Today, one cannot discuss contemporary international relations in Northeast Asia without addressing the chronic problems fundamentally stemming from differences in perceptions of history, which hinder the potential for growth and friendship in the region. In the center of it all is the Government of Japan’s mostly unapologetic stance toward its expansionist, militaristic-past that manifest even today.
In February 2008, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a pamphlet titled “10 Issues of Takeshima” outlining their justification of claiming sovereignty over Dokdo. In response, the late Japanese professor Seichu Naito critiqued the 10 points rebutting each of the claims in his book “Territorial Issue Between Japan and Korea.”
An issue which frequently arises as a splinter in Korea-Japan relations is the Japanese government’s continued claims of sovereignty over Dokdo, a group of small islets in the East Sea that they call Takeshima. The Government of the Republic of Korea (ROK) has consistently maintained the position that Dokdo is indisputably the territorial sovereignty of the ROK backed by the voice of international academia, as well as those victim nations whose power to decide the fate of its own people were forcibly and violently taken away by Japanese colonialism. Of course, I encourage my readers to conduct their own research about the contrasting views posed by the Governments of Korea and Japan on this issue and welcome your feedback.
The Government of Japan as well as senior Japanese officials also continue to anger its victims of militarism by downplaying the emotional and psychological tolls of the countless sex slaves who had to suffer Japan’s war-time atrocities. Although the Japanese government has admitted to the forced conditions of sexual slavery in the past such as the Kono Statement of 1993, contemporary Japanese politicians have chosen to deviate from this statement by claiming that the Japanese army or military officials did not seize women by force and comfort women were needed to maintain discipline among troops. In the face of historical facts, these politicians have chosen to sweep their country’s past under the proverbial rug, actions which we know are never conducive to building a cooperative future for all of Asia.
Some right-wing Japanese politicians have strongly criticized The Peace Monument in Glendale, California, which was established to honour those victims who suffered sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation. There have also been reports of monument vandalism that has been attributed to right-wing Japanese organizations.
To this day, the Japanese government continues to denounce those acts of patriotism displayed by independence activists such as Ahn Jung-geun during the forced-occupation of Korea by Japan. Specifically, it has denounced the views of its victims and used words such as “criminal” and even “terrorist” to describe the patriot Ahn Jung-geun, who dedicated his life to bringing freedom and sovereignty to the people of Korea. Ahn is honoured in Korea today for his heroic act of assassinating the then Resident-General of Korea, Ito Hirobumi, citing 15 reasons for his action including Ito’s assassination of the Korean Empress Myeongseong, massacre of innocent Koreans, usurping authority from the Korean Government by force, and propagandizing to the world that Koreans wanted Japanese protection. These denunciations are, in fact, insulting to those who suffered, both psychologically and emotionally, under their militarism.
The current Japanese administration recently labeled Ahn Jung-geun a “terrorist” and denounced the opening of the Ahn Jung-geun Memorial in Harbin, China.
Another product of Japanese colonial rule is the way the international community has come to refer to the body of water lying between the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese archipelago as the “Sea of Japan”. In 1929, during the colonial period when Korea’s sovereignty was forcibly taken away, Japan, as the founding member of the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO), unilaterally made the decision to refer to this body of water as the “Sea of Japan” without acknowledging the perspective of Korea and Korean citizens.
We should note that the “East Sea” is a reference to its geographic location in East Asia, and it includes the territorial waters and exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of those countries encircling the area. In other words, several countries have jurisdiction and sovereign rights over it. When a geographical feature is shared between two or more countries and an agreement on a standardized name cannot be reached, it is the general rule of international cartography to refer to the names used by each of the countries concurrently. This general rule is also confirmed in IHO and the UN resolution on the Standardization of Geographic Names. However, the Government of Japan continues to insist that the “Sea of Japan” is the only name that shall be used to describe the waters based on the 1929 IHO publication, which was when its colonial rule prevented Korea from having a say in this assembly.
The international community has shown signs of growing weary of acts by the Government of Japan that have been interpreted as honouring its imperialist past. For example, in his recent Op-Ed titled “Worrying about the War in the Pacific”, Professor Yves Tiberghien, a Senior Fellow of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, mentioned that if the Prime Minister of Japan “visits the Yasukuni Shrine for pure political gain, it’s time to pull the red card”, adding “would we tolerate a German chancellor visiting shrines of Hitler, Goebels and Goering?”. Also, the Irish Times have noted that “almost 69 years has passed since the war ended in 1945, yet the Japanese Government has never faced up squarely to Japan’s war-waging and misery-inflicting past, has never conducted conscientious introspection and earnest reflection; nor has it made an official apology. Instead, Japanese prime ministers and some other cabinet members have on numerous occasions paid visits to the Yasukuni Shrine honouring as “heroes” the culprits and commanders of Japan’s wars of aggression, who caused terrible suffering to millions of people in Asia.”
Indeed, continued visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by past Japanese prime ministers essentially represent highly provocative acts that are reflective of their unwillingness to repent for their country’s past. This starkly contrasts with the Government of Germany, which has opened a new chapter of history by admitting Germany’s past war crimes, apologizing to Nazi victims, and making unequivocal denunciations of Nazism.
So returning to my original point: In refusing to acknowledge present manifestations of its past imperialism, Japan is not contributing to the building of international relations in Northeast Asia.
To move forward in a peaceful direction which fosters understanding, credibility, and cooperation between states and peoples, I think it is important that the Japanese government first acknowledge and denounce the part of its violent history that has left deep scars in the memories of its victims. The potential for a cooperative Northeast Asia is too valuable to be undermined by an ignorance of history. And, lest we forget, there is also the danger that (in the words of George Santayana) “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”