It’s the 50th Anniversary of Japan-Korea Normalization, and Abe Conceded…Nothing

Sometimes Japan just brings these troubles on itself…

Anyone who’s read this blog for awhile knows that I get a fair amount of flak from Korean nationalists who tell me that I should stop pointing out how South Korea manipulates Japan and history for its own domestic purposes – no one denies it, mind you, they’re just furious when I point it out – or that I am too friendly to Japan, and so on.

So this post is for you.

I am well-aware that Japan flim-flams, obfuscates, denies and all that. I have said that for years. And last Monday, the 50th anniversary of Korea-Japan diplomatic normalization was a big chance for Abe to re-set the board. He blew it. Maybe we’ll get luckier with the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War next month. There will be global attention on Abe then.

The essay below the jump was originally posted here at the Lowy Interpreter earlier this week.


On June 22, 1965, South Korea and Japan signed their “Treaty on Basic Relations,” the fundament for the current relationship. As the fiftieth anniversary rolls around this week, all eyes are on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Next month is also the seventieth anniversary of Imperial Japan’s defeat in World War II and the birth of modern democratic Japan. There is widespread hope – but little expectation, it must be admitted – that on these major occasions Abe will offer some concessions to Korea and the region on historical questions – most importantly: 1) Japan’s general culpability for its expansionism, culminating in the war; 2) its harsh treatment both of conquered peoples, especially the Chinese, and on the battlefield; and 3) its historical representation that frequently portrays the war as something forced in Japan or done to liberate Asia from western colonialism, in which it was a victim (because of US strategic bombing and the atom-bomb drop), and where brutalities such as the ‘comfort women’ system or Unit 731 go undiscussed.

Apologies and Liability

The debate over responding to Korea is particularly contentious. Relations between the two are near an all-time low, and Abe has consistently dodged culpability or cast doubt on established facts. The normalization debate fifty years ago was very antagonistic in Korea. There were mass protests, which the dictator at the time, Park Chung Hee, was able to override through sheer force. But as Korea has democratized, public opinion has become harder to constrain. Nationalist opinion has focused on Japan’s contrition, or lack of. The central Korean demand in the relationship is a sincere apology. Tokyo feels it has done so many times. Hence the stalemate.

A further, often unrecognized, issue is financial liability. The most contentious part of the 1965 settlement is the agreement to forgo all Korean financial claims against Japan related to the war in exchange for extensive financial and technological assistance. Japan did indeed provide this – a point my Japanese interlocutors constantly remind me of. But at the time, the ‘comfort women’ issue – the coerced impressment of Korean women into military brothels – was not widely recognized in Korea and conveniently forgotten in Japan. As the issue exploded in the 1990s, demands for compensation were inevitable. Japan has balked at formal compensation, claiming that the 1965 treaty settled all claims. But Korea at that time was an impoverished autocracy. It is hard to know if a poor, but democratic Korea with its contemporary knowledge of the comfort women issue would have signed this treaty (likely not). That casts doubt the moral propriety of liberal democratic Japan’s legalistic adherence to the claims-rejection clause.

Aware of this and the ensuing reputational damage, the Japanese government attempted to settle the issue with the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF), a parastatal NGO in the 1990s/2000s that sought to compensate the victims without direct government culpability. The South Korean government considered this insufficient and encouraged former South Korean comfort women to reject the money and apology. Seoul attributed the AWF to persistent Japanese atrocity evasion, but not widely recognized there is the large fear in Tokyo that formally abandoning the 1965 denial of further claims could open the door to a landslide of Korean claims against Japan.

