How Japan Manages to Hang Tough in History Debates with Korea & China


By Robert Kelly.


This is a cross-post of an essay that went up today at the Lowy Interpreter.

I was wondering why it is that Japan seems to be able to duck-and-weave on thorny East Asian history questions, when these are settled in just about the rest of the world? Even the Japanese left admits the nasty stuff the Empire did, so how is it the right hangs on in denial?

Some of it, to be sure, is domestic politics. The uyoku dentai certainly keep up the pressure on Abe & co. to give up nothing. And my own experience with them on Twitter has lead me to block them a lot, because they’re so visceral and racist: ‘Koreans are immoral’ and so on. But they’re no more than a few hundred thousand people at most, out out 126 million Japanese total.

The IR academic in me instinctively looks to foreign pressures, and here one can really see how the Chinese Communist Party’s appalling history toward its own people conveniently lets the Empire off the hook. The CCP will lose a ‘who was worse to the Chinese people than who’ contest with the Empire. Similarly, the ROK’s instrumentalization of the relationship with Japan for national identity-building purposes allows the Japanese right to stonewall, the logic being ‘Korea will never stop demanding apologies, so there’s no point engaging them anyway.’ As usual, it’s a tangle.

The essay follows the jump:

In my last essay for the Interpreter, I argued that Japan needs at some point to come around on the history questions that divide it so sharply from South Korea and China. I argued that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his coalition persist in interpretations of the empire and the war that are accepted nowhere outside Japanese conservative circles. Brutalities such as Unit 731, the Rape of Nanking, and the comfort women are established fact in historiography everywhere else in the world. Normatively and empirically, the Japanese right will never win Asia’s ‘history wars.’ At some point it would help enormously if Tokyo would just admit what the rest of the world already knows anyway. The whole thing is fairly fatiguing, not to mention immoral.

But I received a number responses from Japan-watchers noting that despite all the moral pressure, the US arm-twisting for rapprochement, and the enormous light on the subject right now, including both the 50th anniversary of Japan-Korea diplomatic normalization and the 70th anniversary of the war’s end this summer, Japan has given rather little. Why so?


Regarding China, geopolitics enables obfuscation. China is authoritarian oligarchy which opportunistically manipulates the Japanese invasion for political legitimacy. Sadly, Japanese behavior in China was probably the most appalling in the entire empire, but the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) authoritarianism and its own historical myopia – Mao is responsible for far more Chinese deaths than the empire was – basically lets Japan slip off the hook. Of course Japan should be honest about its record, but so long as China is not a democracy and so obviously lies about its own history, then the political pressure on Japan is considerably blunted. Certainly the Americans, for example, will not push Japan over this. The same applies – probably even more so – to North Korea.

South Korea

South Korea is a far tougher case, because it is a democracy. It can therefore claim a moral and normative legitimacy in its calls for restitution which China cannot. But here too, Abe has proven surprisingly recalcitrant for several reasons:

1. Geopolitics: South Korea is simply not as important to the United States as Japan, so there are limits to how far the US will push Tokyo. And so long as the US provides strategic security to both, Japan is shielded from regional pressure on its unwillingness to move. (In the same way, the US alliance also enables Korea’s Japan maximalists.) I have called this ‘moral hazard’ elsewhere.

2. Park Geun-Hye’s Flailing Presidency: Park is very unpopular. After multiple scandals and public safety disasters, her approval rating is around 30%. She is desperate for some kind of victory to turn around the incompetency narrative surrounding her presidency. This has weakened her hand; Seoul’s sudden climb-down on its opposition to Japan’s recent UNESCO bid looks suspiciously like a concession to get a rumored comfort women deal.

3. Exaggeration: Korean critics of Japan often compare the imperial occupation of the peninsula to the Holocaust. I think this parallelism is deployed, because it carries so much weight before a Western audience and implies that a Willy Brandt-style, on-your-knees apology from Japan is the appropriate outcome. It is up to Koreans to decide what kind of apology they will accept, but I wonder if Koreans actually realize just how ‘eliminationist’ the Nazi Neuordnung was, particularly toward the Jews, Poles, and Russians.

