Another Coal on the Historical Fire: the challenge of Japan-Korea Relations

Japan and South Korea have strained relations. History makes this inevitable. Whether it be resentment over Japanese occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century, school textbook revisionism involving different interpretations of each country’s wartime role, or the scandal over ‘comfort women’, an unresolved issue always remains lying submerged just beneath the surface, threatening any stability in bilateral relations.

Therefore, the release of a document from 1953 in which a senior Japanese diplomat declared that normalising relations with South Korea was “impossible” due to the “arrogance” of the Koreans is unlikely to sooth contemporary sentiment between the two nations, coming shortly after Mayor Hashimoto’s defence of the use of Korean ‘comfort women’ during WWII.

The comments by Kanichiro Kubota serve to illustrate why a formal bilateral agreement to normalise relations between Japan and South Korea only materialised in 1965. Mr Kubota went on to claim that Japanese occupation of Korea served many beneficial purposes, that the South Koreans were “servile to the powerful and high-handed to the weak”, and that the overthrow of the government of Syngman Rhee was essential to regional progress.

Chief negotiator in normalising relations with South Korea, Kubota (l) had the opposite affect
Chief negotiator in normalising relations with South Korea, Kubota (l) had the opposite affect

Given their strained past, and the continuing flashpoints over historical interpretation, it is unsurprising that many Koreans believe that some of the sentiments expressed by Mr Kubota over half-a-century ago are shared by the current Japanese population and, in particular, its political leadership.

Indeed, even some within Japan believe this. Fumitoshi Yoshizawa, a Korean expert at Niigata University claims:

Tokyo never parted with the basic thought underlying Kubota’s comment…Japanese politicians have continued to make similar comments in recent years, drawing fire each time both within Japan and from abroad.

This is the crux of the matter; subsequent post-WWII Japanese politicians have been unable to convince their South Korean counterparts that they accept the wrongs wrought by their imperial predecessors and they have not pursued a consistent policy of sincere reservation for past Japanese actions.

South Koreans regularly protest Japan's questionable interpretation of its wartime actions
South Koreans regularly protest Japan’s questionable interpretation of its wartime actions

It is a burden on the modern Japanese politician, and every Japanese citizen for that matter, that they should be in a position where they have to apologise for the wrongdoings of their forebears. However, the inability to confront Japan’s shameful past has meant South Korea (and China) has refused to bury the historical hatchet, particularly when there are frequent reminders of Japan’s dubious acceptance of its wartime guilt.

To accuse the Koreans of being “arrogant” was a particularly appalling comment given by Mr Kubota. Imperial Japan, like Nazi Germany, saw itself as the master race of its region and any foreigner was designated a sub-human, such was the contempt in which they were held. The refusal of Japanese politicians, especially those of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), to offer a comprehensive apology, leads many observers to believe that a degree of this arrogance remains.

Whatever unfairness we may attribute to the situation of modern Japanese politicians having to apologise for the past, it is a necessity for the future well-being of East Asian relations that they do so. South Korea and Japan need one another. They are important trading partners, share a concern over North Korea’s nuclear intentions and both watch China’s increasing regional dominance warily.

Yet without setting aside the differences of the past, which continue to manifest themselves in one form or another in the present day, serious cooperation will be neglected and the tentative relationship between both nations will persist.

Japan's occupation of Korea (1910-1945) will take some forgetting
Japan’s occupation of Korea (1910-1945) will take some forgetting

The Retrenchment of the Immigrant Nation: nationalism in Australia and the USA

One of the most striking comparisons between Australia and the USA is that both states are founded on mass immigration from Europe. Whilst immigration in the US has historically been more diverse than in Australia (where most early settlers arrived from Great Britain), in both nations the indigenous population has been reduced to an outcast minority in the face of overwhelming European settlement.

Early Sydney: European immigrants quickly moulded Australia into a dispersed version of Europe
Early Sydney: European immigrants quickly moulded Australia into a dispersed version of Europe

In recent years, America has seen a massive increase in immigrants from Latin America, particularly Mexico, whilst Australia has seen an influx of East Asian immigrants, particularly Chinese and Indian. Yet it is these divergent immigration patterns, different to the European immigration on which these two countries were established, that has called into question the openness of each country’s borders.

In the US, anti-immigrant sentiment has increased significantly in recent years as large non-English speaking populations willing to work menial jobs for minimum wages have arrived in the country. This development has fostered a nationalistic, exclusivist trend amongst many Americans which defies the country’s image as an open, welcoming land where freedom abounds. The decision of Mitt Romney to run on a fiercely anti-immigration ticket during his bid for election last year was a response, albeit overboiled, to the perception that America is keen to halt its historic flows of immigrants.

Anger is primarily directed at 'illegal' immigrants in America
Anger is primarily directed at ‘illegal’ immigrants in America

In Australia, the arrival of Asian immigrants in many ways parallels the influx of Latin Americans in America. Unlike the original British colonists that formed the basis of modern Australia, these immigrants have become an alien and, in many ways, unwelcome presence in the Oceanian state. Furthermore, the desperate attempts of asylum seekers to enter Australia from Southeast Asia has brought the matter of immigration to a public and political head in recent months. Many of these asylum seekers travel from as far afield as the Middle East, where there war-torn lands are no longer a safe place to live. Arriving on precarious and overloaded vessels, many of them are detained on arrival and held in detention centres whilst a long and often unsuccessful bid for residency ensues. Sympathy for their plight has been restricted to a few civil rights campaigners and Julia Gillard’s government is apparently clueless as to how to resolve the situation effectively and fairly.


It is ironic that for two peoples whose ancestors immigrated to a foreign land and virtually destroyed the native populations and their livelihoods before settling into an unprecedented era of demographic and economic expansion, an incursion of immigrants from “new” and “unnatural” destinations has been seen as an unacceptable challenge to societal survival.

Whilst immigration levels have undoubtedly got to be brought under control, the treatment of migrants who have been given official residency in America and Australia makes a mockery of the founding characteristics of each state. Whilst they may have turned their backs on Europe long ago, the trumpeting of European ancestry as superior to other parts of the world, coupled with an inability to accept the contemporary realities of population movements, renders many American and Australian people arrogant and hypocritical.

Whilst anti-immigrant sentiment is by no means exclusive to these two countries, their particular historical composition makes their nationalist arguments, and their racist undertones, particularly difficult to accept.