My own sense from Japanese colleagues and associates is that the government would like to formally recognize the comfort women and end the issue, but it fears huge liability exposure and opportunism if it steps back from the treaty. Greece, for example, in its tussle with the eurozone troika has recently ‘discovered’ that Nazi-era reparations due to it pretty closely approximate Greece’ current debt. Seoul would need to credibly commit that such blatant manipulation would not occur in this case, but that is nearly impossible. Private Korean citizens and groups could bring all sorts of post-treaty claims, and the Blue House would be unable to stop unwanted court decisions without grossly violating judicial independence. Simultaneously, Korean courts would be under huge informal public pressure to find in favor of the claimants, fueling precisely the claim wave Tokyo fears. Like the apology debate, the issue is stalemated.

What Abe Could Say To Help…but Won’t

Usually these sorts of articles end with arguments that both Japan and Korea need to compromise in order to get along and deal with the really serious issues of their neighborhood – North Korea, China, etc. And so they do. And in my previous writings on this topic, I have often suggested that Koreans might take steps to ease the tension, such as dropping on the needlessly provocative Sea of Japan re-naming campaign that only stiffens Japan’s spine, rather than encouraging reconciliation.

But it must be said at this point that Abe has veered so widely from accepted fact on Japanese twentieth century imperialism, that he must probably make the first move, not just to the Koreans, but to much of the Asia-Pacific region, including the Americans. Here are three steps, blindingly obvious to anyone outside Japanese reactionary historiography, that are needed to bring Japan not just into accord with the region, but also with accepted scholarship in the rest of the world.

1) Japan’s culpability in war-time atrocities is now accepted fact outside of head-in-the-sand Japanese conservative circles. It would help immensely if Abe & co. would simply admit what everyone else knows already anyway. As a critic of my Interpreter writing on ‘Korea fatigue’ rightly put it, we all have ‘Japan fatigue’ too, in that we have been dancing around this otherwise obvious issue for decades. Enough.

2) Japan’s historical representation – at Yushukan, the lack of any museums or architecture on behalf of the victims of its 20th century imperialism, the victim narrative, and so on – is myopic at best, a whitewash at worst. Historians have been saying this for years and years.

3) Visits to Yasukuni do nothing but anger most of the planet; even the emperor refuses to go. Why Japanese prime ministers continue to go confounds everyone.

Needless to say, such moves are unlikely, but these two looming anniversaries are huge opportunities to reset the region’s dynamics in Japan’s favor by finally ending a discussion – about the war – that it will simply never win. Is permanent denialism really a strategy? South Korean President Park Geun-Hye hinted to the Washington Post that deal on the comfort women is imminent; is Abe finally coming around?

14 thoughts on “It’s the 50th Anniversary of Japan-Korea Normalization, and Abe Conceded…Nothing

  1. I found your last two posts very interesting from a historical point of view, but at this point I think the better thing to do is to look for possible solutions that will work. South Korea is not going to get the apology that they want from PM Abe in August.

    And most likely from future Japanese politicians considering the rapidly changing public opinion:
    (Notice that the unfavorable rating shot up from 37.3% to 54.4% in just 1 year.)
    (This one is in Japanese and is a poll from 2015. The important one is the bottom left one where 65% of the Japanese public thinks that Japan has apologized enough.)

    So inside Japan, the postwar apology thing is now pretty much history…

    So at this point, what can be done? Considering Japanese public opinion, South Korea has only a few options.

    A) Stick with the US-Japan-South Korea triangle.
    The advantage here is that the US will likely remain the sole superpower for the foreseeable future and thus will guarantee South Korean safety. (The US won’t be the sole superpower in a 100 years, but no government thinks that far ahead.) But this triangle is difficult because of the popular distrust and anger at Japan. As long as the US-Japan alliance is in place, it’s going to irritate the South Korean public. So if staying in this triangle is going to be a long run strategy the anti-Japan bashing has to stop (which is probably impossible at this point).

    B) Rely on US-South Korea alliance for defense, rely on PRC for economic growth.
    This was the strategy pursued by Pres. Park and it was possible as long as the US and the PRC were not in conflict. But with Chinese provocations in the South China Sea, and the resultant discord between the US and China, this is now an extremely difficult, if not impossible option.

