Japanese views of Korean history

For many Japanese, Korean history—including the history of South Korean ties to the outside world—is viewed through the lens of the country’s modern relations with Japan. Whether looking at the ups and downs of diplomacy, the competition for the favor of US administrations, or the prospect of cooperation on regionalism, Japanese often seem preoccupied with how they interpret South Korean ties to their own country through an historical prism. Unfortunately, this view regularly defaults to a position of “we did good things for ‘them’ too.” This is the case even after announcement at the end of 2015 of an agreement concerning the issue of “comfort women,” wartime Japan’s militarized sexual slavery, which aimed to put this issue behind Tokyo and Seoul for improved political ties.

The long history of Japanese-Korean relations involves migration, incubation, and even the transfer of Korean ancestry to Japan’s imperial household. Nonetheless, many Japanese prefer to hold onto the myth on its origins that downplays or ignores their Korean roots. For more than 1,000 years of both countries living in the shadow of culture brought from China, Korea was, at times, the vital place of progress and trade, and, at other times, the object of Japanese invasion. Broadly speaking, Japanese have little recognition for the immense contributions that Korea has made to their nation’s rapid development (to the remarkable premodern level achieved in the Edo period) or remorse for the rapacious Hideyoshi invasions of Korea that left deep scars in Korean memory of Japan.

The period following normalization of relations between Japan and South Korea through to the present has offered many possibilities for Japanese to view South Korea and the history of Japan-ROK relations in a positive light. Geopolitically, Seoul and its alliance with Washington have been vital to security in an often-hostile environment for Tokyo. Among many examples, South Korea dispatched troops to Vietnam to fight alongside American soldiers at a time when comparable action would have been politically unthinkable in Japan. Economically, especially in the 1960s-90s, South Korea’s economic rise came with great benefits to Japan, as Japanese industry ranked as its number one trade partner, running a large surplus through inputs into Korean manufacturing. Culturally, despite barriers to direct exchanges, the two nations together defended the US-led order; democratization in the 1980s boosted the nations’ shared appeal to universal values. Yet, Japanese publications on history of South Korea narrowed the focus on bilateral interactions to a degree that left little room to relish mutual accomplishment. Even before the end of the Cold War—the moment at which history acquired renewed importance—negativity eclipsed appreciation.          

The catch phrase “history problems” has permeated common understanding among Japanese and Koreans for some twenty-five years as shorthand for a number of major events that occurred under Japanese rule and during World War II. For many, they define the broad contours of the past. The same issues remain: wartime Japan’s system of militarized sexual slavery known by its cruel euphemism, the “comfort women”; sovereignty over a tiny island in the sea between the countries, called Dokdo in Korean, Takeshima in Japanese; Tokyo’s notorious shrine to Japanese war dead, Yasukuni; and, finally, how these issues are represented in respective countries’ school textbooks. These issues are argued as intensely now as they were when debates over their interpretation broke out in popular media discussions in the early 1990s. Then, as now, the expression “history problems” itself continues to obfuscate the actual histories involved and to deflect attention from angles with which history could be perceived in a more positive manner.

At the time of this writing in early August 2016, it seems in many ways that we are back at the starting point of publicly mediated conversations over Japan and Korea’s shared past. The history that comprises the substance of these discussions continues to disappear from a variety of analytical possibilities as politicians and interest groups on all sides toss around provocative words—such as “comfort women”—to shore up constituents while mutually obstructing avenues for any collective learning from the past. Japanese perceive Korean history through an extraordinarily narrow lens due to socially sustained historical blinders.

