New South Korean Academic Writings on Contemporary Japan and Japanese-Korean Relations

South Korean academic writings of 2013 provide a useful window through which students of Japan worldwide can observe Japan and Japanese-Korean relations. So far this year, I found that six books have been published on Japan and Japanese-Korean relations, as well as six articles in the two most prestigious journals of political science (The Korean Journal of International Relations and Korean Political Science Review). These works reflect recent trends in Japan’s diplomacy, including the history issue, and Japan’s domestic economic policy. Moon Chung-in and Seo Seung-won’s book illuminates contemporary Japan through a series of in-depth interviews with prominent Japanese intellectuals. The Institute for Japanese Studies, Seoul National University, has published two books: 1) a record of conversations with Gerald Curtis, Wakayama Yoshibumi, and Park Cheol-hee; and 2) an analysis of Japan’s diplomatic policy toward the Korean Peninsula by Kimiya Tadashi. Son Yeol edited Japan’s Leadership for Resurrection, compiling the analyses of ten Japanese leaders by a group of young Japan studies scholars in South Korea. Kim Kyung-min, who specializes in Japanese security, wrote Talking about the North Korean and Japanese Nuclear Programs, and Park Yu-ha published Comfort Women of the Empire, making a strong case against the dominant comfort women discourse in South Korea. These books show an interesting cross-section of Japan studies in South Korea.

While South Korean newspaper coverage of Japan at times draws international attention, much less is known about the positions of South Korean academics. Given the downward turn in relations in 2012-2013 and the pessimistic prognoses for reconciliation between the two new leaders, Abe Shinzo and Park Geun-hye, it is worth taking a closer look at some of the sources that are shaping the South Korean thinking. A general question some are asking is: Are academic writings in South Korea stirring emotionalism that interferes with pragmatic pursuit of national interests or putting a brake on popular incitement in the media? In this regard, selected sources can be scrutinized for their contents and their potential impact on Korean public opinion.

Authors often have no difficulty acknowledging the domination of domestic politics over diplomatic relations, leading to a vicious cycle of mutual accusations. Many books published recently are concerned with finding a way to break this cycle. Other themes have come and gone in South Koreans’ belated quest to understand Japan better and to find a path toward improved relations, but the desperate urgency of today’s search for halting what many regard as a downward spiral with no end in sight has no clear earlier parallel.

The desire to understand Japan has long been present in the South Korean psyche. O-Young Lee’s 1994 bestseller Smaller is Better: Japan’s Mastery of the Miniature reflected growing expectations that South Korea could successfully compete with Japan in the arenas of economics, security, and diplomacy. Under the shadow of negative memories, South Koreans between the 1950s and 1980 had been deprived of a sense of perspective. As a result, they thought that they knew a great deal about Japan; yet they were beginning to realize that they actually knew very little about how their neighbor operates, in economics and politics. Major academic centers did not offer majors or substantial courses on Japan during this period. In this context, the 2000s as well were a time of growing confidence to make more sense of this neighboring country that for more than a century had cast its shadow to the west.

To a surprising degree, the academic books published in 2013 show considerable empathy to Japan and deserve to be seen as constructive contributions toward a better relationship. These discussions strive to take an objective stance through giving voice to non-Korean scholars as well. Moon and Seo’s book covers current politics, diplomacy, and domestic problems from diverse perspectives by interviewing influential intellectuals in Japan.1 They cover a broad range of issues, including recent trends in the Japanese economy, plans for an East Asian regional community, policies toward North Korea and China, and US-South Korea-Japan relations. They also provide interpretations and propose solutions for disputes over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands and the Northern Territories (South Kuril Islands), as well as those over the “comfort women” and Dokdo (Takeshima) issues. The “Japanese position,” according to the Japanese intellectuals, does not diverge significantly from that widely discussed within South Korea’s Japan studies community; however, the interview method may be effective in translating academic rhetoric into something that the public can understand, perhaps, playing a role in dispelling some of the Korean prejudices toward Japan. Some of the opinions may actually reinforce these prejudices since they put the onus on the Korean side. Funabashi Yoichi stresses the threat of a nationalist and unified Korea toward Japanese security. Okonogi Masao emphatically denies the coercive mobilization of the comfort women. Apart from these direct challenges, just acknowledging the existence of a diverse array of Japanese opinions is an important prerequisite for the South Korean public to gain a better understanding of Japan.