    C) Drop out of the triangle altogether and go with Communist China.
    The advantages are obvious, Korea as an ally of China, can soothe its historical grievances versus Japan. Since China is still a growing economy, hitching to China will allow Korea to grow too. But this is problematic because North Korea is ultimately being supported by the PRC. So when unification does happen, there’s no guarantee that the South will get the upper hand.

    D) Try to go it alone by making South Korean nuclear missiles as a deterrent.
    This one is at least possible (unlike option B) but also the most difficult because South Korea is dependent on international trade, and if the international community sanctions South Korea for nuclear development it will wreck the economy. But it does give them a huge lever against North Korea.

    Now, at the current pace that South Korea is moving, I think C is most likely to happen. No to THAAD, yes to AIIB, no negative comments on China in the South China Sea, and the reversion of OPCON (this will probably happen when a left wing government wins the election next time), etc. Ultimately South Korea is a democracy so if the public is enough anti-Japan, then I think the public will not allow the government to choose A. What can the US do? Since we too are a democracy that espouses democratic ideals, the answer is not much.

    This means that the US should start to prepare to pull US troops out of Korea and let China dominate the Korean peninsula. This will also help with our defense budget and the deficit. However, since Japan and the Philippines seems to be eager to strengthen ties with the US, we should aim to retreat to the Acheson line. (We’ll see about Taiwan with their elections next year.) So my suggestion is that we start to think about a new alignment in East Asia

    If Koreans want to choose A, then South Korea really needs to recalibrate its nationalism so that it’s not about ethnicity and hence anti-Japanese. After a year of observation, I’m now more convinced that they cannot win that argument vis-a-vis North Korea.

    • I would like to add that on the Korean side seeing the US not press the issue of apologizing on Japan because the urgency is China also fuels the distrust and may be perceived that Japan is being favored. There is also might be a perception that the right wing of Japan is piggy backing on this to avoid having to come clean.

      On China, the closer you get to China the more unpleasant side of it gets revealed and I am not sure the public will go for that. It is a totalitarian regime that is obsessed with control. It muffles the press and media coverage. It routinely trumps up charges against people who bring up issues that it does not like( organ harvesting, Falun gong, Tibet, human rights and democracy amongst the obvious issues). Not to mention the arbitrary detentions for whatever local officials feel like(protesting land seizures, polluting plants, demolitions, etc…). Then there issues of corruption. The chinese cannot possibly hide all this. How about the recent ferry disaster, sure Seowul was handled very poorly but in the end everybody knew what went down and wrong. China it’s all about strong arming the press to cover the rescue effort and how well it was going not what could have caused it and disseminating info to the people directly impacted by this(families of victims). Last but not least race relations how about the uyghurs, you not hear much about them because the press is hushed up. In fact the distrust is so great that uyghurs do not even bother talking much to Chinese authorities or in any meaningful way. Sure you hear about racism in the US and racial crimes but blacks, whites, Asians, etc… are on speaking terms to resolve issues. You do not have that trust in han and Uyghur relations there. Uyghurs perceive that they are discriminated against in measures the authorities take to deal with “terrorists”
      not to mention riots that have broken out.

      Oh business wise China is very corrupt. Intellectual property theft is pretty bad there not to mention corruption amongst local managers who are not up to par in business practices with their international peers.

      All of this will repel people from China and you do not have to be a political scientist to realize this. All of this will defeat any silly propaganda attempt on the part of the CCP or rather soft power.

  2. If the world (or “the West”) wants at least a prayer of getting a new apology from Japan without enormous gaiatsu (which will only make it an insincere, forced apology without meaning other than as a bargaining lever for Korea), it needs to act as a fair broker and look like it is ready to do so.

    Apologies work because they are made in a social framework where everyone tacitly agrees the world moves on after apologies (and perhaps a suitable compensation). Even if it may not sound sincere as long as the words are uttered it is accepted, and a “victim” that continues to push vocally after apologies is censured by society, who act as fair brokers.

