Bad blood between Japan and Korea persists

By Stephen Evans
BBC News, Seoul

  • Published
Comfort woman
Image caption,
The statue of a Comfort Woman stands as a constant sign of protest

In August the countries around the Pacific will mark the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender to end the Second World War - and already that anniversary is re-opening old wounds.

If you doubt the strength of feeling that still exists against Japan, just go to the Japanese embassy in the South Korean capital.

All embassies are no doubt fortresses but some at least contrive to look grand and even elegant.

But the Japanese embassy in Seoul is built plainly for defence.

Its high, unscalable walls have a forbidding fence topped by barbed wire in front of it to form two layers of protection.

The embassy itself is a red-brick, modern monolith with blanked windows. Police buses are parked around the perimeter.

This is a functional building designed to protect the occupants from outsiders.

And the occupants only have to look across the road to see the feelings of many of the outsiders.

As Japanese diplomats leave their embassy, they cannot avoid a bronze statue of a sweet-looking girl on a chair.

She is a "comfort woman", one of the young women dragooned by the Japanese occupiers of Korea and China as "sex slaves".

Constant accusation

Under the bronze chair of the statue are a pair of small, real shoes.

In rain, she wears a real raincoat. In the cold, she wears a real scarf.

Anti-Japanese protesters tend her daily. She just sits there day and night in silent accusation.

The plaque alongside describes the statue somewhat incongruously as a "peace monument" to "Japanese Military Sexual Slavery".

Image caption,
The statue faces the Japanese Embassy

Should the Japanese diplomat stroll to the other side of his embassy in Seoul, he might visit South Korea's National Museum of Contemporary History.

At the moment, its special exhibition is a celebration of the life of a Korean nationalist who shot and killed a Prime Minister of Japan more than a century ago, and who waved the Korean flag even as the colonial ruler died.

The exhibition is called "Woolim" which means echo, by which the museum means, as it says in the accompanying explanation, the echo resounding today from the gunshots which killed the Japanese leader on October 26, 1909.

Three days before pulling the trigger, the assassin, Ahn Junggeun, wrote: "Although the east wind is getting colder, the strong man's spirit is roaring".

The wind from the east came, of course, from Japan and it continues to chill Korea, even today.

The Korean nationalist who earlier this year slashed the US ambassador's face with a knife had previously thrown a rock at the Japanese ambassador.

Real animosity

Japan and the US are the targets of Korean nationalists: the Japanese for the colonial rule over Korea from 1910 until Japan was defeated in 1945, and the Americans for their continuing presence in this country.

The big cinema hit last year in South Korea was a film about the admiral who repulsed the invading Japanese fleet in 1597 despite being outnumbered - 13 Korean ships to 133.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Junichiro Koizumi wrote to surviving comfort women

Four centuries on, they can't even agree on what to call the water between them. Should it be the East Sea or the Sea of Japan?

The Japanese foreign ministry had no doubts: "The name Sea of Japan is the only internationally established name for the sea area concerned.

"Japan has strongly opposed the unfounded argument concerning the name Sea of Japan and has called for a better understanding of the issue and support for Japan's position from the international community in order to maintain the sole use of the name, Sea of Japan".

Japanese diplomats in Seoul say they are baffled by it and by the perennial demand for apology, both for the occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945 and for the specific slavery of the women.

In China, too, there is still animosity over the undoubted barbarities committed by the Japanese occupiers between 1937 and the Japanese defeat.

On this, South Korea and China are aligned against Japan, much to the unease of the US.

Why does this ill-feeling continue? After all, Germany and Israel are allies today.

Both the US President and the UK Prime Minister rub shoulders easily - even in a friendly fashion - with the Chancellor of Germany.

Apologies made

It is not as though Japan hasn't apologised.

In 1995, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama spoke of "my feelings of deep remorse" and stated "my heartfelt apology" for Japan's "colonial rule and aggression (which) caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations".

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
A former "comfort woman" demands justice near the parliament in Tokyo

In 2001, Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, wrote personally to surviving "comfort women" saying that Japan was "painfully aware of its moral responsibilities".

He wrote: "As Prime Minister of Japan, I thus extend anew my most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.

"We must not evade the weight of the past, nor should we evade our responsibilities for the future".

The difficulty for Japan (and for the relationship with China and South Korea) is that many to their immediate West don't believe that today's Japanese leaders really do feel the "weight of the past".

Image caption,
US Ambassador Mark Lippert was slashed across the face

South Korean politicians cite new textbooks approved for use in Japanese schools which seem to soften Japanese guilt and strengthen claims to disputed territory.

And the debate in Japan over the wording of apology prompts Koreans to argue that a reworded apology casts doubt on the sincerity of the original.

Prime Minster Abe has recently expressed "deep remorse over the past war" but, say Korean sceptics, remorse does not imply apology.

One of the academic experts in Japan's relations with its neighbours said Japan had done "far more apologising and contrition than the world average".

Politicians' interest

Robert Dujarric, the director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University's Tokyo campus, added that "several Japanese leaders have eviscerated past apologies".

He cites the current prime minister as one of the backers listed as an "assentor" for an advert in US newspapers which said that the comfort women were not sex slaves but "working under a system of licensed prostitution which was common around the world at the time".

Image caption,
An advert denying comfort women were sex slaves has fanned the controversy

The advert said that many of the women "earned incomes far in excess of what were paid to field officers and even generals".

This is not the language of remorse.

Some of those behind the advert also referred to the "Nanking Hoax" - so angering the Chinese who do not view the rape and slaughter of between 20,000 and 300,000 civilians and prisoners in Nanjing in 1937 as in dispute (apart from the actual numbers, which differ according to which side of the Sea of Japan you view the facts from.)

Nanking Massacre:

China says up to 300,000 civilians, many of them women and children, were massacred by Imperial Japanese forces when the city of Nanking was occupied by Japan's troops in 1937.

In Japan, however, there is heated debate about the scale of the killings, and some nationalists deny that it ever took place.

This has caused tension in the relationship between Japan and China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping presided over his country's first state commemoration of the Nanjing massacre last year.

The view of Japanese diplomats in Seoul is that clear apologies have been made and that they still stand.

There is also a feeling that the row is being got up by Korean politicians.

It is true that Japan and South Korea seem more similar in character than, let's say, either country and China.

Cultures mesh and the people seem to get along.

In foreign universities, Japanese and Korean students gravitate towards each other.

But the governments of South Korea and Japan also find reason to keep historical enmities going, according to Professor Brian Myers of Dongseo University on the South Korean coast looking out towards Japan.

"The governments of both countries are responsible for systematically whipping up animosity towards each other", he told the BBC.

"I don't believe this animosity would still be existing at the pitch it is at today, 70 years after liberation, if the governments on both sides of the East Sea didn't have an interest in keeping it going".