Silencing Tokyo once and for allThere is a scene we are reminded of whenever Japanese ultranationalists and far-right politicians denounce Ahn Jung-geun, the Korean independence fighter who fatally shot Hirobumi Ito, the first Japanese resident general of the Korean Peninsula, in 1909 to protest Japan’s colonial designs. In October 1960, Otoya Yamaguchi, a bookish 17-year-old, stormed onto the podium of a political debate ahead of a parliamentary election and plunged a long knife into the stomach of Japan Socialist Party head Inejiro Asanuma. The boy carried a suicide note that read, “A socialist out to poison the nation with communism cannot be forgiven.” The murder, which was televised live, shocked the nation. In a few weeks after the killing, Yamaguchi killed himself after writing “Long Live His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor!” on his prison cell wall.
The youth died but his memory lived on. It was forced to live on, in fact, as Yamaguchi was celebrated as a martyr by nationalists. His ghost is summoned every time they try to remind modern Japan of its past as an Asian empire. Pilgrimages to Yamaguchi’s tomb are held every year. On the 50th anniversary of his death in 2010, nationalists held a large memorial service in Tokyo’s Hibiya Hall — where the killing actually took place.
Let us draw a simple, factual comparison of the two nationalists. Ahn was an intellectual in Korea deprived of any legal means to stop the nation’s sovereignty from being stolen by Japan. Koreans were already stripped of civic rights. Activities of the media and civil movements could not deter Japan’s ambitious design over Korea and the greater part of Asia. Ahn carried out an extreme action to let the world know of Korea’s tragic conundrum and Japan’s cruel imperialist ambitions.
Meanwhile, Japan’s Socialist Party was barely a threat to its conservative rival party when its head was assassinated. Japan had sufficient protections against the spread of communism through elections. But still Yamaguchi went on with his murderous act.
People of every civilization have the last resort right to protest when civilian and human rights are violated by higher authorities and the state’s power cannot be challenged by democratic means. People revolt. They are forced to resort to revolution to fight the ruling power. Such a fight can also be exercised against another nation. If the sovereignty of a weaker country is in jeopardy, the people are justified in standing up and fighting for their nation.
Operation Anthropoid was the code name for an assassination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking German Nazi official during World War II and one of the main architects of the Holocaust. By late 1941, Adolf Hitler controlled almost all of Europe and the exiled government of Czechoslovakia and British Intelligence joined to eliminate the commander of the brutal campaign against the Jews. One morning in May 1942, a team of British-trained Czech and Slovak soldiers attacked Heydrich on his way to work in Prague Castle. Heydrich eventually died from his wounds. The assailants hid in a cathedral in Prague and, when surrounded by hundreds of German security officers, killed themselves instead of surrendering.
After the war, the Sts. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral where the assailants of Heydrich took refuge became a mecca for resistance movements. In 1995, a national memorial museum was established to commemorate them and their supporters. The German government encouraged the construction and offered financial assistance. The site draws numerous German visitors every year. Contrast Germany’s behavior with that of Japan nearly seven decades after the end of World War II. When Korea and China agreed to build a memorial for Ahn in Harbin, China, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga protested strongly against the building of a shrine to “a terrorist.”
Japan is famous for blood-drenched political vendettas. Assassinations continued into modern days from the samurai period. Ryoma Sakamoto, one of Japan’s most revered figures in the modernization period, was murdered. About 20 famous politicians, businessmen and journalists — including two prime ministers, Hara Takashi and Inukai Tsuyoshi — were assassinated. Even after killing high-profile figures, the assassins walked out of prisons after serving token terms of five to eight years. It may be related to the much-romanticized legacy of the samurai, but Japan remains strangely accepting of what can only be described as terrorist behavior.
Yet its the ultraright portray Ahn as a murderer and Yamaguchi as a martyr. The problem for Seoul is that it has to deal with a Japanese government that shares these ideas with it country’s ultranationalists. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government deny Japan’s past military invasions and other wrongdoings such as the sexual enslavement of Korean and other Asian women by the Japanese military during the war. His claim that he will respect past statements of apology for wartime atrocities are not accompanied by actions of any sincerity. No matter how many times the U.S. president organizes meetings with the leaders of Korea and Japan, the two states cannot be friends until Japan stops infuriating its neighbors and former wartime victims, and tries sincerely to improve ties.
The Abe government is seriously jeopardizing Japan’s economy by letting relations with Asian neighbors fester. The economy cannot be safe when diplomatic relationships are shaky. Japan’s exports fell for the second consecutive year, plunging 10.2 percent last year, hurt by a boycott by Chinese consumers. Abe could lose public confidence and even be replaced if people feel victimized by his antagonistic campaign against his neighbors.
Seoul must do more. It should be more proactive. Instead of merely lodging protests against Tokyo’s plan to investigate the testimonies behind the Kono Statement on the so-called comfort women, the government must join up with scholars in Korea, China and Japan to draw up an inarguable international case on the comfort women. Objective, documentary evidence of forced mobilization of sex slaves in Japanese military brothels are ample. We must build a stronger case to silence Tokyo once and for all.