    This definitely has not happened with Japan. It is somewhat understandable Korea would try to push, but less understandable the West sides with this continual, recurring rulebreaker. Excuses are made, generally involving equating lone politicians with the government’s official position, but they are just that, excuses.

    And the base reason for it is that somewhere along the way the West (let’s give up on K and C) has indoctrinated itself into a zeitgeist that demands open season on Japan, to the expense of the usual principles, or standards of fairness.

    We can start with … this article. In the space of a few short paragraphs, as an academic you have denigrated the importance of Rule of Law, the right to free expression and diversity of opinion on an academic issue. Even the right to silence is being denied. Is Japanese contrition really worth the violation of the principles that brought us the relatively pleasant world we live today? It isn’t to me but it seems such things are less important than a Japanese apology. And this is a extremely common attitude.

    A 2nd common symptom include ridiculous Confirmation Biases towards anything “anti-Japan”, to the point people cannot recognize weak or unsuitable evidence. Suffice it to say in a net debate, I’ve seen someone buttressing that 200000, IJA fully involved … etc variant by linking to a case in the Dutch East Indies, masterminded by a Lieutenant and involving a few women – all without realizing that by making this tiny low-level case his showcase he’s actually supporting the “right-winger” side that the IJA involvement is grossly exaggerated. By the way, that was actually one of the extremely few cases his side provided evidence at all. Most of the evidence and links in that debate were provided by the right wingers. In the modern world of the Internet, right wingers see this every day, and realize that the “mainstream historian” base is drawn from such people. When that happens, the credibility of said mainstream falls like a rock.

    A 3rd symptom is minimization of any loss even when they get past the above point Look at this recent statement:

    Reading between the lines, these esteemed people clearly do not think the “high-end” is really substantiable. It would have been greatly reconciliatory if they would at least admit that, instead of denigrating the importance of precision. It leaves the media free to trumpet the high-end claim as if nothing had happened.

    Or what about how Nanking got bigger after some Japanese found out that there weren’t even 300,000 people in the city when The Rape took place. It would have been nice if Mainstream conceded the point. Instead Nanking now encompasses the surrounding regions. And while this might be a valid interpretation in the Paper A where this is argued, the Book B that summarizes it will definitely not include this technicality, so 300,000 lives on when it shouldn’t, and Author C which cites B won’t even know the technicality existed.

    A 4th symptom is to consider a right-winger somehow morally defective. This is an ad hominem attack, and my experience says most of them are reasonable people. They evaluate history without the confirmation bias of the West, which means different multipliers are applied to different pieces of evidence. They also know a few cards that are NOT in common Western circulation (specialist academics and buffs may know of them, but the rest of us don’t). A different conclusion is almost inevitable. It is not denialism – the usual cards just aren’t worth as much in Japan and likely are overvalued in the West to begin with.

    In fact, if you want to check the morals of the right-wingers, check out the other things they say. In Japan, in my experience there is nearly a 1:1 correlation between pushing for more defense, better preparation for national security … etc (things many Americans would either agree or are pushing Japan to do), and holding a “right-wing’ historical view. The United States has finally noticed this which is one reason it is relatively soft on those issues this round. But IMO they hadn’t made the correct conclusion yet, which is 1) maybe this historiography isn’t harmful and 2) it may even be a necessity (as argued by the Japanese right-wing, and China and Korea in their attempts to suppress this).

    Which makes sense because “right-wing” historiography is not very different from American historiography, with its mix of self-justification, pushing unpleasant things under the carpet and for the unpushable, there’s a wide variety of “jamming” propaganda techniques – see the usual justifications of the A-bomb to see this in action. And perhaps such a favorable view of the nation, and by extension, its people, is necessary for a serious defense effort. Image does matter.

    As a conclusion, if we want to see change, the West might do well to at least recognize these factors, and work to eliminate them. Only then can it be ready to be a fair broker, and be perceived as such by Japan. And yes, you need the buy-in of those being called “stuck in the sand” and “creepy” for an apology to happen.

