernisation in the 20th century, but they have always had a sense of self, a proud history and the ability to make progress.

If anything symbolizes Korea’s relationship with Japan, it is probably the assassination of Queen Min:

“In the fall of 1895, Japanese ambassador to Korea Miura Goro formulated a plan to assassinate Queen Min, a plan that he named ‘Operation Fox Hunt.’ Early in the morning of October 8, 1895, a group of fifty Japanese and Korean assassins launched their assault on Gyeongbokgung Palace. They attacked the queen consort’s sleeping quarters, dragging out the queen and three or four of her attendants. The assassins questioned the women to make sure that they had Queen Min, then slashed them with swords, stripped, and raped them. The Japanese displayed the queen’s dead body to several other foreigners in the area, particularly the Russians, so that they knew their ally was dead, and then carried her body to the forest outside the palace walls. There, the assassins doused Queen Min’s body with kerosene and burned it, scattering her ashes.”

This was followed by annexation and domination as the Japanese forced Koreans to adopt Japanese names and only use the Japanese language as they tried to wipe out Korea’s culture and enslave its population. I don’t think a few new roads, railways and some fancy architecture will compensate for that. And that only ended 70 years ago. This is living memory.

Japan’s sense of victimhood is based entirely on the fact that it lost the war and was humiliated. It’s almost comical how they try to offset decades of rape and pillaging in Asia with the suffering its citizens endured in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After visiting the Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki (or was it laughingly called the ‘Peace Museum’ to go along with the Peace Park, etc.?), I wrote: “The only surprising thing about Nagasaki is that foreigners don’t have ‘guilty’ stamped in their passports when they leave.” As a result of Japan’s distorted view of history, most Japanese think that Hiroshima and Nagasaki had nothing to do with what went before. They believe the atomic bombings happened because of American aggression, not because of Japan’s insane rampage through Asia and their attack on Pearl Harbour.

The main missing ingredient necessary to achieve the task of healing the divisions between South Korea and Japan is statesmanship.”

Well, good luck with that one. You’re not wrong. Japan is desperate for a leader and hasn’t had one since … er … never. No matter what he believes personally, a Japanese statesman should not visit Yasukuni Shrine while in office. It doesn’t make any political sense at all. Nationalist Japanese politicians use Yasukuni as a political booster, but for prime ministers, ministers and senior government officials it is self-defeating. It says to Korea, China, etc., ‘You can’t tell us what to do.” It’s more about trying to prove they have big penises, which they don’t. Most Japanese politicians are emasculated by local politics, bureaucrats and inferior intellects. They don’t have the intelligence or the freedom to explore their own thoughts – and that’s probably a good thing.

Korean politicians are characterized by egotism, avarice and regionalism. Right-wing politicians are seen as true defenders of the nation; left-wingers, like the admirable Roh Moo Hyun, are labelled Communists. President Roh offered Korean society hope like no other politician had done before him. He was exploited by those around him and ended up killing himself…

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Roh Moo Hyun

The only person who can help to resolve the historical issues between Korea and Japan is the Emperor of Japan, but he is also constrained by politicians and the bureaucracy. He was invited to Korea for the opening of the 2002 World Cup, but it was never going to happen. So maybe resolution of this issue is also never going to happen.

A ‘no-war statement’ between Korea and Japan? That’s not much of an idea and even if one did materialize it wouldn’t be worth the paper it was written on.

“Japan should declare its support for the unification of the Korean Peninsula under the Seoul government, a statement that would end speculation about long-term intentions in Tokyo about the fate of the Peninsula.”

Not sure that this wouldn’t be construed as Japan interfering in the internal affairs of Korea. Of course, we’re going off topic here, but Seoul is not the legitimate ruler of the entire Korean Peninsula.

The establishment of “a day for the two countries to jointly commemorate the history of the 20th century without being entrapped by it.”

Another wishy-washy idea that isn’t going to happen. August 15 celebrates liberation for the Korean Peninsula. They’re not going to want to stop celebrating that and why would they? It would be like asking the United States to stop celebrating July 4 (Independence Day) because it offended the British.

For right-wing dingbats like Abe, August 15 is not about reflecting on the war and Japan’s dead soldiers; it’s more about keeping alive an idea that didn’t quite pan out first time around but needs to be remembered for the next time.

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Shinzo Abe

In conclusion, the sadness of the conflict between Japan and South Korea is the division that moronic politicians are trying to make between two peoples who are quite comfortable with each other. The liberalisation of Japanese culture in Korea a decade ago and the reverse “Korea boom” in Japan made a huge people-to-people boost in the relationship. The “bottom-up approach” endorsed by Lee Chae-ryung makes sense if only evil politicians would just shut up and do their job of leading their citizens and countries toward a better future.

But I guess that’s not going to happen either.


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