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Channeling History. History Club 2023

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

Japan and South Korea…

This article is brought to you by History Club member Cielo Musco

The modern history between the Korean peninsula and the island of Japan is wrought with tension, resonate imperialism and feigned apologies. On March 3, 2023 Japan’s Prime Minister Fumiko Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol met in Japan. This was a historic summit. It was 2011 the last time the two regional powers held executive levels conferences. Their shared enemy, North Korea, has motivated the recent detente. Military intelligence sharing and cooperation regarding an “free and open Indo-Pacific” were the stated objectives. Factions in each country still do not support the union. Early twentieth century wounds and injustices are still painful.

Japan parlayed their success in the Russ-Japanese and Sino-Japanese wars into regional hegemony. The imperial government followed a world model of colonization, imperialism, assimilation and caustic hegemony. Just as Europe treated African and South East and Asian territories and the Unites States Hawaii and Puerto Rico, Japan sought international commercial and military power through subjugation. In 1910 they ‘officially’ annexed the peninsula and embarked on a mission to rid Koreans of their language, culture and dignity. Like Algeria to France, the peninsula was considered a part of Japan until WWII.

Japanese officials destroyed over 200,000 books and documents written in Korean and all schools featured emperor propaganda and the Japanese language. Japanese ethnographers wrote of racial similarities and differences regarding the two cultures. They depicted Koreans as lazy, primitive and averse to modernity. This pseudo-science permeated all imperial literature of the time.

Korea and Japan had a shared history long before the WWI era. Korea influenced Japan in many ways. The influence of Korean pottery on the publicized Japanese style went underreported for centuries. “In the late 1590s, Shimazu Yoshihiro — the lord of Satsuma — returned to Japan after fighting a war in Korea. He kidnapped a group of 22 Korean potters and their families, and put them to work in 1601, making ceramics from the white clay found at Naeshirogawa”. (Seattle Times 2010) The notion of cultural superiority was made more insulting by Korea’s closeness to China. Forced labor and sexual slavery were two other attributes of Japanese imperialism.

Up to 200,000 women are estimated to have worked as comfort women in Japan's military brothels, most of them Korean. Until the end of WWII, Korea was under Japanese occupation, and its people forced to learn Japanese, which meant Korean women were easier to corral - and communicate with - than women of other Asian nationalities. Some of these women lived long enough to give detailed accounts of their kidnapping and sexual enslavement.

Only in 1981 did the issue begin to receive international attention, research and needed chronicling. The Japanese government skirted responsibility and the rue still festers between the two nations. Japanese courts offered $2,800 in compensation to eight surviving plaintiffs. The laughable sum was refused. The women also sought an apology. Three other defendants recently won a suit regarding their forced labor in Japanese factories. The Seoul government offered to compensate the claimants who refused and expressed outrage. Tokyo’s stance dates to a 1965 ‘agreement’.

“The Japanese government has rejected the South Korean Supreme Court orders, arguing that all claims relating to the 1910-1945 colonial era – when hundreds of thousands of Koreans were conscripted into forced labour and prostitution in military brothels – were settled under a 1965 treaty that normalised relations between the two countries. Under that deal, Japan provided South Korea’s then-military-backed government with $800m in grants and loans, stating that any issues concerning property, rights and interests of the two countries and their peoples were considered to “have been settled completely and finally”. (Al Jazeera 2023)

These painful issues will not disappear. Younger generations seem less impacted as they readily consume each other’s media and travel between the islands and the peninsula grows. A joint enemy can be a powerful motivator for cooperation. In the case of Seoul and Tokyo the historical baggage is burdensome. North Korea’s constant missile lobbing and China’s encroaching internationalism might hold the alliance together for now. Only true contrition, reparation and public apology will begin to heal wounds of the past.

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