Abe Shinzo versus Kan Naoto

Leadership is paramount on the battleground of the so-called “history wars,” and there is little doubt that the past five years have witnessed a profoundly backwards-facing trend in Japanese and Korean public perceptions of their shared history in ways that are deeply destructive to regional stability. Some in Japan (and also Washington) openly hold South Korea alone at fault, calling their frustration with the unfortunate term “Korea fatigue.” Yet, a quick comparison of Prime Minister Kan Naoto’s August 2010 speech commemorating the 100th anniversary of Japan’s takeover of Korea with incumbent Abe Shinzo’s August 2015 remarks on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II usefully reveals stark differences in approach. The competing official visions of Japan’s historical relations with Korea make clear that singularly blaming Seoul for the downswing in relations misses the point. Yet, Kan’s remarks remain an exception against a wider milieu of narrow-minded coverage of Korean history.

In 2010, Kan urged Japanese people to understand the origins of the “history problems,” Korean perceptions thereof, and Japan’s responsibility in the mix; to contrast, in 2015, Abe reversed the conversation back to a long-standing apologism: Japan had no choice but to imperialize others. Moreover, Abe validated his explanation with the example of Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905, the very historical event that brought about Japan’s colonial control of Korea in territorial terms. Kan and Abe’s statements bear sustained scrutiny, thus quoting from them at length helps contextualize the current framework for Japanese people’s popular views of their nation’s historical relations with Korea:

Kan: “As demonstrated by strong resistance such as the Samil independence movement (1919), the Korean people of that time was deprived of their country and culture, and their ethnic pride was deeply scarred by the colonial rule which was imposed against their will under the political and military circumstances. I would like to face history with sincerity. I would like to have courage to squarely confront the facts of history and humility to accept them, as well as to be honest to reflect upon the errors of our own.”

  • August 10, 20101

Abe: “We must learn from the lessons of history the wisdom for our future. More than one hundred years ago, vast colonies possessed mainly by the Western powers stretched out across the world. With their overwhelming supremacy in technology, waves of colonial rule surged toward Asia in the 19th century. There is no doubt that the resultant sense of crisis drove Japan forward to achieve modernization… The country preserved its independence throughout. The Japan-Russia War (1904-1905) gave encouragement to many people under colonial rule from Asia to Africa.”

                                                                                         —  August 14, 20152

Lest some argue that such an official change in perception be treated separately from its effect on more popular understandings of affairs, consider the widespread ramifications of the Abe administration’s conscious and unproductive decision to “revisit” the 1993 Kono Declaration, which marked Japan’s first diplomatic stab at apologizing for the history of wartime sexual slavery.3 Abe was certainly not the first in post-1945 Japanese history to fuel popular beliefs that Koreans collectively lie about their mutual history with Japan under Japanese rule. Abe’s public statements, however, measure a strategic decision to derail sustained efforts at reconciliation between the countries. In turn, Japanese popular perceptions generated by this recent top-down decision continue to render difficult much needed coordinated security engagement in the region—to say nothing of further desecrating the dignity of the increasingly few surviving elderly victims of this horrible history.

In Japanese society’s obsession with contradicting what Koreans describe as the accurate history of the twentieth century, there is a pattern of treating Korean views as a threat to Japanese national identity. In recent years, moreover, such views have bled into perceived threats to Japanese national security. As such, Japanese officials do not simply ignore Korean views, but rather, refute and demonize them as a direct challenge to a “normal Japan.” This triggers a flood of criticism that Koreans are psychologically unbalanced, and somehow pathologically untrustworthy, pointing to writings on other periods in Korean history that intimate signs of such imbalance. In the forefront are Korean reactions to Japan’s period of colonized rule.

Erasing the History of Empire

The legacy of imperialism stains the national narrative of many countries, which serves as a test today of whether or not their people have embraced universal values or hold fast to a contradictory national identity created by past “glory.” There are many reasons why Japan should be apologetic for its forced annexation of Korea in 1910 and oppressive control. To counter such acknowledgments by insisting on arguments that premise how Japan built the foundation for modernized Korea is not only insensitive but counterproductive for relations between the two nations as well as the liberal democratic values of the coming generations of Japanese.

