Landmark ‘Comfort Women’ Deal Removes Barrier to Harmony: Tokyo and Seoul Look Forward

Bilateral relations in Northeast Asia are characterised by mistrust, resentment and disputed sovereignty largely as a result of history. China, Japan and South Korea, in particular, have the potential to form a powerful bloc to preserve the security of the region, stimulate economic growth and improve the fortunes of neighbouring states. However, such a potential has not been realised – not even been attempted to be realised – because of historical grievances between the nations.

Korean 'comfort women' liberated at the end of WWII
Korean ‘comfort women’ liberated at the end of WWII

One of the main issues affecting Japan-South Korea relations is the Imperial Army’s use of ‘comfort women’ during WWII. These women – mainly Korean but also hailing from China and several Southeast Asian nations – were sex slaves, forced to travel with Army units during the war, where they would be made to have sex with multiple partners on a daily basis.

Whilst an awful system in itself, what has really infuriated the South Koreans in the years since 1945 is Japan’s apparent refusal to offer a comprehensive apology for the practice, with several high-ranking officials even disputing its existence. For the Koreans, this lack of acknowledgement and remorse is comparable with Jean-Marie Le Pen’s claim that the Holocaust was merely a ‘detail of history’.

As with its wartime atrocities in general, Japan has previously apologised for its use of ‘comfort women’, most notably Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa’s 1993 apology and that of his successor Tomiichi Murayama in 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the war’s conclusion. Perhaps significantly, however, neither of these Prime Ministers belonged to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has dominated post-WWII Japanese politics and some of whose leaders have taken a decidedly revisionist approach to history.

Former PM Murayama has long called on Shinzo Abe to honour and re-pledge his 1995 apology
Former PM Murayama has long called on Shinzo Abe to honour and re-pledge his 1995 apology

Japan has now apologised again, this time under the reign of Shinzo Abe, an LDP stalwart and a man accused of denying the true role of ‘comfort women’ in the past. Along with the promise of implementing a 1bn yen fund for the remaining surviving women – perhaps only 46 out of a possible 200,000 – Japan has accepted ‘deep responsibility’ for the practice, signalling its intent to draw a line under the issue for good. South Korea, for its part, has agreed to do likewise, provided that Tokyo makes good on its promises.

Whilst other historic disputes remain between the two nations – such as Japan’s colonial rule in Korea, history textbook revisionism on both sides, and territorial disputes – this is a crucial step to normalising relations and perhaps a sign that both Tokyo and Seoul are keen to form a bulwark (however tenuous) against an increasingly assertive neighbour in China.

Most importantly, it provides some closure for the few surviving women forced to endure some of the most painful and humiliating atrocities of a war littered with heinous crimes. It is hoped that both sides honour this historic agreement and finally start facing a future that will bring its own challenges and opportunities.

Will this latest pledge bring closure for the last 'comfort women' of South Korea?
Will this latest pledge bring closure for the last ‘comfort women’ of South Korea?
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South Korean Hypocrisy Over History Textbooks Sets Japan Relations Back Further

There is controversy in South Korea over plans for the government to control the contents of school history textbooks. Critics argue that the move will allow the state to ‘interfere with the interpretation and teaching of history’ and foster a more nationalist view of the past that will upset the country’s neighbours.

The new plans are due to take effect in 2017 Source: NY Times
The new plans are due to take effect in 2017
Source: NY Times

The move is certainly a hypocritical one given Seoul’s frequent condemnations of Japanese history textbooks, which are accused of diluting the culpability of Tokyo’s leaders and the Imperial Army during World War Two (WWII) and the occupation of Korea.

Japan regularly riles South Korea, China and the Southeast Asian nations with its apparent refusal to teach the ‘truth’ about the cause and conduct of WWII. Frequent visits by politicians to the Yasukuni Shrine – which houses 14 Class A war criminals amongst other Japanese war dead – have led to an almost complete breakdown in Tokyo’s relations with Seoul and Beijing in the last few years.

Current Japanese PM Shinzo Abe has not been afraid to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine Source: Belle News
Current Japanese PM Shinzo Abe has not been afraid to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine
Source: Belle News

Whilst some Japanese leaders and educators have undoubtedly downplayed their country’s wartime role, South Korea and China in particular have refused to let the Japanese people forget about their past, even though few current citizens bear any responsibility for what happened. In fact, many Japanese are staunchly pacifist because of their repulsion at their country’s past deeds.

Playing the nationalist card is a populist move liable to appease disgruntled segments of the public, particularly given the historical enmity between the Northeast Asian giants. However, having desisted for so long in adding incendiary material to the already fraught relationship, it is disappointing that South Korea now appears to have changed tact. There is nothing wrong with critiquing historical teaching in schools; indeed, it is essential to incorporate new scholarship and pertinent viewpoints to ensure that a balanced assessment of the past is achievable.

To dictate educational policy in such a matter – especially a potentially-delicate subject such as history – is counterproductive. With President Park Geun-hye already ratcheting up the pressure on Japan over the sensitive wartime issue of ‘comfort women’, do not expect the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in Tokyo to remain silent for much longer. Their politicians are often the first to be lambasted for their selective views on history and their refusal to see any point of view but their own.

If the Koreans start to behave similarly – and the Chinese already have – rather than trying to solve the historical issues in a constructive, multilateral forum, then the prospects for relations normalising remain bleak and the potential to cooperate on more pressing security issues (such as North Korea, terrorism and Beijing’s growing assertiveness) will be lost for good.

Anti-Japanese protests break out periodically in Japan; they intensified in August during the 70th anniversary of WWII's end Source: Independent
Anti-Japanese protests break out periodically in Japan; they intensified in August during the 70th anniversary of WWII’s end
Source: Independent