Like many developed nations, Japan has a history full of great accomplishments and notable controversies. While the West often tends to cast a light on Japan’s numerous achievements, in Asia, the country’s political and ethical failures of yesteryear loom large. The mistakes of the past, however, have been acknowledged by the modern Japan, and numerous apologies have been offered up for the events that unfolded.
While many countries have accepted Japan’s amends and have been able to see the progress it’s made, many Asian countries, South Korea in particular, have not been so forgiving. What’s holding a country like South Korea back from accepting Japan’s numerous apologies?
Well, for starters, the issue of “comfort women” still lingers today. During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army set up “comfort houses” with the intention of cutting down on the number of military sexual assaults and venereal diseases, but these military brothels wound up making the situation even worse. As many as 200,000 young women were reportedly forced into sexual slavery at the hands of the Japanese military, and the majority of them came from other Asian nations – most specifically Korea.
Just this week, the Japanese government asked a U.S. publishing firm to change its description of “comfort women” in a textbook so that it represents the way the country itself views that issue. Currently, the textbook reads, “The Japanese army forcibly recruited, conscripted, and dragooned as many as two hundred thousand women age fourteen to twenty to serve in military brothels, called 'comfort houses.’” Japanese officials are reportedly to sit down with McGraw Hill, the textbook’s publisher, to discuss the changes.
Still, despite the unwillingness to see the “comfort women” issue the way the rest of the word sees it, modern Japanese leaders have attempted to apologize time and again for what happened during wartime, and while some have accepted the apologies as sincere, many Koreans are unable to look past it. Japanese people have taken notice of Korea’s unwillingness to accept the apologies, and in a poll conducted by Fuji Television last year, 61.8 percent of the 500 Japanese people surveyed felt they “could not trust” Korea due to past issues. 67.4 percent of those people also believed that Japan should not have to apologize any more for the “comfort women” issue of the WWII era.
A Time Magazine report from 2012 featured an interview with author Thomas U. Berger in which he discussed Japan’s numerous apologies and Asia’s lack of acceptance over the years.
“It’s true, Japan has not been as repentant as Germany or other countries that have faced up to the darker sides of their past,” Berger said frankly. “Japan has apologized for waging aggressive war and oppressing its neighbors, but those apologies have fumbling and awkward, and often been undercut by revisionist statements from senior politicians. Japan has offered relatively little compensation to the victims. And to this day there are no nationally sponsored museums or monuments that acknowledge Japanese aggression or atrocities.”
“But Japan has been far more repentant than is often credited,” continued the author. “Prime ministers have repeatedly offered apologies for their country’s misdeeds. Japan has sponsored joint historical research with both South Korea and China. Most Japanese school textbooks deal with issues like the Nanjing massacre and the colonial oppression of Koreans in a fairly open manner. Opinion polls suggests that most Japanese feel their country did things in Asia for which the country should apologize.”
Berger also went on to offer an explanation as to why Japan’s leaders haven’t been so forthright in accepting all the blame for issues with Asian nations like South Korea.
“Apologizing is a costly business for leaders of any country, and requires the investment of a great deal of political capital,” Berger noted. “Apologies tend to be given when there is a belief that those apologies will be accepted, at least in part, and that dialogue between the two sides will be advanced. So unless there are strong reasons to do so, most leaders avoid it.”
While it’s true that the apologies Japan has offered may not have been widely accepted by the rest of Asia, specifically South Korea, the content of the apologies isn’t wholly to blame. As a 2013 report from The Diplomat points out, a number of different factors come into play. One, they say, is that many compare the attempts at atonement by Japan to the atonement of Germany following the war, and it’s clear that Japan hasn’t exactly gone to quite as many lengths as their Axis partner has to better its reputation. Another reason, the article notes, is that domestic politics have made it difficult for leaders of Asian nations like South Korea to publicly accept Japan’s numerous apologies due to the stigma attached to being labeled “soft on Japan.”
Just this past summer, relations between South Korea and Japan once again heated up when, as The Wall Street Journal reported, South Korean President Park Geun-hye blasted Japanese leaders for reviewing a “landmark” apology to “comfort women” for what they went through. Park said that Tokyo’s decision to review the apology “sabotaged the spirit of the statement and strained the two countries’ ties.”
So after decades of bad blood between Japan and South Korea, it looks like it’s finally time for the hatchet to be buried. Japan has proved time and time again that it is willing to apologize for its past transgressions and move forward, and many other Asian nations have accepted that. South Korea’s decision to accept their apology would not show them to be soft as many seem to believe, but as big enough to value the promise of tomorrow more than the mistakes of yesterday.