    • By arguing that right-wingers seem to have discovered the historical truth when compared with “mainstream” historians you kind of give credibility to arguments from SK and China that Japan is indeed unrepentant as the right-wingers have access to the historical truth whereas mainstream historians have faltered. Also you seem to assume that the right-wingers evidence is valid while ignoring their minimization and exaggeration which you claim plagues their “mainstream” counterparts.

      Finally, i would be careful about dismissing the group of scholars letter in support of a truthful history. The vast majority of them are Japanophiles and to dismiss them as flawed or anti-Japan because they don’t subscribe to denying or minimizing Imperial Japan’s crimes is dangerous thinking. Japan does not have any more true friends than those persons.

    • And yes right-wingers are morally defective if they believe that Japan is innocent of any crimes that were committed by its Imperial military or employ “Tu quoque” arguments. It is essentially denialism. And what cards or evidence do you refer to. Such people dismiss the testimony of former comfort women on the charge that oral history is biased etc yet use oral history to praise Imperial Japan’s record whenever they quote some Korean or Chinese collaborator. The Imperial military was ironically more honest than such people as they were conscious of the crimes they committed and spent weeks destroying evidence and records.

      • Here we have another symptom common to “the West”, the polarization of *anything* other than unconditional support for the conventional historiography. I did not say they “seem to have discovered the historical truth”. I said (in effect) they have better points than the West gives them credit for, and the West thinks its points are better than they actually are. Whether you agree or not, that does not equate to the right wing having discovered the historical truth (and there is variation in that very broad group called right-wing by the West, so they can’t all be the historical truth).

        I also did not say the right-wingers do not minimalize and exaggerate. Rather, I point out the Western tendency to distort. I won’t decide whether it is deliberate or a product of ingrained biases, but to recognize that it happens on both sides is truly important for a reconciliation.

        Third, I do not dismiss those letter-writing historians. I just point out what they aren’t doing and how people who are not in the choir may see things. Your argument might work better if in their letter they are very firmly behind the Maximums. But they are not. Either it is very unimportant to them (in which case conceding the point is a smart move) or they know already the maximums can’t be substantiated (in which case it is not only smart but morally correct to concede the point). They don’t, and the fact they are going on the usual “evidence destroyed” tack sugests the problem is more the latter. That’s at best unfriendly and at worst despicable.

        >right-wingers are morally defective if they believe that Japan is innocent of any crimes that were committed by its Imperial military

        If you mean they actually *agree* the stack shows the Japanese military did something there, but they think Japan is innocent anyway, I will agree. If, however, they just think your stack isn’t very good, then denialism is pretending the problem is with the other side rather than the weaknesses of your argument. Sadly, the latter seems common.

        Having denigrated right-wingers as morally defective, members of the conventional historiography tend to not be very knowledgable of the arguments used there. Instead, for short presentations, the emphasis is on repeating the conventional conclusion like dogma, and longer presentations tend to be “shock-and-awe” for the uninitiated.

        Here’s how a someone who had first learnt Nanking from a right-wing source but willing to give the other side a chance might read a Western Nanking book that may be very impressive in the West. He sees the torrent of photos, but he’s been warned of them. He has been told that a particular photo is not of Nanking in 1937, but random village in 1928. Now he’s searching for that photo as he reads. He sees the photo and of course the caption is “Nanking 37”, because the author does not realize that might be controversial. If he knew that he could have pulled the photo or engaged the claim which would give him a fighting chance.

        He doesn’t, so he just loses points there. The book goes on to blather about Rabe (author fails to engage claim he has a conflict of interest), brings on the Chinese testimonies (without engaging the plausibility problems raised by the right-wing). With each of these, the book just loses credibility because it is nolo contendere on so many things. In the end, the reader is naturally unconvinced, but it is not his fault – it is just the natural progression given his base and the fact the conventional historiographer hadn’t actually even tried to fight the right wingers’ positions (mostly because he hadn’t bothered to learn what they are).

