Korea-Japan 1910-1945: Japan’s difficult way of admitting historical wrongdoings

With memorizing the centenary of Japan’s annexation of Korea, much has happened around reviewing the history between the two countries these past months. A new apology by Prime Minister Kan, the return of cultural heritage, release of original state documents which provided scholars with new evidence for proving the illegality of the treaty from 1910; Japan is on the move. Despite these gestures, for Koreans nothing seems to have changed at all. For them there is only one way to go: an official acknowledgment by Japan of the illegality of colonization of Korea. The recently expanded nullification movement delivers hard evidence of Japan’s wrongdoing. But can legal proof beat Japan’s nationalist sentiment?

Many Western countries remain in a struggle with their colonial pasts that left behind enormous cesspools proving nearly impossible to be cleansed. Between the previous lack of existing law and documentation and the simple fact that their colonial history is part of the foundation of their economies, it becomes nearly impossible to set things straight between the west and the natives who claim to be suppressed. That, in this case is different. It is very important to understand that Korea is an odd man out in the list of the world’s colonized countries. With Korea having been colonized in 1910, Japan was very late compared to its western role models who began colonizing a few hundred years earlier. By the turn to the 20th century, colonizing seemed an outdated concept. The cake was divided and by development of international agreements, creating alliances and the increase of human rights, seizing countries was no longer unusual.

It was a tough break for Japan to get away with annexing the Korean peninsula. Not only had the country created allies in the west – by which Japan participated in common international law – but Korea was an accepted sovereign state which also had those western allies. In order to legitimate their mission to annex Korea, Japan had to make Korea appear weak and willing to receive Japan’s help. As history proves, they succeeded in doing so. Since Korea claims to have been neither weak nor willing to cooperate, it has been the foundation for the dispute that has lasted for over one hundred years now. Japan has consistently defended the point of view that Korea actually was weak and they’re will was confirmed by their signing of the treaties which are still being defended by the Japanese government.

Null and void
Both of these aspects, of which the prior has been most discussed lately, have been refuted by research of historian Tae Jin Yi. As being in charge of organizing the old state documents at Seoul National University in the early nineties, he found out about the wrongs and thereby is one of the main figures of the nullification movement. In his book ‘Confucianism and Modernization in Korean History’ (2007), he describes that Korea had its independent way of modernization and thus refuses to state that Korea needed the type of ‘help’ that Japan had forced upon the country. Forced indeed; lately, (Korean) newspapers have been full of showing evidence that the treaties were illegal. Also, this is result of Yi’s research which includes proof of forged signatures, missing titles and lack of ratification. More research ensued and many scholars from Korea, Japan, and other countries joined the movement – in May the group made a joint statement which was supported by many hundreds of scholars. One of which is Etsuro Totsuka, a Japanese professor in international law and former lawyer who weighed the legitimacy of the treaties to the international common law that applied at that time. He found out that ratification was not only a necessary procedure in western countries (which Japan misguided by false documents) also in Japan it was written that ratification was necessary to make a treaty legal.

Convincing apologetics
Clear case, you would say. In reality all of this evidence today is still not enough to convince the Japanese to take the crucial step in acknowledging history. The historians and lawyers are facing something much bigger that dominates fact finding: nationalist pride that avoids acknowledgment of any wrongdoings. Japan has been very successful in palliating their history, making people believe Japan has done good deeds in their colonial history. All information proving the opposite was banned, and criticizers gagged. One of whom is early day researcher Etsuro Totsuka, who was astonished to find out about the truth in 1992. “I was surprised to read the UN report from 1963 that already presents research on the treaties and concluded the annexation was against the rules. Nobody in Japan knew about this, nothing of this was published in Japan. So I made a report and wanted to publish it. People informed me this would be a very dangerous thing to do; I could even be killed. Once I realized the magnitude of the situation, I postponed publication.” Being a scholar, it was highly surprising for Totsuka to learn about this unknown side of Japanese history. “Also I was one of those Japanese who believed what the government said: Koreans were incapable of taking care of themselves, so the Japanese helped them develop. Regarding the independent fighters, we learned those aggressive Koreans were ignorant; they were terrorists.”

Also, Korean professor Tae Jin Yi found out about the Great Japanese Cover Up. Giving lectures in Japanese universities and societies, he experienced the Japanese ignorance of the truth and fear to speak out. Yi: “In 1994 I hunted down the person who forged the signatures back in 1910, and presented my findings in Tokyo. They were astonished. A group of journalists approached me after so I checked the newspapers the next day. There was not a single word written on it. ‘So this is Japan’, I sighed. Even one year ago. I gave a lecture in Kyoto and Japanese professors commented that they were ashamed of that history, though after this confession they still don’t plead against the annexation in their daily work.” With the current developments, this attitude is slowly changing; Japan is facing an untreated wound that has gone from bad to worse. The biggest fundamental challenge in the healing process is eliminating denial that still reigns in Japan. Ever, if you want to treat an injury, you must first acknowledge there is one.

