The issue is Abe, not Japan

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The issue is Abe, not Japan


Bae Myung-bok
The author is a senior columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.

It is human nature to try to stay cool-headed when a crisis breaks out. When a worrisome situation becomes reality, we naturally change our attitudes from trying to avoid disaster to facing it and tackling it head on.

If the water has already been spilled, the damage needs to be minimized and the crisis should be used as an opportunity. Once it happens, the top priority is overcoming it. Holding someone accountable for the crisis can wait until after the situation has been resolved.

The Shinzo Abe administration made the first attack by removing Korea from Japan’s so-called white list of trusted trade partners, kicking off an economic war between the two countries. “This is a mountain that we must eventually climb. If we stand still at this moment, we will never be able to move beyond the mountain,” President Moon Jae-in said. “The government will lead the way, believing in the great power of the people.”

The government did not try to stop the crisis from worsening, and yet it is asking the people to show their “great power” to resolve the crisis. It may seem irresponsible, but now is not the time to criticize the government. Finding a wise resolution to counter the Abe administration’s attack is the top priority. The Moon administration can be held accountable in next year’s general election or the next presidential election.

It is clear why the Abe administration decided to restrict exports to Korea, ignoring the principles of free trade. It is to retaliate against the Korean Supreme Court’s ruling that Japanese firms must pay compensation to Korean victims of forced labor. But there is a bigger reason. Abe wants to put the breaks on Korea’s economic growth while isolating it in the trilateral cooperative system of Korea, Japan and the United States, built through normalization of Korea-Japan relations in 1965. Abe wants to use the national security vacuum — expected to be created by isolating Korea — as grounds for a constitutional amendment to make Japan a “normal country” capable of waging war.

Escaping from the humiliating post-war regime forced on it by the United States — and recreating the “beautiful empire of great Japan” before the defeat of the war — is a longtime wish of the ultra-rightists in Japan. Osamu Aoki, a Japanese journalist who published a book on the true nature of Japan Conference, an ultra-right lobby group established in 1997, says the group is at the center of the ambition. The Abe cabinet is filled with members of the Japan Conference.

The Abe administration said that 40,666 opinions were sent to the government on the plan to remove Korea from the white list and over 95 percent supported it, with just 1 percent opposed. When a public survey was previously conducted by the Abe government, only hundreds of opinions were sent in. This time, over 40,000 people sent their opinions. We can conclude that the Japan Conference, which operates local chapters across the country, was behind it.

The group also appears to have organized complaints and terror threats against the exhibition of a so-called comfort woman statue in Japan, causing its abrupt suspension. It tells us something about Japan’s current level of democracy.

Moon said Korea will never be defeated by Japan and that Korea has enough power to beat Japan. But you cannot fight against Japan with words. When you have true determination, you don’t have to say anything. You must be tightlipped, while showing your determination through actions. The key to this campaign against Japan is individual Koreans doing their best in their position in a liberal democracy. The government, the people and the press must do their job in their own way. While respecting the dignity and basic rights of individuals, we must respect each other and do our best to do our jobs.

Korea is currently facing an unprecedented crisis. Amid the economic war with Japan, North Korea is firing missiles one day after another, while China and Russia are trying to find an opportunity to intervene in Korean Peninsula affairs, using the rift between Korea and Japan.

The United States, our ally, is demanding a large increase in our defense cost-sharing and deployment of our troops to the Strait of Hormuz. If Uncle Sam demands that mid-range missiles targeting China be deployed in Korea, the aftermath will be far more enormous than what happened when Korea accepted the deployment of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system.

In a crisis, internal division is the worst thing that can happen. When we fight against each other, our fortress will collapse on its own. The worst choice we can make is to divide our society between friends and foes. It is suicide for the government to fuel anti-Japanese sentiments by using its affiliated associations and the pro-government media. Only when the people respect their opponents’ voices based on mature citizenship can a true campaign against Japan begin. The choices of the people who boycott Japanese products and trips to Japan should be respected as much as the choices of the people who buy Japanese products and visit Japan. Whether a top politician drinks a bottle of sake at a Japanese restaurant or not is meaningless.

The subject of our campaign is the Abe administration, not the Japanese people. We must open our hearts to the Japanese people and embrace them. What we need is not distorted, narrow-minded patriotism stemming from exclusive nationalism. What we need is mature citizenship of a liberal democracy. We must outrun Japan with the power of liberal democracy.
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