The horrible sufferings during Japan’s occupation of South Korea from 1910 to 1945. The allegations of “comfort women” and whether or not they were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery. And the demands by governments for “sincere” apologies. All of this needs to come to a stop if there is going to be any hope of ending the disputes over a couple of uninhabited volcanic rocks in sea. And especially if there is going to be any form of a true friendship between Japan and South Korea.
I’m sorry to say this, but the tit-for-tat antics between Japan and South Korea are starting to become truly comical. The decades of disputes over the territory that is known as Dokdo in Korean, and Takeshima in Japanese has resulted in back and forth refusals of a simple diplomatic letter, calls for government leaders to apologize for their previous demands for apologies, and the inability to have the issue settled in an international court are playing out like a television sitcom. And at the heart of the problem is history, or rather the emotional ties to history.
Let’s start with South Korea. The argument that we hear (not necessarily from all or even most Koreans, but rather those who are most vocal about their viewpoint) is that Japan doesn’t do enough to acknowledge or make right it’s colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula before and during World War II. Furthermore, that there have been no apologies for enforcement of Korean women to work as sexual slaves, or comfort women, for the Japanese Imperial Army. The truth is that there is a long list of Japanese government leaders, and even Emperor Akihito, who have apologized for the atrocities committed in the past.
Then there is the argument that Japanese textbooks skip over that part of history, or even teach the opposite of what really happened. Now, Japan is far from innocent in this aspect, but that claim is pretty far-fetched. Like any country that has as long of a history of Japan, it is incredibly difficult to teach all of it to children in their schooling years before college. The accusations that are certainly closer to the truth are that the education system moves to slow when going through history, so that in the junior high or high school years there isn’t really enough time to go as in-depth as they should with the WWII era. There are no textbooks or education that specifically covers up or denies Japan’s history in WWII, and if someone cites one, then it is decades old or not at all credible or legitimate.
If someone in Japan is curious or wants to know more about the history or WWII, there are plenty of books and resources available that openly, and accurately, teach what happened. And once students get to higher education, they are free to choose in-depth history courses if they want. But you know what, the issue with how Japan’s history isn’t just about South Korea or China, it has to do with the greater problem of the Japanese education system as whole, and that there is little to no teaching of critical thought, and instead focuses on strict memorization.
Why are there so many South Koreans who weren’t even alive during the occupation that have such strong emotional ties to what Japan has done to make it right? What I mean is, it seems as if the Korean education system isn’t just teaching the history of what happened, but rather including the emotional attachment as well. In other words, Koreans don’t just learn “this is what Japan did in the past during wartime,” they are taught that, along with the emotional sentiment “Japan has never truly apologized, and when they do, they don’t really mean it. And their textbooks deny what really happened, so most Japanese people don’t really know what they did to us.”
All this does is breed generations of animosity and the inability to view history as what it is: history. When the country of Indonesia teaches its history of the Japanese occupation, it teaches that Japan did do terrible things, but it was during a period of war, and wartime is when mankind is at its absolute worst. But they also teach how Japan brought infrastructure, like roads, and developments that benefited the country far after WWII ended.
I said it earlier and I’ll say it again, Japan is not innocent in this issue. Many have pointed out the vocal nationalist groups, or even the odd politician who makes public statements in denial of the history of comfort women. These people do not represent the majority of the Japanese population; they are the equivalent of those who deny the holocaust ever happened, or that the U.S. never really landed on the moon, and they are usually dismissed as ridiculous in the minds of the public. And when it comes to politicians? The majority of the public is so jaded with the government as this point and how they have so little say in who is elected or what actions are taken that when they hear these kinds of comments on the evening TV news, it goes in one ear and out the other.
If you’ll notice, I’ve made no claims about who does or doesn’t have the rightful claims over the disputed islands. That’s because I don’t know. I can’t begin to judge who judge who should have control over it. In fact, I’m of the opinion that if both countries can’t agree to let the International Court of Justice (ICJ) decide, then no one should have them. Just blow them up and send them to the bottom of the ocean. But what I have been trying to say is that if South Korea and Japan do want to work this out, they need to have rational diplomatic discussions about it, leaving out the emotional history.
I am also not advocating that the history of Japan’s actions be swept under the rug, or that the abuse of Korean women should not be recognized or taught. I think Japan’s education system needs to be changed and I think South Korea should focus more on its current-day relationship with Japan, and how connected the two countries are. They probably have some of the strongest economic ties in Asia, as well as healthy tourism, and an enjoyment of each other’s cultures. I wish Korea would stop calling for apologies if it feels those in the past haven’t been “sincere” enough, especially from an emperor who was only 12 years old when WWII ended. And I wish the Japanese government would take a tougher stance on vocal nationalist groups who take a stance opposite the government’s and claim they are speaking for the nation.