Between national interests, honorKorea-Japan relations seemed to be improving, until an unexpected variable came up. It began with the interpretation of the phrase “forced to work” in the English documents submitted to earn Unesco World Cultural Heritage status for Japan’s Meiji-era industrial sites. The Korean government claims that Japan has acknowledged the forced labor for the first time, while the Japanese government claims that the phrase did not imply that.
What led to such a difference in interpretation? It’s not uncommon for phrasing in diplomatic agreements to be interpreted differently. However, Japan is a rare case in that there are significantly different interpretations. The Japanese language is characteristically structured to contain completely different meanings than what a phrase literally indicates. Therefore, when drafting and interpreting an agreement with Japan, special caution should be taken in negotiations.
Previous cases explain this linguistic peculiarity. “Don’t forget past events, they can guide you in the future,” Japan said, claiming that it means it would not forget the past and take it as a lesson for the future. So Japan insists that an apology has already been made.
However, Korea and China interpret it differently. It should go as follows: “If you don’t forget the past, it could be a lesson for the future.”
Korea and China don’t believe Japan has apologized properly. And Japan argues that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15 is intended for mourning and peace. But Korea and China take it as a pledge that it will avenge its defeat.
Needless to say, documents written in English have further gaps in meanings. On Nov. 19 and 20, 1969, U.S. President Richard Nixon and Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato met at the White House. In return for returning the Okinawa Islands, Nixon requested restrictions on the export of Japanese textile products to the United States. Sato said he would “do his very best to solve this.”
President Nixon counted on Sato’s best. But in Japanese, Sato’s promise was, “I’ll try, but I’m not sure how it will turn out.”
Naturally, Nixon got back to Japan. In addition to announcing his plan to visit China, without having first consulted Japan in 1971, he imposed a 10 percent tax on Japanese products. These precedents send an obvious message. The Korean government is putting an ineffective emphasis on the English documents. But it’s not easy to understand the Japanese connotation from English script.
The most serious issue today is Abe’s claim to “uphold the 1993 Kono Statement,” which acknowledged the forced mobilization of thousands of young women into Japanese military brothels “in its entirety.” In English, it sounds as though Japan would uphold the entire statement. So there’s nothing Korea should feel upset about. But in Japanese, it’s different from upholding every part of the statement. It leaves room for exceptions. Perhaps, it may have been the reason why President Park Geun-hye was so skeptical.
A summit in September is a possibility now, and it means certain progress has been made over the sexual slavery issue. In fact, during Abe’s visit to Washington in April, a reporter asked him about the “comfort women” issue, and Abe responded, “The Abe Cabinet upholds the Kono Statement and has no intention to revise it.”
This time, he didn’t use the phrase “in its entirety,” which he uses without sincerity. Renowned political scientist and George Washington University professor Kim Young-jin said that this remark should be considered as the prime minister’s intention to uphold the Kono Statement entirely. Some Korean experts share the view. And while the interpretation of “forced to work” is not entirely satisfactory, Korea has achieved the desired results, so it should seek improvement with Japan for national interests.
Just as they demand, the purpose of diplomacy is the pursuit of national interests. So they may feel skeptical that the comfort women issue is of such grave importance. However, diplomacy is not limited to the pursuit of national interests. National honor is just as important.
In January 1919, when the Germans were still discouraged after their defeat in World War I, Max Weber gave his famous lecture, “Politics as a Vocation.”
Here he said, “A nation forgives if its interests have been damaged, but no nation forgives if its honor has been offended, especially by a bigoted self-righteousness.”
It is the duty of politics and diplomacy to safeguard the honor and dignity of a nation and its people, even if it means swallowing a certain loss in national interests. We can learn from Weber’s point.
So now, on the 50th anniversary of bilateral ties with Japan, many will be watching President Park’s next move.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
JoongAng Ilbo, July 13, Page 35
*The author is a professor emeritus of political science at Seoul National University.
by Chang Dal-joong