Our research explains why Japan and South Korea are unable to arrive at a shared narrative over the legacy of forced laborers, the “comfort women” system and Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula.
Old grievances sparked a new trade war
One year ago, the Supreme Court of Korea upheld a ruling ordering Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to compensate colonial-era forced laborers. This case ignited a bitter tit-for-tat trade war that drew broad support from South Koreans, who boycotted Japanese goods for months. Research suggests that historical grievances resurface because leaders negotiated previous reconciliation agreements haphazardly and excluded some stakeholders from the negotiating table.
Sociologist Hiro Saito has argued that East Asia’s history problem reflects “entangled controversies” over how to commemorate the war. War anniversaries are not just occasions for reconciliation between victims and aggressors, but also between people of the present and the past. As historian John W. Dower explains, the Japanese public grapples with survivor’s guilt, acknowledging the atrocities committed by the Empire of Japan and challenging the narrative that all Japanese had an equal hand in the colonial project.
South Korea’s relationship with the past is unequivocally anti-colonial. International relations scholar Minseon Ku, for example, notes that the country’s 1987 constitution specifies that the Republic of Korea was born of the March 1st Movement, hence linking the state’s foundations to independence from Japanese colonization. Ku concludes that South Korean anti-Japanese identity leads to criticisms of Japan on issues such as the Dokdo/Takeshima island disputes and unsatisfactory apologies to South Korea’s “comfort women,” resulting in inconsistent foreign policy toward the more immediate North Korea threat.
How do Japanese remember the past?
Memorialization narratives reveal that Japan and South Korea tend to have mutually exclusive objectives that make cross-nation reconciliation tough. One analysis of 206 Japanese testimonies found that Japan’s wartime generation is more likely to adhere to the mainstream mode of remembrance that paints the Japanese people as victims of war. Conversely, the postwar generation is more likely to be critical of their nation’s colonial history.
Popular media may shift war narratives, of course. Media scholar Philip Seaton points out that museums of kamikaze pilots, including the Chiran Peace Museum, altered exhibits to include material from influential movies and emphasize the lives of “gifted pilots cut tragically short, rather than military causes and consequences of their deaths.” Although films sensationalize history for popular consumption, dramatized accounts make their way into people’s narratives, especially in the postwar context where many lack firsthand experience.
Similarly, the average atomic bomb survivor is now 83 years old, which suggests few survivors were old enough to clearly remember the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Interviews conducted for Tom Le’s forthcoming book on Japanese security policy revealed atomic bomb survivors incorporated the scientific and historical literature within their testimonials, resulting in evolving accounts of their experiences over time.
What do South Koreans feel is important to remember?
Over the past decade, activists successfully erected comfort women statues in San Francisco, Sydney and Wiesent, Germany, among other cities. Public statements like this are aimed at attracting an international audience to pressure Japan into making additional apologies.
But South Koreans also disagree on how to memorialize victims and reconcile with Japan. In July, a newly erected statue of a man allegedly resembling the Japanese prime minister kneeling in front of a comfort woman at the Korea Botanic Garden in PyeongChang drew mixed reactions. Some South Koreans felt the statement went too far.
In June, Lee Yong-soo, a 91-year-old survivor of wartime sexual slavery, criticized the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. Her complaint was that the civic group was exploiting survivors for economic and political gains, and contributing to anti-Japanese sentiment by holding weekly protests in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
Several scholars have complicated the mainstream narrative of the comfort women system by arguing that the it was not completely involuntary and placing some blame on domestic Korean politics and interest groups for the lack of reconciliation.
Although polling data reveals that the perceived lack of Japanese contrition over colonial and war history is the primary cause of South Koreans’ negative opinion of Japan, the public is divided over what counts as an adequate apology. For example, 36 of the 47 surviving comfort women (as of Dec. 27, 2017) expressed interest in accepting compensation from funds provided by the Japanese government as stated in the 2015 agreement. But a Realmeter poll conducted immediately after the 2015 deal found that Koreans in their 20s and 30s were opposed to the agreement at double the rate of older age groups.
Can the two sides ever reconcile?
Some scholars advocate for a “grand bargain,” in which each side concedes a significant claim tied to historical disputes. Although reconciliation may require concessions, our research finds that the history issue continues to evolve, thus increasing the scope and costs of any such bargain.
Historian Akiko Takenaka contends that postwar responsibility decades later is less about the crimes committed and more about “ending the international discord resulting from unresolved issues of the war.” This would suggest the obstacles toward reconciliation lie in contemporary debates over the past.
Yet, postwar narratives tend to become more distorted with the passing of the generation who lived during the colonial period. The postwar generation, in fact, is likely to modify the narratives — and multiple perspectives prevent a single “correct” history. This is why anniversary events tend to dredge up painful memories and amplify differences, rather than heal old wounds.
Tom Le is an assistant professor of politics at Pomona College and author of “Japan’s Aging Peace: Competing Militarisms in Modern Japan” (Columbia University Press, forthcoming 2021). Follow him on Twitter @profTLe.
David Yu is a student at Pomona College majoring in Asian studies, with a concentration in Japanese history.