Events which took place before and during the Second World War are continuing to cause political tension in East Asia.
South Korean and Japan are raking through painful memories of the period when Korea was occupied by Japan, especially the treatment of so-called comfort women who worked in brothels, serving soldiers from the invading Imperial army.
Wave of grief
In January this year, a former Korean “comfort woman” named Kim Bok-dong died at the age of 92. Thousands of people joined a large memorial event in Seoul. Some mourners held up banners demanding that “Japan must apologise.” A prominent South Korean politician demanded an apology from Emperor Akihito himself, who is due to abdicate at the end of April.
The tone of the protests dismayed the Japanese establishment. In Tokyo, the Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said the politician’s comments were “deplorable.”
Sympathy and solidarity
Since President Moon Jae-In took office in 2017, he has discovered that showing sympathy with survivors of the Japanese occupation boosts his popularity, particularly among nationalists.
It has also struck a chord with many Korean women. Campaigners draw parallels between the comfort women issue and the current debate about exploitation, highlighted by the Me Too movement. They say that the mistreatment of vulnerable women needs to be publicly challenged, whether it occurred in the last century or is still happening today.
The tactic is to publicly shame men for their misdeeds. In Korea, this often leads to rhetoric which portrays Japanese men as unrepentant aggressors. In the minds of many Koreans, there is little distinction between the actions of the wartime enemy and contemporary Japanese politicians, who are predominantly male.
The issue gains international attention through a campaign to erect statues of comfort women, portraying them as young victims of foreign rapists. In the past few years, the Korean government has helped pay for statues in many sensitive locations – including near the Japanese embassy in Seoul – as well as in San Francisco and in the Philippines.
The South Koreans are also applying financial pressure on Japan. Last year, the Supreme Court ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal to pay reparations to Koreans who were forced to work during the period of Japanese colonial rule.
Japan insists it legally settled all claims relating to the war and occupation – including the comfort women issue – many years ago. The official view was outlined in a letter to the New York Times in February. It stated: “Japan has extended its sincere apologies and remorse to the former comfort women on many occasions.”
Hard to forget
Many people in Japan would now like the issue to go away, especially members of the business community. South Korea and Japan also common interests. For example, the famous Korean electronics company LG supplies TV panels to its Japanese counterpart, Sony. LG has warned that if the dispute lingers on, it could disrupt its Asian operations.
However, business leaders cannot do much to calm the anger and resentment which characterises the current mood. It seems likely to simmer for some time to come, despite the many changes which have taken place in the world since the darkest period in East Asia’s recent history.