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Putting an end to the Japan-Korea history wars

by Yuriko Koike

Georges Clemenceau, who, as France’s prime minister, led his country to victory in World War I, famously said that “war is too important to be left to the generals.” Japan is now discovering that history is too important to be left to newspaper editors.

In the 1990s, the newspaper Asahi Shimbun caused a firestorm at home in Japan and in South Korea by publishing a series of articles, based upon testimony by the former Japanese soldier Seiji Yoshida, on “comfort women” — Koreans forced to provide sexual services to the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. It has now been more than a month since Asahi admitted that the soldier’s confessions were unfounded, and has disavowed the core supporting evidence for the articles.

That retraction appears to be causing as much embarrassment — and diplomatic vitriol — in Japan and South Korea today as the original series did. But at a time when both countries cannot afford to permit partisan or sloppy abuses of history to roil their bilateral relations, Asahi’s careless work has turned out to be more than abysmal journalism; it has introduced a dangerous element into regional diplomacy.

Some say that Japan and South Korea should follow the example set by France and Germany. Reconciling in the first two decades following the Nazi Occupation of France, these countries’ leaders understood that their security and economic ties were far too important to their citizens’ well-being to allow the old hatreds to fester.

They knew that the unimaginable violence of World War II was a direct result of the antagonisms that had festered since the Napoleonic Wars and were allowed to persist after 1918.

In Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, France and Germany had two of the 20th century’s greatest statesmen, leaders who were able to discern the broad sweep of history through the fog of quotidian politics.

Their loyalty was not only to the citizens who elected them, but also to the generations of the past that had endured the consequences of Franco-German enmity, and to generations yet to come that would benefit from reconciliation.

Of course, given that Japan and South Korea have not fought a series of wars against each other, their relationship is not same as that between Germany and France. But it is clear that no one will benefit from a new round of heated historical debate.

To avoid this, political leaders like de Gaulle and Adenauer are needed. Only when we can discuss the past without endangering the future will the countries of Northeast Asia be able to establish a truly durable structure of peace.

As Admiral Dennis C. Blair, a former commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, stated at a recent conference: “The history of Asia from the 1930s to about 1955 or so was not pretty in any way. … I don’t think any country can have a monopoly on righteousness, or on guilt and shame” for that time.

Blair added that “the attempt to hold a ‘we were right’ and ‘you were wrong’ sweepstakes is not going to help our children and grandchildren understand what happened there.”

Japan and South Korea need to take responsibility for the future, not obsess about the past.

A recent Japanese government white paper called South Korea the country “that shares the closest relationship with Japan historically and in areas such as economy and culture.”

No doubt, many, if not most, South Korean foreign-policy experts and strategists share that sentiment. But it will take committed leadership to transcend the history wars and tap the full potential of Japanese-Korean cooperation, something that both countries’ key ally, the United States, strongly desires, as it seeks to draw China into a lasting and peaceful Asian order.

For too long, intemperate historical debates — often driven by biased newspaper accounts — have poisoned bilateral relations.

Now, as another war of words heats up, Japanese and South Korean leaders need to step back, recognize where the real interests of their people lie, both today and in the future, and calmly begin to take the measures required to ensure durable reconciliation.

Yuriko Koike, Japan’s former defense minister and national security adviser, was chairwoman of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party’s General Council. She currently is a member of the National Diet. © 2014 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)

  • Reinhard Zoellner

    I am confused … Does Ms. Koike imply that Asahi fabricated the whole comfort women issue? That would be fitting the stance of her party’s right wing which she obviously belongs to; but I doubt it will contribute much to reconciliation with Korea. Or is she maybe hinting at the Sankei Shinbun’s record of slandering Korea (against which, to my knowledge, her party has never objected)? And has she really forgotten that Japan and Korea have indeed a long historical record of warfare, a tradition that was frequently referred to by the Japanese before 1945 (Empress Jingu) and has been frequently referred to by the Koreans after 1945 (Hideyoshi)? And wasn’t it Yoshida Shigeru who was called Japan’s Adenauer once upon a time? So how many more Yoshidas does it take Japan to achieve what must be achieved? And, last but not least, which non-retired Japanese politician has the actual potential of becoming Japan’s political, moral, and intellectual leader? Alas, this is another case of “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below”.

    • phu

      This kind of partisan “well your party says this, why don’t you do something about it” is a huge part of what the article rails against. How can Japan move forward when this mindset prevails?

      Stop thinking with your party bias and start reading for content. This article is exactly what Japanese politics needs and you’re quibbling over the source.

    • TV Monitor

      Yes, that’s exactly what Japanese rightwingers believe. So they reason that this whole comfort women issue would go away if they could prove that the first article that exposed this shame was false.