Countering Korean narratives has preoccupied Japan’s post-1945 leaders and media, to the point that the sole themes of interest are discrediting Korean thinking as “emotional,” to the degree that “hate Korea” became the banner of a vocal minority. In the period of Park Geun-hye and Abe Shinzo, the “comfort women” issue has taken center stage in Japanese popular views about their nation’s history with Korea. Yet it is also important to consider the pronounced shift in Japan’s official approach to the territorial disputes with Korea. This issue has less space in Japanese print and web media compared with the “noise” surrounding the “comfort women” debate, but the question of sovereign control over the island between Japan and Korea undergirds the most deeply antipathetic views among Japanese and Koreans of their historical relations.

As recently as ten years ago, Japanese officials openly bemoaned the lack of awareness about this topic among Japanese and envied their Korean counterparts’ advantage in the “history wars” on this issue: for Koreans, possession of the contested island appears axiomatic to their national identity. In this regard, a 2011 Asan Institute-sponsored public opinion poll remains important, given the recent preoccupation with the “comfort women” issue.  By age group and political ideology, Koreans overwhelmingly named “Dodko” as the “biggest obstacle to the development of Korean-Japanese relations” with “textbooks” trailing by a wide margin in second place, and “comfort women” a very distant third (Dokdo at 63.9% and the “comfort women” at 7.9%).4

The issue of Japanese wartime militarized sexual slavery has captivated popular attention, perhaps because of the few, frail living survivors who continue to speak out. Nonetheless, for Koreans, the issue of territorial sovereignty over Dokdo is fundamental. More than other features of the “history problems,” this element is intrinsically tied to Japan’s occupation of Korean territory between 1905 and 1945. Dokdo itself stands for many as the first piece of land taken away over a hundred years ago. Billboards explain to Koreans who visit the island that they have an ongoing obligation to defend it—“The Loss of Dokdo is the Loss of Korea”—while a well-translated and lavishly illustrated narrative on the Incheon-Seoul airport train informs English speakers that, “Dokdo is the very symbol of the restoration of Korea’s sovereignty.”

In the mix, recent policy shifts in Tokyo demonstrate a firm conviction to ratchet up public interest over the issue of Japan’s control over all of Japan’s collective territorial disputes—including with Korea.5 For years, Japanese geography textbooks for middle and high school students have featured maps that include territory designated as “Takeshima,” yet only recently has the government begun emphatically to advertise its claims in both Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense publications, aimed at audiences well beyond domestic consumers of schoolbooks. This push would seem to require the international community to accede to Japan’s claims, which is most problematic in the case of the dispute with South Korea, since the US position, however supportive of Japan in dealing with Russia and China, does not welcome Tokyo’s opposition to Seoul’s claims.6

Notwithstanding, on August 2, 2016, Japan released the nation’s annual defense white paper naming “Takeshima” as Japanese territory for the twelfth year, yet—and strikingly—for the second year in a row including a map naming a Japanese air defense identification zone over the island occupied by Korea.7 This keeps the history issue alive with South Korea at a time when the December 28, 2015 agreement has led to reduced emphasis on the “comfort women” issue, except in charges against South Koreans for their continued obsession. Seoul’s Foreign Ministry was quick to condemn Japan’s “futile claims,” and the Ministry of Defense summoned a defense attaché from the Japanese embassy. A day later, however, Abe named Inada Tomomi, his former policy chief, the new minister of defense; she is best known for her failed attempt in 2011 to visit Ulleungdo and proclaim therefrom Japan’s control over nearby Dokdo.8 Aiden Foster-Carter observes: “Choosing Inada risks tearing the fragile skeins of rapprochement wide open again.”9

The Abe government continues to argue that the land has always been part of Japan and not related to its history of imperialism and war. It, moreover, ties its historical views to its envisioned constitution, making the contested territory “Japanese national territory” that citizens would be “obliged to defend.”10 These arguments have not sprung ex nihilo, and were first made widely public in April 2014 when Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a new map of the nation on its website, translating its rationale into 12 languages. The map extends beyond Japan’s internationally recognized boundaries, incorporating in the name of ryodo—or the “inherent territory” of Japan—to include the disputed islands. These territories, the argument premises, are integral to Japan’s very being.

