A golden moment in the history of Japanese diplomacy
A few days earlier, in a very different context, Prime Minister Kan spoke at the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park to mark the 65th anniversary of the atomic bomb that was dropped on the city. On that occasion, he used a dignified language, staying away from expressing feelings of victimhood, stressing instead the future. In his address, Kan appealed to the nations of the world to make an immediate commitment to abolish nuclear weapons, urging the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to lead the anti-nuclear movement.
However, his expression of “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology” to the people of South Korea is of greater value because it allows the two countries to start new and positive relations, which will have important consequences for East Asia and the world.
For almost two decades, economic relations between Japan and South Korea have developed considerably. However, the two countries have never been able to work out a political deal that would make them the cornerstone of regional unity and prosperity in East Asia.
To ensure that the Sea of Japan (or the Eastern Sea as the Koreans call it) is no longer a symbol of division, the psychological legacy of Japan’s colonial rule over Korea in the first of the 20th century had to be tackled.
When Korea regained its independence on 15 August 1945, it was not the result of any act of generosity on the part of Japan, but rather the outcome of its crushing military defeat. Of course, when Japan and South Korea (then ruled by military strongman Park Chung Hee) re-established diplomatic relations in 1965, Tokyo provided Seoul with financial compensation and economic assistance, which enabled the South Koreans to build the well-known economic powerhouse that is South Korea today.
Yet, behind the surface, relations have been shaped by Japan’s unwillingness to apologise unambiguously for its 35-year occupation of Korea, the result of five decades of rule by the nationalist-oriented Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP).
The Gordian knot was cut when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) took power last year. One of its priorities on its foreign policy agenda was the relationship with South Korea. Prime Minister Kan’s apology and the offer of cooperation marks a golden moment in the history of Japanese diplomacy for the consequences that it entails.
What the statement says
Over the past 15 years, the Japanese government apologised twice to Korea. On 15 August 1995, then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, a Socialist who headed a coalition government, said, “Through its colonial rule and aggression, [Japan] caused tremendous damage and suffering;” for him too, it was a matter of “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology”. Ten years later, maverick LDP Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi apologised as well. Both statements were not well received.
Kan’s statement of remorse fared better. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak welcomed it unconditionally, even though the apology was for legal reason almost identical to that of his predecessors.
The reason for this lies in Kan’s background work, involving the South Korean president, concrete actions to back up the apology, and a statement that focused on Korea, rather than Asia as a whole.
Kan’s speech was indeed a collective piece of work, involving his party and all the members of his cabinet. Before he delivered it, he informed President Lee of what it said in a 20-minute phone conversation. Later, at a press conference, Kan said that Lee accepted the declaration as sincere.
In the speech, the Japanese leader also referred to another important point, one that touches Korea’s history. He promised that Japan would transfer to Seoul a collection of royal protocols that belonged to Korea’s Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910); altogether, 167 volumes, with 33,900 documents, seized by the Japanese colonial government in Korea in 1922 and held by Japan’s Imperial Household Agency, in what amounts to a heist that was certainly designed to wipe out Korea’s national history.
As various proposals of cooperation now set the stage for the future, it becomes clear that in focusing on Korea, the Prime Minister acknowledged that what made Korea suffer the most was not so much the invasion but the annexation.
Koreans, every year, mark their liberation from the Japanese yoke on 15 August. On the other side of the sea, Japanese mark the end of the war.
In one smart move four days before the anniversary, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, proffered not only an overdue apology, but has also given both nations a chance to mark the same event in a perspective of peace and friendship.