The interviewees in Moon and Seo generally agree that Japan lacks a grand strategy and strong leadership, and that it is unlikely Japan will revert to a militarist policy. Also, pointing to the rise of China and its impact on East Asian regional security, they discuss the instability of China-Japan relations, the importance of the US-Japan alliance, and the necessity of simultaneously settling the North Korea nuclear and abduction problems. These issues reflect the distress in which Japan finds itself amid a significant power shift in East Asia. The path Japan is taking is not serious reconciliation with its neighbors with an eye toward building a Northeast Asian community.2 Rather its choice is more realistic and traditional, holding China and North Korea in check by strengthening the US-Japan alliance. As Japan continues to follow this path, strong emphasis is placed upon the point that “Japan will not become a military power,” but this is not gaining wide acceptance among the South Korean public. For example, Kim Kyung-min stresses Japan’s heightened threat perception based on the rise of Chinese and the North Korean threats, which leads to efforts to enhance its military power.3 Yet, Kim goes beyond most Japanese and Western sources in arguing that Japan, together with the United States, is trying to prevent China from emerging as a superpower in Northeast Asia. This echoes criticisms of containment, in contrast to others who accept Japanese and US assurances that the goal is not to slow China’s rise, but to keep it from turning into an effort to dominate the region, excluding the United States, and marginalizing Japan. These efforts, according to Kim, are reflected in the close alignment of Japanese and US military policies in the region, which bolster the trend of Japan’s rise as a military power. Again, such assertions contrast to the claims largely accepted in the United States as well as Japan that Japan is not becoming a military power, but it is acquiring a greater capacity to defend itself and be a reliable ally. Naturally, Kim’s views resonate better with the consciousness of the South Korean public.

Many articles on Japanese security focus on the China-Japan relationship. Kim Gi-Ju and Hwang Byoung-sun, “Prospect of War between Japan and China over the Territorial Dispute on the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands,” and Lee Myung-chan, “Sino-Japanese Conflict over the Senkaku Islands and East Asia,”4 are notable examples. Kim and Hwang analyze the prospects for war on the basis of four variables (territorial dispute, external alliance, competitive relations, and arms race), drawing on the “steps to war theory.” Arguing that China and Japan today satisfy two criteria (territorial dispute and competitive relations) of the four, they conclude that limited warfare between the two is likely. Since an armed conflict between them would seriously damage peace and stability in Northeast Asia, the authors call for measures to avoid accidental military clashes.5

Lee finds that the rise of China and the resultant power shift in East Asia are the most important background for the conflict around the Senkaku Islands, pointing to the loss since the mid-1990s of go-betweens mediating between China and Japan as limiting the possibility of more flexible handling of the conflict that occurred in 2010. Lee concludes that this territorial dispute ushers in an age of Sino-Japanese armed conflicts, as well as an end to “postwar Japan” characterized by Article 9 of the Constitution. Lee’s view reflects the hardline position within South Korean academic circles that Japan has been on a path toward “right-wingification” and remilitarization since the mid-1990s. The key question being asked by Korean scholars is: What is Japan’s chosen path in response to the rise of China and the instability of Sino-Japanese relations? So far, the Japanese pathway is within the scope of regional cooperation largely framed by the United States, many have decided.

If Moon and Seo provide an understanding of Japan through the voices of Japanese intellectuals, Gerald Curtis, Wakamiya Yoshibumi, and Park Cheol-hee, Where is Abe’s Japan Headed? synthesizes the views of some of the most respected Japan scholars in the world.7 As in Moon and Seo, the authors point out the failure of Japanese leaders to reach a broad consensus on what Japan wants, as well as the low possibility of Japan reverting to militarism. Curtis explains Abenomics in an accessible fashion, reinforcing in broad strokes the South Korea academic writings, including that it fails to solve fundamental problems of a decreasing population, aging society, and low female employment. He argues that the success of Abenomics hinges on structural reform, which requires strong political leadership that can coordinate vested interests within Japanese society.8

On foreign relations, Curtis proposes a solution for the Dokdo and comfort women problems, which have been at the core of the Korea-Japan relationship. For Dokdo, he favors the “quiet diplomacy” doctrine that had been the policy during the early years of the Rho Moo-hyun administration.9 Curtis points out that it is not helpful for the Korean national interest to provoke Japanese nationalism when Korea has effective control over the islands. One must remember, however, that Rho’s quiet diplomacy collapsed in the face of Japanese provocation, namely Shimane Prefecture’s ordinance declaring the “Day of Takeshima.” In order to maintain stability, the “quiet diplomacy” doctrine needs to be adopted by both Japan and South Korea.

On the “comfort women” issue, there is little disagreement among Korean and Japanese scholars that this is something that requires immediate attention, e.g., requiring Japan to actively draw up a budget and a clearer official apology and Korea to “reasonably” accept these Japanese gestures. What, then, is the fundamental reason behind the gridlock? In answering this critical question, Park Yu-ha provides a controversial response,10 pointing to conflicting narratives, and blaming the narrow-minded Korean interpretation, which emphasizes only one aspect (young girls who were taken away by force to serve as sex slaves), largely represented by the NGO Korean Council for Women Drafted for Sexual Slavery by Japan. This interpretation, according to Park, ignores the diversity of the phenomenon depending on place and time. Indeed, the comfort women issue aroused a singular interpretation in South Korean consciousness, repeated and reinforced by the media. For example, the way in which the Korean media treated the diary of the manager of a comfort station during World War II (An Byung-Jik Diary of a Comfort Station Manager) provides indirect evidence for this problem.11 This diary is a deeply personal story that does not provide concrete and systematic information on the management of the comfort station and the comfort women problem itself. However, the South Korean media once again criticized the Japanese government, claiming that this diary proves the deep involvement of the Japanese military and the coercive nature of the mobilization of these women. The Korean media show ignorance of the Kono statement of 1993, which admitted the direct and indirect involvement of the Japanese government in the management of the comfort stations and the coercive nature of the comfort women program, and of the fact, despite assertions of right-wing politicians, the Japanese government has never officially denied the spirit of the Kono statement.12