Ryodo promotes a notion of Japanese territory that circumvents history, particularly the history of how Japan laid claim to these islands in the first place. According to this view, Dokdo’s usurpation into Japanese space remains entirely unrelated to the imperialist history of Japan in Korea. This is just one example of how Japanese treat South Korean claims without attention to the historical context and perpetuate their claims for the younger generation. By May 2016, Tokyo’s policy is upheld in 78% of high school textbooks compared to 54% of prior publications, teaching future voters that the history of the Japanese empire has nothing to do with the island contested between Japan and Korea:

Takeshima is indisputably an inherent part of the territory of Japan, in light of historical facts and based on international law. The Republic of Korea has been occupying Takeshima with no basis in international law. Any measures the Republic of Korea takes regarding Takeshima based on such an illegal occupation have no legal justification. Japan will continue to seek the settlement of the dispute over territorial sovereignty over Takeshima on the basis of international law in a calm and peaceful manner.

Note: The Republic of Korea has never demonstrated any clear basis for its claims that it had taken effective control over Takeshima prior to Japan’s effective control over Takeshima and reaffirmation of its territorial sovereignty in 1905.11

Even more noticeable than Tokyo’s avoidance of historical facts, its position is so extreme that it actually necessitates denying the very Japanese history that made the territory Japanese in the first place during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.

Designating the Category of “Korean” as Untrustworthy

The high-handed nature of Japan’s diplomatic position on the territorial problem with Korea is striking for its insinuation—in published policy—that Koreans cannot be trusted to “demonstrate (their) claims.” This perception resonates with the Abe administration’s 2014 “review” of the Kono Statement. In the months leading up to the June 2014 completion of Tadaki Keiichi and Hata Ikuhiko’s report, strategic leaks encouraged many Japanese to believe that no evidence exists to support Korean victims’ claims of “coercion.” Thus, the public representation of the report would seek to make Japanese understand in sweeping strokes that Koreans—especially the government—had forced Japanese crafting the 1993 Kono Statement to include the term “coercion” against their presumably more rational judgment.12 Even those within Abe’s own LDP involved with the Kono Statement were discredited. Koreans again were painted as untrustworthy, unable to “demonstrate (their) claims.”

Compared to the moment during the first Abe administration in 2007 when the same issue shaped public perception of Japan’s historical relations with Korea, the second and third Abe administrations have taken far stronger actions to frame the narrative that the existence of the Japanese empire bears little to no connection to this history. Although the Japanese government would, henceforth, “feel sorry” for the women (as Abe has now said several times in the past year or so), it would not admit that the Japanese government bears responsibility for “coercing” tens if not hundreds of thousands of its colonial subjects into conditions that amount to sexual servitude—what the United Nations designates as a crime against humanity.

The December 28, 2015 accord between Tokyo and Seoul, which announced a new deal concerning the “comfort women,”13 raises the possibility that Japanese could view Korean history in a new light. The deal would appear to commit both countries to acknowledge the truth of the victims’ claims and move forward through establishment of a fund to alleviate the pain of the few surviving Korean women. Both countries argue that with this agreement, “the issue is resolved finally and irreversibly”—this gave hope to some that history would be reconceived.

By declaring that the “military authorities of the day” took part, the new deal would defy those who continue to whitewash Japanese state’s involvement. Also, it includes an official apology from the Japanese government as well as the mutual establishment of a one billion yen fund to help surviving victims. Tokyo wants the monies defined solely for medical treatment and other needs, while victims make clear to Seoul that they would prefer their portion in cash. Significant related concerns have arisen, moreover, about whether such funding constitutes Japan’s official responsibility for this history, and whether the actual money promised to victims is predicated on removal of a small bronze statue known as the “Comfort Women Peace Statue.” Japan’s new minister of defense Inada is clear: “Both sides need to honor the agreement, and removing the statue is a major part of that.”14

The Japan-based policy institute, Genron NPO, and the South Korean think tank, East Asia Institute, released findings of their latest jointly conducted public opinion survey in mid-July.15 47.9% of Japanese gave positive views of the December 28 deal, believing it a “final and irreversible resolution.” At the same time, 44.6% reported a negative view of South Korea. These numbers represent mild improvements in perception compared to the previous year. The leadership is more critical than ever in how Japanese society at large will view the nation’s historical relations with Korea and Koreans.


