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Japan and Korea: Reconciliation and redress for wrongs remain elusive

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

On the eve of the International Olympic Committee’s decision to award the 2020 Summer Games to Tokyo, Seoul’s abrupt import ban on all fisheries products from Fukushima and seven other Japanese prefectures was clearly a response to public concerns about radiation spewing into the ocean.

Here, though, it looked like a blatant attempt to capsize Tokyo’s bid after what has been a particularly ugly year in the ongoing feud between South Korea and Japan. The two sides have never managed to resolve historical grievances arising from Japanese colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945, and a smoldering territorial dispute over the Takeshima/Dokdo islands in the Sea of Japan/East Sea.

At the 2012 London Olympics, a Korean soccer player celebrated victory over Japan by holding aloft a banner proclaiming sovereignty over the Dokdo Islands only hours after President Lee Myung Bak became the first serving leader to land on the Korean-controlled islets.

Amid the firestorm of recriminations, Lee said that Emperor Akihito would not be welcome to visit Korea — unless ” he is willing to apologize from his heart to those who died fighting for independence.”

The next day he called on Tokyo to take responsibility for wartime sexual slavery. While this in-your-face approach may play well at home, Lee derailed bilateral ties.

And then Shinzo Abe became Japan’s prime minister again. Back in 2007 during his first stint in the job, he’d made a big impression on Koreans with his remarks quibbling about the level of coercion used in recruiting teenage girls to serve as “comfort women” (prostitutes) in Japanese wartime military brothels.

In 2010, however, Prime Minister Naoto Kan made a heartfelt apology to South Korea on the centennial of Japan’s annexation of the Korean Peninsula, saying, “The people of South Korea at the time were deprived of their nation and culture, and their ethnic pride was deeply harmed by colonial rule against their will.” He added, “Those who render pain tend to forget it, while those who suffered cannot forget it easily.”

That went down well in South Korea and Japan, but Abe immediately ridiculed Kan’s remarks as “ignorant” and “foolish.”

So it was not surprising when — just a few days before Park Geun-hye’s presidential inauguration this year, Abe became Japan’s first premier to dispatch a senior official to the Takeshima Day (Feb. 22) celebrations hosted by Shimane Prefecture, which claims jurisdiction over the contested islands.

Apparently Abe was unwelcome in Seoul for the inauguration, so his deputy, Taro Aso, went instead. Yet when Aso himself was premier in 2008-09, he was dogged by allegations concerning Korean forced laborers used at his family’s coal mine.

And let’s not forget that Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, Japan’s premier from 1957-60, was the wartime minister responsible for forced labor — one reason why he was a Class-A war-crimes suspect.

Hence from Seoul’s perspective, Japan’s current leadership has an inauspicious relationship with history.

In case there were any lingering doubts about the past shaping the future, President Park commented, “The dynamic of (Japan) being the aggressor and (Korea) being the victim will never change, even after the passage of 1,000 years.”

South Korea’s judicial system is also weighing in on history issues. In August 2010, the constitutional court ruled it unconstitutional for the nation’s government to make no tangible effort to get Japan to compensate Korean comfort women. Since then, Seoul has pressed Tokyo to atone, but to no avail — so boosting bilateral tensions. Then in a landmark decision in May 2011, the Korean supreme court ruled that the 1965 treaty normalizing relations with Japan does not invalidate claims by former forced laborers and their families for withheld wages. But Tokyo has doggedly maintained that the 1965 Treaty of Basic Relations between Japan and South Korea covers all compensation claims. At that time, Japan provided $800 million in loans and grants that were billed as aid, but served as reparations.

In fact President Park Chung Hee (1961-79) distributed very little of the money to individuals, instead using it to promote economic development. Since 2008, the Seoul government has been paying compensation to some former labor conscripts, but the program is hampered by a lack of Japanese documentation.

In July 2013, meanwhile, Japan Post reported that its Fukuoka branch in Kyushu was holding tens of thousands of Koreans’ wartime accounts. Almost 70 years after Japan’s defeat, those unpaid wages and savings have not been returned to the account holders or their heirs. In 2010, the Japanese government acknowledged that the Bank of Japan holds ¥278 million of withheld wages and pensions of forced laborers and military conscripts (Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese), deposited there at the insistence of the U.S.-led Allied Occupation authorities.

According to Matthew Augustine, an assistant professor at Kyushu University, the United States was also complicit in the continued exploitation of Korean slave laborers in Japanese coal mines after the surrender, when U.S. officials also failed to process the workers’ legitimate wage claims. He says that restitution from the Bank of Japan was frozen by the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean War and the money has remained there ever since.

But the Cold War is long over and, as Augustine argues, there is no excuse for conflating restitution of money owed with war reparations. Yet he says, “I feel pessimistic about the prospects of resolving the problem of unpaid wages and other assets owed to Korean victims of Japan’s forced-mobilization program.”

The continued reluctance to return slave laborers’ wages and pension benefits is shameful, but as William Underwood, a leading researcher on redress issues, explains, “The Japanese government and companies are clearly not approaching this key issue of historical justice in good faith. In any advanced liberal democracy except Japan, there would be calls from the general public to do something — anything — with the money, which has been gathering dust for more than half a century. But Prime Minister Abe is the grandson of the guy who was in charge of Japan’s empire-wide forced-labor programs, so that is unlikely to happen.”

Nonetheless, not everyone here is shirking the burdens of history. According to Augustine, “The aptly named Truth-Seeking Network for Forced Mobilization has, in particular, been one of the strongest advocate groups in Japan calling on its government to address the problem of compensating victims.” It is part of a transnational network that has collected and disseminated irrefutable evidence about the unpaid financial assets, and advocates reconciliation through redress extended to victims.

In July 2013, Korean high courts in Seoul and Busan ruled in favor of plaintiffs seeking redress from the recently merged Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries — awarding a total of nine former forced laborers about ¥7.25 million each. The Seoul judge ruled that the companies committed “crimes against humanity” by working with the Japanese government to mobilize forced labor in support of a war of aggression and “illegal” colonial rule.

To this, Abe’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, responded by insisting that all wartime compensation issues are resolved. He also called on the firms to delay any settlement while the government considers its options.

As one option, how about starting by giving all forced laborers back the money they earned and saved — and stop disgracing Japan? Then let the firms involved decide, without government interference, what to do about redress.

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.