Aug. 15 - here we go again

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Aug. 15 - here we go again

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Another Liberation Day has come and gone without any substantial resolution of the perennial frictions that irritate Korea and Japan. As an American who counts himself as a friend of both countries, it is frustrating to watch them not getting along.

When Koreans or Japanese attempt analyze the past, there is a tendency to justify the analyst’s prejudices and objectives. Nationalism is a very powerful influence in terms of its influence on the writer and how the message is likely to be received by the intended audience. So I’m not going to critique others’ attempts in trying to resolve the two nations’ historical frictions.

In 1971, as a Waseda University student, I asked what was the big deal about the Japanese government not being more forthcoming in apologizing and reconciling itself with its Asian neighbors. A Tokyo University student replied that most Japanese people would be willing to see that happen. The problem, he pointed out, was largely centered in the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Senior bureaucrats maintained a near-blind loyalty to their sempai, or seonbae, which includes not dishonoring their seniors’ actions and policies, including those actions prior to and during World War II. To rebuke their seniors’ past actions would in effect cast dishonor on the entire ministry and that would risk future liabilities where later officials may disavow current policies. In other words, these elite mandarins were (and are) more concerned about the reputation and welfare of their inner circles than the welfare of the nation.

Japanese are hardly unique with bureaucrats being most concerned about their wellbeing. But given the rigid Japanese culture, this behavior has consistently taken the matter to a greater extreme.

But there is much more to the issue. Consider how the Koreans view their liberation from Japanese colonial rule. While there were notable Korean patriots and guerrilla fighters, their heroism accounts for but a footnote within the overall context of World War II. The liberation of Korea was not like the liberation of France, which was a strategic goal of the war. Korea’s liberation was almost unintentional, as Allied forces island-hopped into Tokyo’s backyard and nuked the government into submission. The Chinese-Japanese land war was a stalemate that successfully kept most of the Japanese troops futilely occupied. When Aug. 15, 1945, arrived, essentially it was for the Allies to accept the surrender of Japan, and in so doing, liberate Korea.

Now, contrast this national liberation with that of Ireland, a country often compared with Korea. In Ireland’s case, World War I worked to the Irish advantage by keeping most British troops occupied in Europe. This allowed for Irish guerrillas to surprisingly overthrow Britain’s 700-year rule from most of their country.

I make the comparison, since a long-term psychological effect derives as to whether a nation was able achieve its own liberation or liberation was handed to it. In the case of the former, it is a sense of self-achievement - even if external factors may have largely contributed to emancipation, whereas a delivered liberation leaves the people feeling happy, but with unresolved grievances. When the Irish overthrew British rule, they were able to give the occupiers a bloody nose in the process and thereby substantially assuage past injustices. But with the Koreans, there is a sense of events cheating them out of adequate reconciliation with the past.

Finally, there is the well-recognized contrast in post-war German and Japanese behaviors of reconciliation with neighboring countries. While I will not retread the too familiar anecdotes here, I may add that Germany has apologized to its local, well-regarded enemies by whom they were defeated. On the other hand, enemies from the other side of the planet defeated Japan. To do this day, Japan still maintains a sense of cultural and sometimes racial superiority towards its Asian neighbors, thereby making it intrinsically awkward for conservative Japanese to make sincere apologies.

Now to be fair, I’m not trying to dump on the Japanese. If China, Korea or any other Asian country had gone on its own military adventure at the expense of its neighbors, only to be shut down by American and/or European forces, I can only wonder how willing these other Asian nations may be to atone to their neighbors for past sins.

Contriteness has a lot to do with whom one has injured or offended. Sincerity can also be determined by history. The victims, if they are willing to move forward, often need to show greater moral and spiritual maturity than the culprits. Without dodging collective responsibilities, the perpetrating nations emotionally need to allow historical distance between them and prior generations that created past suffering. If they do not, these nations are only likely to continue to face present and future frictions - or worse - with their neighbors.

The Germans figured that out and found it easier to do so with their victorious neighbors. The Japanese know better, but find it difficult to apologize to their neighbors who did not defeat them. Accordingly, Japan, too, needs to look deep and find a new spiritual maturity that transcends past and current nationalist emotions whipped up by its politicians for their cynical objectives.

Like a successful marriage, the Korean-Japanese relationship ultimately matters not as to who did what to whom. Rather, the focus must primarily be on building a shared relationship, based on sincere respect that can lead to better trust and friendship.

*The author is president of Soft Landing Consulting, a sales-focused business development firm, and senior advisor to the IPG Legal group.

by Tom Coyner
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