The relationship appears marred by exchanges of emotional language, as both Tokyo and Seoul react to the statements and actions of the other with their own sense of justice and remain ignorant of or indifferent to the other side’s perspective.
But while this may be the case at the official level, the views of the silent majority — ordinary Japanese and Koreans — suggest otherwise.
In October 2018, South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered three Japanese companies to pay compensation for wartime labourers during Japan’s colonial rule.
According to the Court, the agreement to establish diplomatic normalisation between the two countries in 1965 had not done justice to the wartime labourers, and therefore had not terminated the labourers’ individual rights to claim compensation.
The Japanese government rebuffed the court decision, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saying that the ruling is ‘unthinkable’ from the standpoint of international law (where bilateral treaties take precedence over domestic judicial decisions).
Tokyo points to Article II of the Agreement on the Settlement of Problems Concerning Property and Claims, signed together with the 1965 basic treaty, which stipulates that problems concerning the property, rights, interests and claims of Japan, South Korea and their nationals ‘is settled completely and finally’.
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in officially says that it is a matter of the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers in South Korea but he personally empathises with the court decision. Both administrations are dealing with the issue as a judicial one, fighting on judicial grounds, and appear to believe that justice is respectively theirs.
Tokyo’s lack of respect for South Korea’s judicial independence was recently matched by the ignorance of South Korean National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang.
During an interview in early February 2019, the Speaker commented that if the Japanese Emperor ‘holds the hands of the elderly (former comfort women) and says he’s really sorry, then that one word will resolve matters once and for all’.
Whether such an act would really ‘resolve matters once and for all’ is highly questionable. More importantly, the Emperor’s status in post-war Japan derives from the country’s constitution, which stipulates the role as ‘the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people’.
The Emperor is careful to behave cautiously so that his words or actions do not significantly affect domestic politics and diplomatic affairs. If the Emperor is to play a role at all, it should be a symbolic one after the settlement of the issue between Tokyo and Seoul.
The current state of Japan–South Korea tension could be characterised as a ‘clash of justice’ regarding each country’s interpretation of colonial rule and the 1965 regime after diplomatic normalisation.
The origin of this vicious cycle dates back to the early 1990s, when the comfort women issue surfaced as a diplomatic issue for the first time.
In the 1990s, Tokyo and Seoul dealt with the issue reasonably well. Japan’s prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa issued a statement of ‘heart-felt apology’ to the former comfort women in a meeting with South Korea’s president Roh Tae-woo in Seoul in January 1992.
Later, following the August 1993 release of the Kono Statement in which then chief cabinet minister Yohei Kano acknowledged the Japanese military’s responsibility, Japan’s prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa recognised the country’s wrong-doings in a nationally televised press conference with South Korea’s president Kim Young-sam in Gyeongju in November 1993.
In 1995, Japan also established the Asian Women’s Fund and issued the Murayama Statement, an apology to victims of Japanese wartime aggression. This process eventually culminated in the historic reconciliation between Japan’s prime minister Keizo Obuchi and South Korea’s president Kim Dae-jung in October 1998.
But there was political backlash against these reconciliation efforts in both countries: from the ideological right in Japan and from the ideological left in South Korea. At the time, Shinzo Abe was at the centre of political movements questioning the necessity of Japan–South Korea reconciliation and Moon Jae-in was a lawyer and a liberal activist criticising the incomplete nature of the reconciliation.
Now Abe and Moon are leading the two countries. Their divergent views on the issue encourage their respective political followers to assert subjective and similarly oppositional beliefs.
These vocal activists are minorities in both societies. But once they express their emotions as a matter of justice, the majority falls silent in both countries.
This gives the superficial impression that Japan–South Korea relations are entirely poor. Rather than taking advantage of widespread national sentiment for their political advantage, Abe and Moon express their own positions, which reflect only those of a vocal minority.
It is not ironic nor contradictory, then, that relations between Japanese and Korean civil societies are still healthy.
Ordinary citizens still travel between the two countries frequently. When conscientious Japanese and Koreans get together in business, academia and society, they are either indifferent or scratching their heads together rather than replaying political conflict.
They are trying to weather the current storm, thinking ‘enough is enough’ and making efforts to sustain the foundations of the relationship.
Yoshihide Soeya is Professor of Political Science at Keio University. This article has been republished from East Asia Forum under a Creative Commons license.