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.
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.
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.