Japan and South Korea: Burying the Past?

09 Sep, 2013    ·   4109

Rajaram Panda comments on attempts to mend fences in Northeast Asia  

Rajaram Panda
Rajaram Panda
Visiting Faculty, SLLCS, JNU

Certain comments made by the United National Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Seoul in the last week of August about the need to have a ‘correct view of the past history’ of Northeast Asia made headlines in Japan and evoked sharp disapproval, forcing Ban to express regret about his remarks. Expressing regret about the misunderstanding, Ban clarified that political differences and tension ‘should be resolved through dialogue’ and ‘strong will of leaders’. Ban emphasised that the three Northeast Asian countries need a ‘harmonious relationship’, especially in light of their close economic ties and the region’s potential for innovation.

Japan was not convinced. Though Ban is the UN Secretary General, he is also a South Korean and thus seen to be articulating the majority views of his country on Japan’s war of aggression in the 20th century. Ban’s observation may be innocuous and not intended to hurt the sentiments of Japanese and Chinese people, but given the sensitive nature of the issue, it could have been avoided. Understandably, while Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan Yoshihide Suga wants to inquire about what Ban intended to say through the United Nations, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Li said China ‘actively supports’ Ban’s remarks, noting that it is ‘the common voice of the international community’ to call on Japan to reflect on and face up to its past history of aggression. Hong said Japan needs to win the trust of the international community by respecting the feelings of the victims of its aggression.  

In this context, two related issues demonstrate the positive side of the past. One is the recent release of South Korean textbooks lauding Japan’s colonial rule that apparently helped modernise the Korean peninsula. The other is Yokohama’s board of education recalling school textbooks that described the ‘massacre’ of Koreans in 1923 during the Great Kanto Earthquake.

What do these two suggest in terms of building relationships among the three Northeast Asian nations? One can clearly see mutual respect and admiration for each others’ role in the past and thus the positives of it. Notwithstanding the atrocities committed by the Japanese amongst the Korean people during the 35 years of brutal colonial rule and the raging Comfort Women issue, it is a fact that Japanese contributed a great deal to the modernisation of infrastructure and industries in Korea, though these were aimed to meet its war needs.

Keeping irritants aside, a newly authorised South Korean history textbook includes some positive passages about Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean peninsula before and during World War II. The textbook describes how new cities that developed under colonial rule became transport and distribution hubs. It also states that during the Japanese occupation, industrialisation progressed, and a new type of educated women emerged. The descriptions are based on the theory that Japanese colonial rule helped promote South Korean modernisation. Such explanations have never appeared in textbooks in South Korea, where the colonial period is widely cast in a negative light.

The textbook from Kyohak Publishing Co. was written by a conservative group of scholars known as the New Right. It is one of eight textbooks recently authorised for high schools by the National Institute of Korean History, the textbook screening panel commissioned by the nation’s education ministry. This is the first time a text authored by New Right historians has passed the screening process since the current system was introduced in 2010. Until then, South Korean schools used texts compiled by the government. It remains unclear, however, how many high schools across the country will decide to use this textbook from March 2014.    

As if to reciprocate South Korea’s gesture, in an unprecedented move, Yokohama’s board of education ordered municipal junior high schools to recall the 2012 edition of the textbook that described the mass lynching of Koreans following the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. The recall was triggered because the use of the word ‘massacre’ could cause misunderstanding, which had been criticised by some historians.  

To recall the past, immediately after the 1 September 1923 earthquake in the Kanto region, unconfirmed reports spread that Koreans were rioting and committing acts of sabotage. Based on these rumours, the army, police and vigilantes killed many Koreans, as well as Chinese and Japanese mistaken for Koreans. It is believed that some 6,000 people were killed in Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture alone. Previous editions of the text titled Wakaru Yokohama (Understanding Yokohama) published since 2009 and edited by the board said that ‘some members of the vigilante cops killed Koreans’. However, the March 2012 edition states that ‘the military, the police and vigilante groups persecuted and massacred Koreans’. The revised entry made media headlines at home as well as in South Korea and China.  

While Japan and South Korea are trying to mend fences and bury the past, China is unrepentant and urging Japan to face up its aggressive past. A statement issued by the Foreign Ministry in late August said that the ‘victory of war of resistance against Japan’ was ‘a great triumph of injustice over evil, light over darkness and progressive forces over reactionary elements’.