Samurai heritage
In their attempt to organize today’s difficult situation – a complex web which is full of political, economical, diplomatic and social traps – Japan seems to ignore the fundamental cause of their position. According to Etsuro Totsuka the Japanese attitude roots deep into history. “In the Meiji era (1868-1912) Japan became very militaristic and aggressive; the idea was to conquer the whole of Asia. More than half of the state’s budget was used for militaristic purpose. Treasures from China and Korea were stolen to feed Japan’s wealth and allow them to pay for the military. That idea is simply criminal; Japan became a gangster. A bandit. But that idea Japan copied from the west; Japan thought it was a good thing. Western states were gangsters, so we needed to become an even stronger gang and started breaking laws to secure nearby territories. Some people said this grand national plan was the only way to survive as a country, but there also were people saying Japan could take care of themselves without invading other countries. I also think Japan should have avoided any military invasion and choose to survive as a relatively small welfare state instead. The leaders of that time made a wrong judgment by thinking we should act the same as countries like Germany and England” Tae Jin Yi adds: “Their tradition of military rule is 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.”

Though Japan has left their military tradition behind, according to professor Yi it still is very present in the mentality of the Japanese. It is exactly this warrior mindset that is the root of their ignoring and denying wrongdoings. Yi: “The Samurai mentality is deeply etched into Japanese culture: a defeat is equal to dying, which is also the reason Japanese are so mannered: all confrontation must be avoided. In an argument there is no concession: it is victory or defeat. Acknowledging the mistake would mean defeat, mentally this is difficult to process. The way the German Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt down in front of the Polish memorial in the seventies is unthinkable in Japan. This has everything to do with this mentality.”

In order to make way for acknowledgment, breaking this tradition seems to be crucial. For Yi, his own Korean culture might be a good weapon to influence the Japanese culture. “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.”

Western acknowledgment
On a political level, Totstuka thinks it is important for western countries to acknowledge that they tolerated Japan’s illegal actions. No western powers checked both parties for a validation of the treaties which turned Korea into a protectorate and colony – even the Japanese job on colonizing was dirty, the results were of personal interest. By that they ignored rules which they themselves had created. A good example is The Netherlands, the country that hosted the Second Peace Convention in 1907 in The Hague. Three Korean envoys were refused access based on the 1905 treaty stating that Japan is handling Korea’s diplomatic relationships from then on. The three diplomats came to convince the west that this treaty was not a treaty, but an independent action of Japan which was never approved by the Korean government. Even though they carried a letter signed by the king the Dutch minister refused to meet them. Totsuka found the documents on the communication within the Dutch ministry which confirmed the unlawful tolerance policy towards Japan. The note said the treaty ‘seems’ to be signed by the Korean king – information that only could have been provided by the Japanese without checking ratification on both sides. “With having their own colonies, I understand the difficult diplomatic position of many western countries of the time which made them not to want to change status quo, but it was wrong. If we accept the status quo, we lose international law. That is why I want to ask the Dutch government to acknowledge their misjudgment.”

According to Totsuka it could trigger other countries to do the same: acknowledge they knew the treaty could have been null and void, but failed to speak out against Japan’s actions. The price of unlawful, bloody suppression of Korea was worth paying in order to secure their own interests. Similar to the three envoys who failed in The Hague, Homer Hulbert experienced the same political attitude in the United States. As an American correspondent and diplomat for the Korean government, he tried to convince the United States government that the 1905 treaty was null and void. As the Dutch wanted to keep Japan away from their Indonesia, the US wanted to secure their Philippines so also in the US doors kept closed and Hulbert’s advocacy was waived, even he had first hand information. It became his life mission to convince the rest of the world that Korea was colonized based on illegal treaties. Without any political success. Now his successors have legal proof in their hands, it is time to set the records straight. Totsuka: “I don’t think if Japan acknowledges its past, it will go to hell, as many people say. It will improve international relationships and harmony in East Asia. By acknowledging their wrong tolerance policies, Western countries can trigger this process.” Yi adds this however won’t be a fast process: “Socially and politically it will cost time to solve these problems. The sentiment lies deep, so we might have to wait until the younger generations are in charge of Japan.”