Japan has formally requested an apology from the South Korean government after a legislator made comments regarding the current Japanese Emperor Akihito’s genealogical links to war crimes perpetrated during World War II, particularly against South Korean workers and women. Japan’s demand for an apology, in fact, came as a response to a South Korean legislator’s – Moon Hee-sang’s – remarks imploring Japan to apologize for past international injustices that were committed. Moon’s, the National Assembly Speaker of South Korea, statement did not represent the collective sentiment of the his government with regard to Japan, as some linguistic descent regarding the claims were not entirely absent. According to the Nikkei Asian Review, although numerous political officials in both aforementioned nations considered the National Assembly Speaker’s comments to be either inappropriate or unnecessary, although some considered them to be an attempt at an improved “bilateral relations” between the two countries, among their legacies of both colonial and wartime violence.
According to the Nikkei Asian Review, Moon himself stated that “It only takes one word from the Prime Minister, who represents Japan – I wish the Emperor would just do it since he will step down soon.” Among broader claims of war atrocities committed against South Korea during World War II, Moon primarily refers to the Japanese use of South Korean “comfort women,” who, according to Al Jazeera, were forced to serve as prostitutes in military brothels. The Japanese response to these claims, delivered through Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, was bluntly critical, reading, as claimed by Al Jazeera, “We strongly protested as his remarks have absolutely inappropriate content and are extremely regrettable.” Japan further lodged a complaint for both an apology and a retraction of Moon’s statements.
In critically assessing the actions of, as well as routes chosen by, both Japan and South Korea, it is important to note that while the conflict at hand is not currently facilitating engagement in physical interstate violence, the nature of the dispute’s discourse surrounds the perpetration of past violence, specifically in terms of locating viable paths to resolution.
National Assembly Speaker Moon’s comments, the catalyst for Japan’s appeal for an apology and retraction, are rooted deeply in historical legacies of colonialism and oppression and when situated within a contextual web of global power dynamics, rather than considered as an isolated political incident, Moon’s statements concerning Japan’s war crimes embody a call for emotional redress that extends beyond the modern notion of formal economic reparations or treaty signage. However, the way in which Moon’s remarks were delivered, an appeal for political morality sandwiched between insults did not open up the dialogue between the two countries. Japan’s response to the controversy appears to be nothing more than the perpetuation of a cycle of dispute. Two governments demanding similar rhetorical concessions for different reasons is not the conversation needed for fruitful conflict resolution.
The relationship between these two nations has been defined by intermittent conflict for numerous decades, beginning in the early twentieth century, when Japan colonially ruled Korea from 1910 until 1948, according to Bloomberg. Furthermore, Bloomberg claimed that both before and during World War II, thousands of Korean workers were “conscripted” to work in Japanese factories, while Korean women were coerced into military prostitution. Although the 1965 treaty establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries administered hundreds of millions of dollars in Japanese war reparations to South Korea and the 1991 Kono Statement, now government policy, expressed apologies to victims of military sexual assault and established a fund in their honour, numerous South Korean dissenting voices, including the recent rulings by their Supreme Court, state that the contrition that has been administered does not properly account for the “emotional pain and suffering” of victims.
The revisiting of the broader ideological concept of what it means to definitively atone for wrongdoing in the specific context of the ongoing conflict between Japan and South Korea over war crimes provides an opportunity to reframe what it means to pay war debts in a potential shift from the rhetoric of economic reimbursement to empathetic closure and acknowledgement.