History haunts and inflames contemporary relations between Japan and South Korea. In an August 2010 speech commemorating the centennial of the Japanese annexation of the Korean Peninsula, then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan said: “The Korean people of that time were deprived of their country and culture, and their ethnic pride was deeply scarred by the colonial rule that was imposed against their will. Those who render pain tend to forget it, while those who suffered cannot forget it easily. To the tremendous damage and sufferings that this colonial rule caused, I express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and my heartfelt apology.”
This apology drew a rebuke from current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and right-wing groups gathered outside the prime minister’s official residence in protest.
Japanese reactionaries have been eager to turn the page on the shared past before it has been read, while Koreans show no inclination to forgive or forget the traumas experienced at that time. No issue is as divisive as the “comfort women” system that involved Japanese military and government complicity in the coercive recruitment of young women, mostly Koreans, to serve in military brothels. The Diet is reexamining the testimony of former comfort women that was used as evidence in crafting the Kono Declaration in which the Japanese government took responsibility for the comfort-women system and promised to atone for it. The Asia Women’s Fund, launched in 1995 and terminated in 2007, offered compensation and letters of apology signed by the prime minister, but because it was an equivocal gesture sidestepping the state’s legal responsibility, it did little to promote reconciliation.
In the aftermath of this failure, a South Korean nongovernment organization commissioned a statue of a girl barefoot in traditional dress, sitting next to an empty chair in silent rebuke, her gaze fixed eerily across the street on the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. The bronze statue was unveiled in December 2011 to mark the 1,000th weekly protest by a dwindling number of comfort women; only 55 remain alive. Since then, in cold weather, activists dress the solitary figure in warm clothing and she is given a blanket; stuffed animals are placed at her side. In spring, someone placed a sprig of flowers on her collar. The Japanese government has requested the statue be removed to no avail.
Former Prime Minister Lee Myun-bak (2008-13), who at one time had a pro-Japanese reputation, grew so exasperated with Japanese intransigence over the comfort women and forced labor issues that he threatened to place additional statues on the site. Subsequently, two towns in the U.S. have unveiled comfort women statues that have drawn official ire from Tokyo and angry protests by conservative politicians. The statues are disconcerting and recall a past that doesn’t fit into the positive revisionist narrative about pre-1945 Japan that downplays colonial and wartime excesses.
Japan is worried that China and South Korea are ganging up on it over history, pointing to the memorial hall set up at Harbin Station in northeastern China earlier this year honoring Ahn Jung-geun, the Korean independence activist who in October 1909 assassinated Hirobumi Ito, a prominent Japanese statesman who had resigned in June 1909 as resident general of Korea when it was still a Japanese protectorate. This memorial was suggested by Park in the summer of 2013 and taken up by Chinese President Xi Jinping, attesting to warming bilateral relations at the expense of Japan. “We recognize Ahn Jung-geun as a terrorist who was sentenced to death for killing our country’s first prime minister,” said Yoshihide Suga, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s chief Cabinet spokesman in January 2014.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang replied: “Ahn Jung-geun is, in history, an upholder of justice who fought against Japan’s aggression. If Ahn Jung-geun was a terrorist, what about the 14 Class-A war criminals of World War II honored in Yasukuni Shrine?”
In the heart of Seoul, Ahn is also honored as a national martyr and hero with a more extensive memorial hall that helps visitors understand his political thinking. Kazuhiko Togo, former Japanese ambassador to the Netherlands and grandson of wartime Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo (one of the Class-A war criminals enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine), once told me that he abhorred the assassination, but grew to admire Ahn upon learning about his Pan-Asian views. Ahn wanted to forge a united response among Asians to Western imperialism and viewed Japanese colonialism as a betrayal. His sleek Seoul memorial is brimming with patriotic symbols, a dramatic reenactment of the assassination and subsequent courtroom scene, the pistol used in the shooting, a replica of his severed ring finger and even an Ahn anime room. One of the staff told me that they get many Japanese visitors and they come because they respect him, adding “It’s only Abe who hates Ahn.”
The red-brick buildings of the Seodaemun Prison History Hall look more like an old factory than an infamous colonial-era prison where the Japanese government in Chosen (the colonial name for Korea) incarcerated and tortured anti-colonial activists and political agitators.
The facility now serves as a museum featuring dark cramped cells, replete with scenes of torture and canned screams of pain. It is an unnerving space of cruelty, a crypt for the hidden horrors of the colonial past. The isolation cells are still functional and shaped like standing coffins; visitors can step inside the tight enclosures to try out the claustrophobic experience as a companion secures the door. One can also sit with a wicker hood, wrists manacled to a table, anticipating the pain to be endured during fingernail torture. Perhaps the most riveting feature of the facility is the possibility of having one’s picture taken and digitally inserted onto a prisoner undergoing torture, although there are other options. It is a powerful way to get visitors to identify with what was endured.
The Dokdo Museum opened by the Northeast Asian History Foundation in 2012 is near Seodaemun and features a high-tech facility that leaves no doubt that South Korea believes that what Japan calls Takeshima is theirs. The timeline stretches an implausible 1,500 years back into the mists of history. The current dispute dates back to 1905 when Japan seized the territory. Following independence from Japanese colonial rule in 1945 and the end of the American Occupation of Japan in 1952, Seoul took over the island and has exercised administrative control ever since. There is trove of documents, a 4-D theater for a virtual underwater tour along with a scale diorama of the islet, all aimed at backstopping South Korea’s claim. The state-of-the-art interactive features keep the young crowds engrossed. A quick word of warning, though: do not eat before watching the 4-D film because there is a whole lotta shaking and swirling going on.
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