Courageous initiative by Japanese and Korean intellectuals
On 22 August 1910, the commander of the Japanese army in the Korean capital (Seoul) surrounded the imperial palace and forced the (Korean) emperor to recognise the treaty of annexation (of Korea by Japan) that some of his ministers had signed a few days earlier. Thus, Korea ceased to exist as an independent state. The legalisation of Japanese aggression had begun five years earlier (17 November 1905) when Korea was forced to sign a treaty establishing a “Japanese protectorate” that deprived Korea of its power to pursue its own foreign policy.
For successive Japanese governments, the two treaties signed by Korea represent a legitimate pretext to claim that the annexation of the peninsula was legitimate. Koreans have never accepted such a claim. The contradictory interpretations given to the legal aspects of the issue has prevented friendly relations between the two nations. This has continued after 1945 when Japan was forced by a peace treaty to give up the colonies it conquered during its imperialist period.
Such a “legal question” can only be solved by an objective and shared look at history. This is what 105 Japanese intellectuals and 109 Korean intellectuals did. Their joint declaration is the outcome of five months of studies and negotiations. Except for some minor issues, all of them agree on the basic facts. “The annexation of Korea, as the term suggests, was a sheer illicit act of imperialism that cast aside the strong protests of everyone from the masses to the emperor of Korea with military might,” the declaration said.
Cleansing the collective memory
Through their work and declaration, the two groups have opened the way for their respective nations to commemorate appropriately the centennial of the tragedy and cleanse their collective memory.
In an editorial, The Korea Times, writes, “For the 109 Korean scholars, writers and activists, it was only just and right to draft and sign such a statement on this centennial anniversary of their country's disgraceful annexation by a stronger neighbor. Greater praise, however, should be given to their 105 Japanese counterparts, who must have mustered far greater courage and conscience to admit the historical wrongs committed by their ancestors.”
For Korea, the “historical wrong” was followed by 45 years of humiliation and enslavement that saw the country’s national dignity scorned, its natural and economic resources exploited for Japan’s development, hundreds of thousands of Koreans forced to work in Japanese mines and factories, and thousands of young Korean women sent to China and other parts of Asia and the Pacific as “comfort women” servicing the Japanese military.
Given the perspective of the two hundred intellectuals, the joint declaration does not mention the responsibility of Western powers present in the Pacific and Asia regions. Cleansing one’s collective memory is a duty they must undertake as well since Japan could not have realised its plan of conquest in the Korean Peninsula without their consent. This can be best illustrated by two events related to the annexation.
In the first case, the United States must cleanse its collective memory. In fact, before it could carry out its plan of annexation, Japan obtained the support of the United States. In 1904, US President Theodore Roosevelt not only gave the Japanese a free hand in the peninsula, but actually encouraged them to take over Korea.
In July 1905, US Secretary of War William Taft met Japanese Prime Minister Katsura Taro to exchange views about Korea and the Philippines. The set of notes taken during their conversations has come to be known as the Taft-Katsura Memorandum; in it, Taft expressed the opinion that it would be desirable for Japan to take control of Korea. Three months later, the Japanese military command forced the Korean government to sign a treaty establishing a protectorate.
The second event occurred in 1907, when (Korean) Emperor Kojong, who had refused to sign the treaty, sent two secret missions, one to the United States and the other to The Hague, where an international peace conference was underway, in order to plead the cause of Korea’s national independence. However, both the United States and European powers refused to help Korea.
When the Japanese found out what the emperor had done, they forced him to abdicate in favour of his son Sunjong, whom they held hostage in Japan until the treaty of annexation (1910).
On the way towards reconciliation
The initiative by the two groups of intellectuals does not end with the joint declaration. In order to raise awareness among their respective public opinions, they plan to collect the signatures of prominent figures in Japan, insert ads in the New York Times and other foreign media, and organise a symposium in Seoul and Tokyo.
The movement has already inspired lawmakers in Japan and Korea to promote declarations similar to that of the two hundred intellectuals in the month of August. Apparently, about a hundred Japanese lawmakers plan to introduce in the Japanese Diet (parliament) before the end of the year, a motion that would officially confirm that the annexation was null and void. Once the ball gets rolling, it will be hard to stop it and this despite so many obstacles.
Koreans’ ambivalence towards Japan
In an article titled ‘A Korean's hatred of Japan’, Korean journalist Shin Chul-ho slams the lack of remorse for past wrongdoings in Japanese government and political circles, and the tendency in Japan to presented a distorted view of Korean-Japanese relations. However, he is careful not to confuse political circles and the Japanese people. “To be honest, there are lots of good things that we (Koreans) need to learn from the Japanese people. As a Korean, I also feel some emotional distance from Japan as a country but I love the Japanese people at the same time. They are kind, polite, and honest and have good, orderly manners. They try to never inconvenience anyone.” For this reason, “We must outgrow an immature way of thinking.”