Korea-Japan 1910-1945: ‘Sorry for colonizing’

You could feel the Korean people sighing collectively last Tuesday; another Japanese prime minister makes a useless apology for the colonization. Although the apology of Naoto Kan was the first to acknowledge that Japan had set pressure on the Koreans, most don’t value his gesture. The Japanese government should officially acknowledge that their annexation of Korea was unjustified so the Koreans have some peace of mind and can cash their compensation. Which will win: Korean insistence or Japanese tenacity?

“I express a renewed feeling of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology for the tremendous damage and suffering caused by colonial rule. We want to offer our sincere condolences to those who suffered”, said the Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, last Tuesday. Yet the Korean people were unmoved by the words they have heard so many times before, and their apathy was mirrored last Sunday by the Korean president, Lee Myung Bak, who didn’t pay much attention to the subject. Although the occasion marked the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Japanese colonial era, the president soon changed focus to elaborate on the peace process between South and North Korea. Even before his installation as president, Lee said he doesn’t want more apologies from the Japanese government, though he added that he did want to see the Japanese Emperor going down on his knees, literally. Regarding the new apology, Lee said: “It is a step forward, but to maintain a good relationship for the next hundred years Japan should take concrete measures”, referring to legal steps toward compensating individuals, as every Korean wants. The sentiment is still present in Korea. A day after the apology, a group of Koreans protested in front of the Japanese embassy. Among them was a group of former comfort women who are still angry about the bad conscience of the Japanese. On Liberation Day last Sunday, a decent amount of policemen were present in preparation for eventual protests, yet nothing happened. Until now, as the memorials on the 22nd (signing of the treaty in 1910) and the 29th (signing of the edict) are still upcoming.

Japan quite realizes what is being expected from them. “But surrender is difficult”, says Tae Jin Yi, historian at the Seoul National University, who is working on proving the illegality of the treaty that turned Korea into a Japanese colony. He also encounters the difficulties Japanese have with acknowledging this problem (see last article). He has ideas on what Korea could do to influence the rigid Japanese. “At the moment there is a Korean Wave going on in Asia. An example of what we could do is send over more celebrities to Japan to show them Korean mentality. In their Samurai-based culture it is all about being macho and tough. The Korean tradition is more about giving up your life for your loved ones. Japan should embrace more universal values to be able to give up and give in so they can live in better harmony with the rest of the world.” In the Japanese culture there is only victory or defeat. Acknowledging mistakes means heavy defeat, which in ancient times was solved by the well known suicide tradition by sword. It sounds like a movie scene, but this mentality still exists in Japanese minds. Yi: “When a Japanese professor just arrived in Korea he noticed a group of Koreans being a bit drunk arguing with one other, and the next day saw them talking and sitting at the same table. He told me he couldn’t understand this; in Japan even an argument like that would mean they’d never talk again. A conflict means end of relationship”.

According to Yi there is a reason the Japanese are as they are. “Before the modern era a lot of kingdoms came to power by military force, but once they were installed they developed a civilian system ruled by intellect. For example the Chinese and Korean dynasties. Yet in Japan, that was different. Although the country unified in the 16th century and they maintained their military rule; they even fortified it. The warriors were upgraded in the 19th century by western technology which they spread all over the rest of Asia. This tradition is also the reason that the Japanese didn’t take much precedence on all the formalities when they had their plans to annex Korea and tried to avoid those as much as possible.”

Apologizing for a century’s long tradition, you could say that’s quite a defeat. Moreover, it is going to cost Japan quite some money. Yi: “Except for the warrior’s mentality, the Japanese are calculating people, and this definitely is also a reason they balk a definite apology. Although the costs will be moderate: in the treaty of basic relations between Korea and Japan from 1965, the Korean government was compensated so only individual claims will have to be paid. Japan still never compensated most of the people who were forced into duties for the Japanese, including the comfort women.” The outcome of Yi’s research at least put pressure on the Japanese, and not without any success. On August 29th Japan will return some Korean royal documents and cultural relics, which were taken to Japan during the colonial period. Yet would the Koreans be satisfied and forgive the Japanese on the day the targeted apologies and compensation would actually been set? Yi: “Yes. A Korean saying goes: ‘One word can compensate a million of debt’. What we Koreans want is not all those meaningless excuses, but one meaningful apology.”