Japan-Korea 1910-1945: Polarization in Japan

This past week the tepid reaction to the apology of the Japanese prime minister dominated the news.  Today, a more positive light shone through when the Korean minister of foreign affairs, Yu Myung-Hwan, emphasized that the apology certainly is ‘very meaningful’. The reality that Kan’s gesture made a difference became clear through the gathering of progressive and conservative demonstrators alike, who crowded the streets of Tokyo yesterday. Progressive partisans pleaded for a stronger gesture towards Korea and other Asian countries, but were pleased with the prime minister’s decision not to attend Yasukuni. The war memorial commemorates the people who died for Imperialist Japan, which upset many conservatives who place great value on the memorial. They also marched the streets on the day that Japan fell in 1945.

“Kan’s decision not to attend the memorial is unforgivable. People gave their lives for this country”, a 35-year-old man who partook in yesterday’s demonstration states in the English language newspaper, The Japan Times. Many progressive Japanese see things differently.  In their eyes, the Japanese people were sent to death for a wrong cause. For them, it is as important as for the Koreans to clean up their collective conscience, simply by saying Japanese practiced unjustified acts – also to its own people. Above all, many of the comfort women were Japanese. The progressive activists are happy that their prime minister is getting closer to a more effective apology. They told the The Japan Times they won’t cease the demonstrations and rallies before actual measures have been taken.

Also their opponents marched down the streets, waiving the flags of Japan and the Japanese Empire. They are proud as lions of their country, culture and history. They fear that if the Japanese government continues to make apologies, the country will project an image of weakness throughout the world. Above all, it goes against their mentality to give in on their mistakes. One of the demonstrators ignores all the cruel acts in Japanese history: “It’s nonsense for the government to follow South Korea’s aspect of the history. We did the good things for South Korea, by pouring so much money for that country toward its modernization”.  It is as true as that Hitler improved the German infrastructure, and as the Neo-Nazi’s make similar statements, also the Japanese demonstrators don’t want to acknowledge any evil ulterior motives. It is imperative to note that this speaker is on the extreme rightist side of the spectrum. He is a member of Zaitokuka; that by example is against the rights of Korean-Japanese people.

Last week the organization made headlines after arresting members who had harassed a Korean school using a loudspeaker to disrupt lessons at a pro-Pyongyang school in Kyoto last year. There are about 600,000 Koreans in Japan, mostly descending from Korean families who were forced to move to Japan in the colonial period, after 1945 all of whom obtained a permanent residence. After the Korean War, the Koreans were given a choice of whether to identify themselves as North or South Korean; others remained neutral by referring to themselves as a citizen of Joseon, the last Korean dynasty. Pro-North Korean schools and organizations were set up at the time. The most well-known member is Jong-Tae Se, the Korean-Japanese soccer player who gained world fame by crying during North Korea’s national anthem at the last World Cup, which he attended in support of his country. Also, he was raised in a pro-North Korean environment in Japan which is a thorn in the side of conservative Japanese, whose hatred toward North-Korea increased after it was revealed that Japanese people were kidnapped by North-Korea to be used to instruct the Japanese language to North Korean spies. To further complicate the case, a message arrived from Pyeongyang, stating that the communist North also demands an apology of Japan. A final apology including legal effects will give Korea rest and satisfaction; in Japan however, this break with their tradition could loosen a great deal of sentiment among their people.