There are few subjects more delicate in the politics of Asia than Japan's conduct during World War II. There is little denying that the forces of Imperial Japan racked up a slew of war crimes in the country's rush to out-imperial the imperialist forces of the West.
Most people know about crimes such as the rape of Nanking, a nightmare made famous by the reporting of the late Iris Chang. But the story that's dominated media attention in recent years has been the Comfort Women problem (慰安婦問題; ianfu mondai), or the sexual enslavement of South Korean women during Japan's long occupation of the country.
The journey to healing the wounds of the Comfort Women issue hasn't been made easier by the conduct of some in Japan. Right wing agitators are as prevalent in Japan as anywhere else in the world, and are constantly fighting what they see as Japan's "inferiority complex" brought on by its wartime defeat. This often takes the form of historical revisionism. For years, Japan has been called out by its neighbors for creating school textbooks that either soft-pedal Japan's wartime behavior, or deny outright that anything untoward happened.
With the Comfort Women, revisionists insist that the women were all voluntary prostitutes. Indeed, during the War, the term "teishintai" (挺身隊), or "volunteer army", and the term "Comfort Women" became co-mingled and synonymous with one another. In resistance to this revisionist trend, South Korean activists and the government took to creating Comfort Woman statues and placing them in strategic places to bring people's attention to this historic atrocity.
But to Japan's credit, successive governments - despite some embarrassing missteps - have worked hard to resolve this thorny issue. Multiple Prime Ministers have apologized for the treatment of South Korean women during World War II. And, in 2015, the two countries reached an historic agreement in which Japan not only apologized, but created a fund to disperse reparations to the victims. In Japan's view - which it has made explicit both when the agreement was signed and in subsequent press conferences - the Japan-Korean Agreement on the Comfort Woman Problem was supposed to resolve the issue once and for all.
But South Korea doesn't see it that way.
Since the agreement, activists have continued to create statues of Comfort Women. In a direct affront to Japan, one was positioned right across from the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. As part of its increased belligerent attitude towards Japan, the South Korean government under President Moon Jae-In has begun using the issue as a hammer to bash Japan over the head. The country even announced last year that it was unilaterally disbanding the support fund the two countries set up for victims.
(JP) Link: South Korean Government Announces Dissolution of Comfort Woman Support Organization
This increasing hostility and abandonment of international accords even has typically liberal commentators in Japan asking: when is enough enough? What, exactly, does South Korea want from Japan to make amends for past sins and to move forward in a cooperative relationship?
One South Korean lawmaker known for his bombast made waves this week when he put forth his own proposal. In an interview with Bloomberg, National Assembly Speaker Moon Hisan, referring to current Japanese Emperor Akihito as "the son of the principal war criminal" (Hirohito, the Emperor who renounced his divinity to end the war), said that, "if the outgoing Emperor take the hands of these women and apologizes, that will fully resolve it."
(JP) Link: "The Emperor Should Take Their Hands and Apologize": South Korea National Assembly Speaker Moon Hisan - Interview with US Media
「天皇が手を握り謝罪すべき」 慰安婦問題で韓国国会議長 米メディアのインタビューで
Naturally, this call has been met with howls of protest in Japan. Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide re-emphasized that Japan views the Comfort Woman matter as settled by its 2015 agreement. And Prime Minister ABe Shinzou, on the floor of the Diet, demanded that Moon retract his statement:
I was truly shocked when I saw that article. I immediately went through our diplomatic channels and said that Speaker Moon's statement was brazenly inappropriate, and strongly communicated our view that it was unacceptable.
(JP) Link: Japanese Government Demands Apology and Retraction of Speaker Moon Hisan's Statement That Emperor Should Apologize to Comfort Women
日本政府、ムン・ヒサン国会議長の「天皇慰安婦謝罪発言」に対する謝罪と撤回を要求（ハンギョレ新聞） - Yahoo!ニュース
You can bet that Abe's emphasis on "diplomatic channels" here was deliberate. His meaning was clear: We're following the rules, and South Korean isn't. We're negotiating in good faith while South Korea is abandoning agreements and making pronouncements straight to the media.
What's particularly brazen about this is that, while Japan has fessed up to its conduct in World War II, South Korea has yet to issue even an utterance of apology for its conduct in Vietnam, where South Korean troops repeatedly raped Vietnamese women. Indeed, some reporters accuse South Korea of operating "comfort women" centers on par with those run by Japanese forces in South Korea. Between 1,000 and 5,000 children - called the Lai Dai Han, a pejorative term meaning "mixed blood" - were born as a result, and have faced decades of discrimination due to their ancestry. It's estimated that 800 of the rape victims are still alive.
South Korea has not only not apologized to these survivors; it's actively denied that its soldiers could even commit such heinous acts.
Women raped by Korean soldiers during Vietnam war still awaiting apology
I'm not about to begin regurgitating the revisionist garbage of Japan's hard-right. Of course no one should forget the violence that Japanese troops wrought upon Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries. But the Japanese government hasn't. Instead, it's taken concrete diplomatic action to resolve these issues, and has put its money where its mouth it. Continuing to bash Japan on this issue won't do anything but push more people in Japan toward the right wing.
And, look - war is hell. Every country can point to atrocities committed by its soldiers. I don't even have to enumerate the numerous atrocities committed by my own country, the United States, which includes such horrors as the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. But the current generation of every nation has a responsibility to scrutinize its own past and atone for its sins. That's the only way that countries who were once foes can move forward. Indeed, it's how we evolve as a species.
Continued demands by South Korea for apologies from Japan crosses the line from righting an historic wrong and ventures into straight up Japan-bashing. Rather than continue to ignore its own agreements, South Korea should accept the apologies (and funds) it's already received, and instead take a long, hard look at its own past.
I'm the publisher of Unseen Japan. I hold an N1 Certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and am married to a wonderful woman from Tokyo.
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