If Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to defuse the latest tension with South Korea over the forced employment of Korean women in Japanese military brothels he could intervene personally to resolve the issue. A possible course might be to visit Seoul and lay a wreath in front of the statue commemorating the unfortunate women that stands in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. He might also deliver a speech offering sympathy.

Why does it seem unlikely that this will happen when a similar course of action seems to have helped consign the Pearl Harbor attack to history? The strongest reason may be that any attempt to show respect to South Korean feelings over “comfort women” would arouse dangerous popular antagonism in Japan, whereas the prime minister’s Pearl Harbor demarche was popular. This in turn may reflect fundamental differences in the way Japan views these two nations: a sense of respect for Americans and a continuing sense of superiority over Koreans.

There are corresponding differences going the other way. In the U.S. there seems to be a residual sense of being a senior partner with Japan, while in Seoul there is still a feeling of resentment for past wrongs. This is ironic considering that, for several decades, Japan has been the most important partner in the birth of a rich and powerful South Korean economy.

It is probably too much to expect any Japanese leader to cut through the tangled web of Japan-South Korean relations with a single action. What Abe has achieved instead is to intensify Korean resentment by recalling the Japanese ambassador to Seoul and by suspending talks over a currency swap agreement. These moves suggest that Abe sees the comfort women issue as being legal, not as a profound challenge to Japan’s courage and imagination.

Charles Smith

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.