      What they do not understand is that the US government is operating on a classified document called “MacArthur Report of 1946″, which compiled Imperial Japan’s war crimes for possible prosecutions under the order of General MacArthur in 1945~1946 period. The MacArthur Report contains descriptions of forced conscription of comfort women, and this is why the US House passed a resolution demanding Japan to apologize to the comfort women after having read this report.

  • HanSangYoon

    South Korea doesn’t need Japan anymore; if Japan’s not gonna follow the rules, might as well just cut all ties and move on with China.

    • Reinhard Zoellner

      Fine. Then Japan will become best friends with North Korea and help them rebuild their economy. Of course, all the benefits will go to Japanese companies. You don’t think that can happen? Never underestimate your fellow Koreans. Nor the Japanese. What do you think are both really talking about at the moment? Reunification? Don’t be silly.

      • HanSangYoon

        Japan is in a major disadvantage. Their economy is going down already, and especially, South Korea is going to decline soon, but at least the people are trying to change this and they have massive advantage of Chinese AND American aid. Japan, if they side with NK, America will not leave Japan in its current status. They may start De-alliancing with them, and then BOOM. Japan’s done.

  • phu

    By far the most clearheaded article I’ve seen here in a long time. Why is this woman either no longer espousing these views in the Diet or being ignored?

    It may be even more frustrating to see that some in the Japanese government actually do understand the reality of Asian politics, but so few do or care that Japan and South Korea still rail petulantly at one another and ignore the welfare and future of their people.

    • KenjiAd

      I respectfully disagree on your characterization that Ms Koike’s article is “clearheaded.” The reasons are as follows.

      Her article includes the following – “The history of Asia from the 1930s to about 1955 or so was not pretty in
      any way. … I don’t think any country can have a monopoly on
      righteousness, or on guilt and shame” – the statement which is attributed to “a former commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet” named Admiral Dennis C. Blair. She continued to quote him – “…the attempt to hold a ‘we were right’ and ‘you were wrong’ sweepstakes
      is not going to help our children and grandchildren understand what
      happened there.”

      Can you imagine what China or Korean would say, if the same statement came from a Japanese politician?

      In fact, if that’s what she believes, she should have said it herself and take the hit, rather than quoting someone who couldn’t even defend himself any more. That’s despicable.

      Japan was 100% wrong. It started the war, invaded other countries, and killed a bunch of innocent people, including people in Japan. This understanding of the history must be the starting point for any dialogue between Japan and our Asian neighbors.

      Unfortunately, the narrative in which Japan was some sort of a victim during the war, turned out to be more popular among Japanese people. This is not surprising of course. It’s an almost natural reaction.

      But the Japanese government has a responsibility to resist this populist narrative and stand firm on how the war history should be understood.

      • phu

        Understood. However, I’m looking at it from the point of view of moving forward.

        I re-read the article to see if I missed something, and I think the difference between the way I interpret it and the way you do is in what’s not said. She does not come out and take a side (at least in this piece) regarding the fact or degree of Japan’s culpability, and I took that not as an implication that its recent historical revisionism is correct, but rather as an omission of an obvious fact: As you said, Japan was 100% wrong.

        It’s entirely possible that this person is in fact one of those revisionists and the subtext here is that the arguing should stop specifically because Japan is right and everyone else is wrong. While I don’t know about the author’s personal position in that regard, to me, the piece reads as “we all need to remove our heads from our posteriors for the sake of our children’s futures” rather than “we’re right and you’re wrong so stop arguing.”

  • Jijitsu

    Singling out the Asahi Shimbun as a purveyor of “intemperate historical debates — often driven by biased newspaper accounts,” Yuriko Koike somehow forgot to mention the Yomiuri Shimbun and Sankei Shimbun. Both of these publications have long promoted their own no-fault view of Japan’s conduct in World War II. In any case, a definite and unalterable acceptance of responsibility by the Japanese government would do more to “ensure durable reconciliation” than the words of any newspaper.

  • Tando

    There is one more important difference. Germany established history commitees together with neighbouring countries like France or Poland in order to analize the history, reach a common viewpoint and teach the same content in schools at the respective countries. I have always been taken aback by the Japanese postmodern claim, that they have a right to their own view of history without even trying to establish objective, rational facts. The other day I had a discussion with a Japanese guy, who claimed that Korea invited Japan in order to develop the country, that there was a total of 98 forced laborers, who were all compensated and the rest of all those Zainichi Kankokujin were refugees during the Korean war. When I tried to confront him with some historic facts, it was me who became the culprit, because I disturbed the cosy “atmosphere”.
    Ms. Koike seems to fall into the same category, as if the whole comfort women issue was based on only one testimony, and if you prove that this one testimony was fabricated the whole fact would be disproved.