The Japanese Empire intended to absorb Koreans as something like sub-Japanese second-class citizens. Hence the ‘cultural replacement’ efforts, such as forcing Japanese language instruction and insisting on Japanese names. By contrast, the Nazis intended to exterminate peoples wholesale, by the millions. There were no death camps in Korea.

A better, if far less evocative, analogy might be English control of the Celtic fringe in the British Isles, especially Ireland. There, a far longer period of colonial control did indeed significantly eliminate the original language (Gaelic), anglicize much of the population, and lead to so much socio-political assimilation that Irish ironically went out into the further Empire as imperial representatives. Like Japan in Korea, there were both collaborators and brutalities, most notably the insistence on food exports during the Great Famine, but these were not deliberate, planned exterminations.

4. Politicization: Elsewhere I have argued that South Korea’s legitimacy needs fire a politicization of the colonial period. My critics reject the notion that South Korean ‘anti-Japanism’ is driven by anything other than legitimate objections to Japanese behavior from 1910-45. Several data-points suggest this is not so, all of which make it easier for Japanese conservatives to muddy the waters by claiming that “South Korea demonizes Japan beyond reason” (as I heard a Japanese scholar say at a conference once):

a. North Korea does not fixate on Japan the way South Korea does. The primary objects of North Korean enemy propaganda are the ‘Yankee Colony’ South Korea and the United States. Japan is a surely villain but mostly serves as a foil to demonstrate Kim Il Sung’s early heroics and nationalist commitment. If anti-Japanism were a deep, Korea-wide sentiment, surely the North would use it more for legitimacy’s sake, instead of the far-away Americans, or the preposterously mystical ‘Baekdu bloodline.’

b. Dokdo military drills. Japan and South Korea are US allies. A war between them is unthinkable; indeed, given that US commanders are strew throughout the defense structures of both, it would be nearly impossible for each to seriously fight the other. Were a conflict to break-out between them, the US would likely leave the region, an eventuality no decision-maker in Seoul or Tokyo would risk. Yet the Seoul nevertheless annually runs military exercises around the islets, such as test flights of combat aircraft or amphibious landings. These could be called off with no detriment to Korean security – because of the mutual US alliances – nor reduction in the sovereignty claim to Dokdo – because Korean police, fishermen, and tourists would still be present. In short, the exercises serve political rather than military goals.

c. The Sea of Japan re-naming campaign. This appears almost purposefully antagonistic and political. One can certainly understand how the body of water to the east of Korea would be the ‘East Sea’ in Korean – just as Germans refer to the Baltic Sea in German as the ‘East Sea’ too. But why should such a non-descript name – there are many places ‘east’ of the other places – be a new global standard? Should the Indian Ocean be renamed for Sri Lankans? Should the Arabian Sea be renamed for Pakistanis? If the Sea of Japan becomes the East Sea, should the Korea Strait be renamed the South Strait, as the Japanese will almost certainly insist?

d. Ethnic Korean lobbying against Japan inside the United States. Ethnic Korean-American lobbying has brought comfort women memorials and the ‘East Sea’ to the United States. This is marketed in South Korea as spreading global concern over Japanese recalcitrance, when in fact, these are the outcome of concentrated Korean-American interest group politics in the US with strong support back home. This is South Korea competing to negatively define Japan to the United States, even though Japan is a US ally.

Each of these actions make sense within the framework I provided in my earlier Lowy essays – that Japan acts as a national identity other against which South Korea constructs its political self. Each has an obvious political-theatrical element that does not advance the cause of Japanese softening on Korea’s concerns. Rather, each clearly provokes Japan the other way, to stiffen its spine and hang tough as Abe has done – a point I have heard from many Japanese colleagues and friends over the years.

The Korean, and Chinese, moral positions on the war and empire are correct. But a great deal of politics has enabled surprising Japanese recalcitrance. While no one expects moderation from the CCP, South Korea might smooth the path by rolling back some of its most maximal positions, such as points 3 and 4 above. None directly impact South Korean security or growth. All would strip the political cover from Japanese conservatives who claim ‘Korea fatigue’ as cause to reject concessions.

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