March 1 marked the 100th anniversary of a speech given by a student in a Seoul park declaring Korean independence. To commemorate the event, South Korean President Moon Jae-in delivered an address in which he called for strengthening bonds between Japan and South Korea, which are severely frayed at present due to diplomatic frictions, most of which are related to Japan’s colonial rule of the peninsula between 1910 and 1945.
Moon’s tone of reconciliation was grudgingly noted by the Japanese government, although the Foreign Ministry took issue with the number of people Moon said had been killed in the uprising sparked by the 1919 declaration, saying there is still no historical consensus about the matter. Some members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party complained that the ministry’s message wasn’t strong enough. In any case, the ministry had issued a travel advisory to people planning trips to South Korea, warning Japanese about possible demonstrations on March 1.
If the government is concerned about how many people were supposedly killed in the uprising, it should be noted that it has never said anything about the roots of the March 1 Movement, and neither does the press. The current administration never talks about the colonial period except to maintain the narrative that Japan’s annexation of the peninsula was legal at the time, and the media goes along with this vague version of history. The public, as a result, knows very little about it, since it is only sketchily covered in history classes, if at all.
However, as explained in a feature in the Tokyo Shimbun, the March 1 Movement’s origins can be traced to Japan. Less than a month before the declaration was read in that Seoul park, the document was drafted by a group of Korean students in a Tokyo building on a site that currently houses the Korean YMCA in Japan. The manager of the building’s archives told Tokyo Shimbun that in 1919, at the height of the “Taisho democracy,” Tokyo was considered the most politically enlightened city in Asia. The declaration incorporated U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination to spur the people of Korea to shake off Japanese rule. Written by young elites educated in Japan, some argue the text didn’t place much blame on Japan even as it described Japanese rule as being illegitimate. The document was more a call to action that promoted “peace and culture.” In fact, the students surrendered to Japanese police after making the declaration.
However, a movement was sparked. It was initially peaceful but, according to Korean historians, about 7,500 Koreans were killed by the authorities over the following three months in a spiral of violence. In addition, around 15,000 were injured and some 46,000 arrested.
During an interview on TBS Radio’s “Ogiue Chiki Session-22” on March 1, Keiki Kato, an associate professor at Hitotsubashi University’s graduate school, said Japan has not explicitly countered these figures because it has never addressed the movement. It simply ignores it. As the protests grew, more troops were dispatched from Japan to quell demonstrations and soldiers felt as if they were going to war. The media at the time described the movement as the work of terrorists, leading to the vigilante-like killings of Korean residents of Tokyo and Yokohama following the earthquake of 1923. Fumiko Kaneko, a Japanese woman who lived on the Korean Peninsula for seven years and supported independence, was arrested following the quake and sentenced to death for allegedly plotting to kill the Crown Prince. A hero in South Korea, she’s known in Japan as an anarchist and would-be assassin.
Many Koreans supported Japanese rule — Japan couldn’t have taken over the peninsula without them — and since these people were still occupying positions of power when the war ended, they became the leaders who eventually negotiated the treaty and economic cooperation pact of 1965 that Japan insists resolved all issues related to its colonial rule, including compensation. As Kato stresses, Japan didn’t apologize or express regret in the treaty, and Keio University professor Yoshihide Soeya recently wrote in the East Asia Forum that the current Japan-South Korea standoff is a “clash of justice” between the two countries’ respective interpretation of the colonial era.
There are conservative elements in South Korea that resent Moon on ideological grounds and are somewhat sympathetic to Japan’s version of the past. This conflict is manifested in the North-South divide, the main topic of Moon’s March 1 address. In another segment of the “Ogiue Chiki Session-22” clip, Seo Dae-gyo, a journalist based in South Korea, says that Moon sees the collaborators of the colonial era as traitors, while the postwar Korean government, which contained collaborators, persecuted former movement fighters as communists. Unification of the Korean Peninsula can never happen without reconciling these two sides.
In an essay published in the Asahi Shimbun on March 6, Chuo University professor Atsuko Kawakita fretted over how this diplomatic impasse affects public opinion. She contrasts Japan’s refusal to face its past with Germany’s engagement with its own. As a result of confronting the Nazi era, Germany learned that human rights and democracy were the ultimate good, while the lesson Japan extracted from its war experience was that peace is the ultimate good, a conclusion based on a sense of victimhood that persists to this day. The Korean Peninsula was subjugated by Japan, but Japan now sees itself as the victim of Korean capriciousness.
However, public opinion is more about what’s happening now than in the past. Japan and South Korea share too much culturally and economically. A Japanese high school girl interviewed for an article on Webronza that was published on Feb. 17 said she was distressed by the diplomatic impasse because she loves Korean culture and has Korean friends in Japan. Almost 780,000 South Koreans visited Japan in January, a 5.6 percent increase year on year. Will Japanese heed the Foreign Ministry’s warning and not return the favor? When asked by the host of “Ogiue Chiki Session-22” in a telephone exchange if Japanese tourists have anything to fear in South Korea, Seo replied, “Only spicy food.”