Monday, August 30, 2010

Protestors mark 100th anniversary of Imperial Japanese annexation of Taehan Empire

Needless to say, it's not a happy occasion:
"We urge Japan to comprehensively address the unfortunate history between South Korea and Japan within this year," said Yang Soon-im, a leader of the activists.

At the rally in the Seoul park, Kim Young-il, president of an association of former independence fighters and their descendants, said in a speech that Japan should apologize more sincerely for the annexation and compensate its victims.

Many older Koreans still harbour strong resentment against Japan over the colonization. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans were forced to fight as front-line soldiers, work in slave-labour conditions or serve as prostitutes in brothels operated by the Japanese military.

Earlier this month, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan offered a renewed apology for the suffering caused by the colonization. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak later said that Seoul and Tokyo should never forget history but should also work together to develop a new future.
While it's true that many older Koreans harbor such resentment against Japan, that does not necessarily mean they harbor it against Japanese individuals. In fact, in my experience, many older Koreans hold far more nuanced views of the occupation than younger people precisely because they had positive experiences with Japanese individuals at that time and therefore make a distinction between Japanese people such as their neighbors or teachers and the often cruel Japanese authorities and their policies.

But looking back on that dark period is nothing if not murky. Apologists for Japan will say there has been apology after apology, though they don't always note that the "apologies" are mealy-mouthed expressions of "regret" over "unfortunate events" that are intended to evade statements of direct responsibility, while the conservative LDP leadership that has dominated Japanese politics since the war falls over itself to declare apologies that are direct, like those of socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995, to be their personal statements alone and not the position of the Japanese government. They also fail to note how excuses and rationalizations for Imperial Japan's atrocities by Japanese government officials (such as claims of modernization that actually began before annexation) end up undermining the sentiment made by even the more insipid statements of regret.

Even the issue of compensation is murky, with the Japanese government in 1965 having settled with an undemocratically installed former military leader and former Imperial Japanese Army officer (i.e., Park Chunghee) to do an end-run around the actual victims of Imperial Japan or their families. That money, in the form of grants and loans that were to be repaid (i.e., not free money), was not given to the victims directly, though it did become a significant portion of the seed money to jump start the South Korean economy.

Even if the money had been paid directly to the victims, it would have been a paltry sum, and Tokyo may have been trying to avoid direct payments precisely for that reason (this was two decades after the end of the war, when Japan was well on its way back to the top). Still, Seoul should consider working out a way to now give that money (plus interest) directly to those people or their surviving family members.

But even then, Tokyo would not be off the hook. In 1965, the Japanese government was trying to write off the claims of victims of the government or military that at the time it refused to acknowledge existed, namely the so-called "Comfort Women." It wasn't until three decades after that that the Japanese government, its hand forced by Japanese scholars who dug up the documents that would become the smoking gun, admitted its involvement. So from an ethical standpoint, how could the Japanese government's 1965 agreement cover something that the Japanese government didn't even admit until the 1990s?

Like I said, it's murky. Some may bemoan that this kind of thing comes up every year, particularly around August 15, Liberation Day, and it's unfair that it gets rehashed again and again. But guess what? When tens of thousands die, that's what happens. Best not to invade your neighbors, hunt them down, grab their property, or force them into work that gets them killed.

And some ask, "When will the apologies be enough?" Really, if that's the question on your mind, then the purported "apologies" really aren't apologies at all. It's easy to make the claim it's just lip service then, and we're back to square one.

But if you really need an answer to that question, I'd say that until one "apology" is made for each person killed or maimed or otherwise truly victimized at the hands of Imperial Japan, then there's no business asking, "Isn't that enough already?"

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