For two decades, the weekly protest has come as sure as the changing seasons: a handful of graying Korean women picketing Tokyo's embassy here, demanding an apology and compensation for being forced into sexual slavery during Japan's World War II-era occupation.I would emphasize that the South Korean view of Japan is highly dichotomized: among most SoKos, there is a mental separation between individual Japanese and the Japanese government itself. Despite Tokyo continuing to lay claim to territory they grabbed at the beginning of their brutal four-decade rule over Korea, there is still great sympathy and concern for the people of Japan who have been affected by the Tohoku earthquake, the ensuing tsunami, and the on-going nuclear crisis.
But soon after a magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami last month killed more than 20,000 people and caused nuclear mayhem in Japan, something changed here. The so-called comfort women felt moved to hold another kind of rally: a vigil for Japanese victims.
"We hate the sin but not the people," said Lee Yong-su, 85. "We hope Japan will stand on its feet soon."
Suddenly, there was a sense that a bitter nationalistic rivalry might be replaced by something the Korean peninsula has rarely felt for its former conqueror: empathy.
South Korea was the first country to send a rescue team to the disaster area. The Korean Red Cross has raised $40 million, one of the largest nongovernment contributions to Japan after the quake. The newspaper Chosun Ilbo, which has often been critical of Japan and its policies, raised $10 million. Even the comfort women chipped in $15,000.
Many compared the moment to the brief window after the 9/11 attacks when many hoped that Democrats and Republicans might finally put aside their differences.
That, of course, didn't happen. And in the case of South Korea and Japan, the rapprochement also appears short-lived.
The two countries seem to have fallen back into old habits — like a couple in an abusive relationship where one has lorded over the other. They've gone to counseling, tried all the couples therapies. And just when one spouse is about to forgive the other, another unforgivable event comes to pass. Once again, signals are misread, and the relationship is back at a dysfunctional impasse.
I just wish that both sides would stop doing things to poke the other in the eye, because with China rising and North Korea raving, we need to see more things like this.