The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Abe assassination resurfaces Japan’s complex legacy in China, South Korea

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in 2018. (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)
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SEOUL — For three decades, a crowd has gathered every Wednesday outside the Japanese Embassy in South Korea. In the sweltering heat and the biting cold, they call on Tokyo to acknowledge that imperial Japan’s military coerced Korean women into sexual enslavement during World War II. The protesters, who sometimes include now-elderly survivors of repeated sexual assault by Japanese troops, give emotional accounts of serving as “comfort women.”

The demonstrations offer a glimpse into the historical feud between Tokyo and its closest neighbors. Sympathy from foreign leaders rushed in shortly after former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was shot on Friday, and some of Japan’s closest international partners have announced plans to fly national flags at half-staff in the assassinated statesman’s honor. But in China and South Korea, which bore the brunt of militarist Japan’s brutality in the first half of the 20th century, the reaction was more complicated.

When serving as prime minister in 2015, the right-wing Abe signed off on a compact with South Korea, in which Japan acknowledged the “dignity and honor” of women “severely injured during wars.” But during his tenure, Tokyo occasionally denied that it forcibly recruited the women, and it has long disputed they were sex slaves. The controversy over Japan’s wartime atrocities, along with Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, where some World War II war criminals are honored, has long strained Japan’s relationship with South Korea and China.

Beijing faces the delicate balancing act of maintaining diplomatic etiquette without alienating Chinese nationalists, whose support President Xi Jinping has long cultivated. In the hours after Abe was shot by a gunman at a campaign rally near Osaka, Chinese social media users reacted with a flood of glee and taunts. That prompted prominent nationalist figures to urge respect; one hawkish commentator shut down an online group and urged his followers to be “rationally patriotic.”

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On Saturday — hours after many of his international counterparts had done so — Xi sent China’s condolences to incumbent Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, as well as his personal sympathies to Abe’s family. Abe “contributed positively” to improving bilateral relations, he said, in a sober statement that stood in stark contrast to the mockery that has since been muffled on Chinese social media. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman declined to comment on the online scorn.

President Biden on July 8 called the assassination of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe “horrific” and “shocking.” (Video: The Washington Post)

Abe left a “mixed basket” of a legacy, said Victor Gao, a Beijing-based political commentator who served as an interpreter for former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Gao praised Abe for having made his first official foreign trip as prime minister to Beijing and for trying to devise a foreign policy that was more independent of Washington. Despite the historical friction, the two economies are closely linked, and Japan is China’s third-largest source of foreign investment.

But Abe’s efforts to give Japan’s military a more active role and amend its pacifist constitution — which is widely seen as an attempt to stand up to an increasingly assertive Beijing — marred his image in China, Gao said. The former prime minister was also an architect of the Quad, a group of like-minded regional powers, including the United States, that is a counterweight to China.

“In his later years, especially after he retired from the prime ministership, he took positions which were generally considered very warmongering,” Gao said.

After leaving office in 2020, Abe became a particularly vocal critic of Beijing’s growing aggression in the Indo-Pacific region. He urged Washington to abandon its policy of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan and commit to defending the self-governing island, which Beijing claims as part of China, in event of an attack. Abe also reportedly helped orchestrate a transfer of coronavirus vaccine doses from Tokyo to Taipei, at a time when Taiwan was facing a spike in infections.

These efforts drew Abe close with Taiwanese political leaders, including President Tsai Ing-wen, who said Saturday that the island was deeply grateful for his “lifetime of contribution.” On Friday night, the Taipei 101 skyscraper lighted up in tribute to Abe, with messages of thanks projected on the landmark.

South Korea’s relationship with Abe is even more complex. The late leader downplayed the extent to which Japan used Koreans for enslaved labor during the war, and he had suggested that decades of Japanese colonial rule helped modernize the Korean Peninsula, drawing bitter denunciations from both Seoul and Pyongyang. But Japan and South Korea are bonded over the security threat of Kim Jong Un’s nuclear-armed regime. Seoul also shares some of Tokyo’s wariness toward Beijing.

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South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has vowed to improve relations with Japan. On Friday, he offered condolences and sent flowers to Abe’s family, although hours after many other Asian leaders. Seoul was also particularly concerned about Abe’s death motivating potential hate crimes against Korean nationals in Japan.

“We didn’t always agree with him on political and diplomatic issues,” said former South Korean prime minister Lee Nak-yon, whose time in office overlapped with Abe’s, in a late Friday statement. “But we have cultivated a bond of personal trust.”

Ethan Shin, a legal analyst for the Transitional Justice Working Group, a Seoul-based nonprofit that has criticized Japan’s reluctance to properly acknowledge its imperial-era atrocities, called Abe’s assassination a “brazen act of political terror.”

But Abe also distorted the extent of Japanese crimes in World War II, he said in a phone interview.

In March, Shin and other activists helped survivors petition the United Nations for a review of their claims at the International Court of Justice.

More than any other Japanese politician, Abe amplified fringe revisionist views and made them mainstream, Shin said. “The surviving victims in the Asia-Pacific region will have mixed feelings about his sudden demise and the legacy he leaves behind.”

Vic Chiang and Pei Lin Wu in Taipei and Michelle Ye Hee Lee in Tokyo contributed to this report.