Japan’s lack of atonement
After too many rounds of diplomatic talks over the last three years between the governments of Korea and Japan, the sex slave issue has been resolved “finally and irreversibly.” It has taken 24 years since Korea, in 1991, demanded a genuine apology from Tokyo for the forcing of Korean women into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during World War II. It is, without a doubt, a diplomatic feat for President Park Geun-hye, who intentionally cold-shouldered her Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe and dogged his government to sincerely address the issue. Tokyo may also be congratulating itself for removing a major stumbling block in its campaign to restore its international prestige.
Nagging by the United States, which needs its two top Asian allies to mend ties and form a joint front against the rise of China, also must have played a part. The resolution to the impasse that has hindered Washington’s strategic “pivot” to Asia must have been pleasing news in the U.S. capital. It would have been much-awaited news to the strategists edgy with their demanding fight against Islamic State terrorist groups. Mike Honda, a U.S. congressmen of Japanese descent who sponsored a U.S. House of Representatives resolution on the “comfort women” issue, called the agreement - with its apology from Prime Minister Abe and an $8.3 million state fund for the surviving victims, who are mostly in their 80s and 90s - a “historic milestone” and “a step in the right direction,” although he admitted the agreement was “far from perfect.” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the agreement would be highly regarded by history.
The praise and palpable sense of relief is understandable given the intransigently unapologetic and vexingly nationalistic ways of the Abe government. Korean people had been angered many times before they finally heard an offer of “sincere apologies” from Abe, who portrays himself as a patron of the heritage of the glorious Japanese Empire during the Meiji era. Seoul has kept its distance from Tokyo even at the risk of losing investment, economic cooperation, cultural exchanges and tourists from Asia’s second-largest economy to make Japanese leaders admit to the country’s systematic use of force behind wartime sexual slavery.
Writing a check for $8.3 million is not that big a concession for a country like Japan. The fact that the Japanese government is paying the money to create a fund to compensate surviving victims as a token of remorse is meaningful. We can hardly expect Japan to build Holocaust memorials as Germans did to atone for its atrocities against the Jews, but we need not discredit Tokyo’s vow to set up a government fund as a symbol of its war crime. It’s pertinent to point out that Japan’s Nagasaki Peace Park, which mourns the atomic bombing of the city at the end the Pacific War, does not mention the reason for the bombardment.
There is a beginning to everything. Many Japanese feel nostalgia for the “glorious” militaristic days. Imperial Japan started the war to manifest itself as an equal to imperialistic Western powers and demonstrate the deity-like dignity of the emperor. The “divine” campaign justified all the grotesquely brutal atrocities during the war and Japan’s colonial expansion. The imperial cult was a fictional invention by militarists to demoralize and numb the moral conscience of the people by entrusting the cause and responsibility behind their war brutalities and actions to an absolute monarch.
A sense of guilt was washed away under the divine name and grace of the emperor. The atomic bombs suddenly made the Japanese feel like victims of the war, not the perpetrator. That is why they showed so little empathy for the comfort women - an issue they have chosen to tuck away with all the reminders of their inhumane actions. Germans voluntarily and repeatedly apologized and continued to atone for their Nazi legacy, but the Allies failed to severely punish Japan for its war atrocities and crimes against humanity.
The fact that Japan demanded to make the issue “final and irreversible” to close the book on the issue through the latest agreement underscores how insensitive and remorseless Japan remains toward its past aggressions. Japan has never truly believed the colonization of Korea was wrong. Japan’s wartime compensation through a 1965 treaty was Japan’s donation of seed money for Korea to rebuild itself after the war. Its latest offer for payment was meant to compensate for the “physical and psychological wounds” the women suffered. Tokyo made it clear this would be its last check, and Seoul agreed. President Park must not have felt totally comfortable with the deal, saying it was an inevitable choice considering the “urgency in time and conditions in our reality.” It must have been the best Seoul could squeeze from a state entirely engrossed in self-indulgence and self-denial.
What Abe told his own people after the announcement revealed his real intention. He told reporters that the agreement was made to prevent future Japanese generations from having to keep apologizing. Does he seriously think Japan is done with the past? Does one agreement erase an entire history? It is a pitiful comment from the leader of a country that provoked a global war. The significance of the comfort women is not purely bilateral, a disagreement between two nations, but universal human rights.
Future Japanese generations must come to terms with the fact that their ancestors committed the worst kind of wrong against humanity by organizing the sexual enslavement of women during wartime, which encompassed child abuse, sex trafficking and war rape. Park Ki-tae, head of the Voluntary Agency Network of Korea, hit the nail on the head when he said the comfort women are a universal humanitarian issue, not a bilateral political and diplomatic issue between Korea and Japan. It is a symbol of wartime criminal acts the world must persistently fight against. I cannot agree more with Park’s proposal to ingrain the memory of these women in the hearts of seven billion people around the globe.
Tokyo has been demanding the removal of the symbolic statue of comfort women across from the Embassy of Japan in Seoul. If Tokyo was really genuine, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida should have crossed that road and bowed before the statue. The agreement between the countries means the issue will be off future agendas. But it does not mean the world will lose interest in the issue. The statue has always been beyond the reach of a country immune to any sense of atonement.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 5, Page 31
The author is a sociology professor at Seoul National University.
by Song Ho-keun