        > or employ “Tu quoque” arguments.

        And a tu quoque argument is moral relativism, not denialism. Some people don’t like moral relativism, but the idea that Japan is a normal, not saintly perhaps, but not particularly aggressive nation (by pre WWII era standards) is important to right-wingers (and perhaps anyone who wants to view his country favorably). If moral relativism just isn’t that interesting to you, then before getting to what you consider to be important, concede the point cleanly and openly, then ask to progress to the “meat”. You might find them surprisingly willing to concede that Japan’s actions were not up to the latest, 21st century humanitarian standards.

        If you need to understand this in action, consider the United States. Americans are usually pretty happy with agreeing they enslaved a bunch of blacks, and racial and sexual equality did not come for a long time afterwards. It might not be glorious, but slaves weren’t extinct elsewhere at the time of the Civil War and we still hadn’t gotten rid of discrimination, and so while they might not be particularly progressive, they weren’t particularly bad, and that’s good enough for most Americans. They tend to get defensive about A-bombing and mass strategic bombing – one reason would be that they were pretty unique there.

        >Such people dismiss the testimony of former comfort women on the charge that oral history is biased etc yet use oral history to praise Imperial Japan’s record whenever they quote some Korean or Chinese collaborator.

        And you are not inclined to do the reverse? Do remember that in contemporary Korea or China, a “collaborator” is at least half a traitor. A comfort women is a victim of the barbarity of the Imperial Japanese state, and one who stands up is a hero. Further, there’s the money issue. That collaborator at best will get nothing. The comfort women hold out for money (they’ve just filed one in the US, for $20 milion).

        What would standard heuristics say about this situation? Who has more to lose and less to gain by propagating their stories. Are the right-wingers to blame by using standard heuristics to resolve this problem?

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  4. A more rightist Japan, unapologetic about the imperialism of the recent past, would certainly push South Korea towards China and reunification with North Korea. The Chinese would probably agree to allow the North to be subsumed into a South-dominated single capitalist-democratic state provided all foreign (that is, American) forces left and the new state was constitutionally not permitted to retain or make new military alliances, since this would greatly improve their strategic position. The new Korea would be a nuclear power, so it could defend its sovereignty. The moral qualities of the Japanese Right, if any, would then no longer be relevant.

    • You are overlooking the fact that China’s decision making is very opaque. Nobody except the top leadership knows China’s intention. Based on their actions a long their periphery I’d guess they want to dominate their periphery just look at the South China Sea. Korea unfortunately seems to fall under their periphery.

      Having said that I wonder if them agreeing for non nuclear proliferation is more of an act of trying to wield more influence over Korea rather than genuine belief in the non nuclear proliferation.

      I’m not sure if China would allow reunification even if South Korea does China’s bidding. They can exert much greater influence within Korea if they just let 2 states exist and have them compete for favor under the illusion of reunification and economic gain. China just does not garner that much trust given their record.

  5. Pingback: More on South Korean ‘Anti-Japanism’ and the Intra-Korean Legitimacy Contest | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  6. And the fun continues: (Is it possible to hyperlink text in these posts? If so, my apologies for not knowing how.) This sounds similar to previous Chinese and Korean complaints about what kind of apologies Japanese politicians have given. I can’t remember exactly what they were. Something about two different words in the Japanese language that translate to “apology” in English but one is supposedly sincere than the other. This thing with “kyosei rodo (forced labor)” and “hatarakasareta (were forced to work)” seems to run along a very similar vein. Although perhaps salt-in-the-wound for Seoul if it’s true that Tokyo did this after securing Seoul’s support for these Japanese sites at UNESCO. Definitely more kindling for the J-SK flame war.

  7. Pingback: How Japan Manages to Hang Tough in History Debates with Korea & China | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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