There are numerous reasons to worry about whether or not the December 28 deal will come to fruition. Even if it achieves what both governments hope it does, there is serious concern that those in Japan who wish to denigrate the category of “Korean” will forever attempt to tear apart any effort to dignify the suffering of the victims. In short, those with the courage to claim the truth of their lives will continue to be targeted by those who view the reality of this history as a stain on their imaginary view of a “beautiful” Japan.

Such efforts to discredit Korean claims are counterproductive to Japanese public diplomacy. They are sustained through mass print and electronic mailings from special interest groups in Japan and distributed to relevant international audience. One group with demonstrated links to the current Abe administration routinely sends mass emails, especially in the wake of the December 28 accord, to denounce it and the entire history of Japanese wartime sex slavery as a “global hoax.” “Holocaust Denial” is the only way to describe the content of these notices, which are sent to at least several hundreds of the world’s most highly respected scholars of Japan. Amidst different forms of violence, none remains so venal as the portrayal of Korean victims as liars; its broader effects are already well known.

1. “Statement by Prime Minister Naoto Kan,” August 10, 2010, http://japan.kantei.go.jp/kan/statement/201008/10danwa_e.html

2. “Statement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe,” August 14, 2015, http://japan.kantei.go.jp/97_abe/statement/201508/0814statement.html

3. “Statement by the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono on the result of the study on the issue of ‘comfort women’,” August 4, 1993, http://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/women/fund/state9308.html

4. The Asan Institute for Policy Studies Annual Opinion Survey, 2011.

5. Alexis Dudden, “Japan’s Island Problem,” Dissent, Fall 2014, http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/japans-island-problem

6. Anyone can declare control over territory and name it their country’s possession; for this to be upheld in international law, the claim must receive “external” recognition, which Japan does not have.

7. “Japan lays claim to Dokdo again in defense white paper,” Yonhap News, August 2, 2016, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/national/2016/08/02/0301000000AEN20160802004052315.html

8. Park Si-soo and Chung Min-uck, “Three Japanese Lawmakers Sent Home,” The Korea Times, August 1, 2011, http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2016/07/113_92010.html

9. Aidan Foster-Carter, “The Rise of Japan’s Lady Hawks: Tokyo Two Talk Tough,” Asia Times, August 5, 2016

10. The group, VOYCE, has translated into English the entire 2012 proposed constitution: http://www.voyce-jpn.com/#!ldp-draft-constitution/px2wu

11. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Japan’s Consistent Position on the Territorial Sovereignty Over Takeshima,” July 30, 2014, http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/takeshima/

12. “Statement by the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono.”

13. Among press coverage in multiple languages, see the BBC’s, “Japan and South Korea Agree WW2 ‘Comfort Women’ Deal,” December 28, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-35188135

14. Inada Tomomi quoted in Hiroshi Minegishi, “Debut of ‘Comfort Women’ Fund A Step Towards Reconciliation,” Nikkei Asian Review, July 29, 2016, http://asia.nikkei.com/Politics-Economy/International-Relations/Debut-of-comfort-women-fund-a-step-toward-reconciliation

15. Genron NPO, http://www.genron-npo.net/en/opinion_polls/archives/5304.html

16. Society for Dissemination of Historical Fact, www.sdh-fact.com

  • Passingthru

    Japanese are just a weird bunch. Why are they so in denial of their history? They really need to speak honestly about it make mends with Korea and move on.