Park Yu-ha argues that, in order to solve the comfort women problem, we need to have a comprehensive understanding of their everyday life and a systematic view of the comfort station system. While she is critical of Japan, which caused the war and colonial exploitation, she also emphasizes the harsh fact that the comfort women were oppressed more by the Korean middlemen than the Japanese military troops. Also, she points out that many comfort women possessed the identity of “women of the Japanese empire,” which makes it problematic to excessively focus on them as victims. The reason behind the twenty-year gridlock is Korea’s one-sided narrative, which called for a negative response within Japan. This led to a never-ending cycle of condemnation between the two countries. Park’s book is an attempt to provide a multiplicity of views on the comfort women problem. Naturally, individual comfort women had diverse memories and experiences despite an undeniable commonality—the Japanese imperial military legalized and overlooked sexual violence against women from its colonies. The most important stumbling block may be the arrogant statements of Japanese political leaders who deny this commonality and the “apology fatigue” among the Japanese public—that Japan has done everything it could, and the problem is Korea, which cannot accept the repeated apologies. In the end, the fundamental problem is the lack of empathy between the two countries. For Japan, it goes against human nature to identify oneself as a perpetrator and make repeated apologies. For Korea, the traumatic experience can only be healed through continued apologies and consistency of speech and action on the part of the perpetrator.

Finally, a book by Kimiya Tadashi, Japan’s Diplomacy in the Korean Peninsula, takes a historical approach to postwar Japanese diplomatic policy focusing on postcolonialism, the Cold War system, and economic cooperation.13 Kimiya observes the dominant influence of China on the peninsula since the end of the Cold War, and points out that Japan does not possess a clear diplomatic vision and strategy. He argues that South Korea and Japan share the problem of responding to growing Chinese power, while it poses problems for relations due to the different geopolitical situation in the two countries. While Japan is trending toward strategic utilization of Korea in its response to China, South Korea is reluctant to do so as its economic and security dependency on China is intensifying. As South Korea and Japan lack a common goal, the motivation for cooperation declines, reflected in the many disputes that have come to the surface during the last two decades. Kimiya’s “realistic” approach emphasizes the lack of common goals for the transformation of East Asian international relations in the post-Cold War era.

In search of an answer to the question of why South Korea and Japan had the “worst year” in their relationship, scholars are pointing to several interrelated factors: 1) the lack of Japanese strategic vision and leadership in response to the transformation of the East Asian international order in the post-Cold War era; 2) the lack of a common goal in Korea-Japan security cooperation; and 3) the surfacing of identity conflict surrounding different historical narratives in the two countries. Even as authors strive to answer this urgent question, they are also probing deeply into Japanese thinking in ways that contrast to newspaper coverage and can be helpful in narrowing the recent gap in understanding. Their writings testify to the vibrancy of Korean scholarship and its positive contribution, however limited in impact so far, toward preparing Korean public opinion for a less emotional, more informed outlook that may contribute to improved relations with Japan.

1. Chung-in Moon and Seong-won Seo, Ilboneun ji geum mueokeul saenggak haneunga? (Seoul: Samsenggyeongje Yeonguso, 2013).

2. For a recent analysis of Japanese policy toward Asia-Pacific regional entities, see Kim Sangjoon, “Jiyeokkwa Hegemoni” [Region and Hegemony: The Decay of US Hegemony and Japan’s Strategy for Regionalism] Kukje jeongchi nonchong 53, no. 1 (2013): 119-150.

3. Kyung-min Kim, Bukhaek ilbon haekeul malhanda (Seoul: Ganabooks, 2013).

4. Gi-Ju Kim and Byoung-sun Hwang, “Senkaku yeoldo youngto bunjangeul dulreossan il-junggan jeonjaeng balbal ganeongseong jeonmang” Kukje jeongchi nonchong 53, no. 2 (2013): 39-68; Myong-chan Lee, “Senkaku jedoreul dulreossan jungilgan galdeongwa dongbuka” kukje jeongchi nonchong 53, no. 1 (2013): 255-293.

5. For a theoretical analysis for the reconciliation between China and Japan, see Chun Ja-Hyun, “Hwahaeui kujae jeongchi”[Politics of International Reconciliation: Latest Developments of International Reconciliation Theories and Its Critical Application on Sino-Japan Relations] Kukje jeongchi nonchong 53, no. 2 (2013): 7-38.

6. Gerald Curtis, Wakamiya Yoshibumi, Cheol-hee Park, Abeui ilboneun eodiro hyanghago ikkneonga? (Seoul: J and C, 2013).

7. For a recent analysis of Japanese economic policy, see Jung Mi-ae, “Ilbon minjudangui “Jeungse eopneun bokji hwakdae”reul dulreossan jeongchi gwajeong” Kukje jeongchi nonchong 53, no. 1 (2013): 185-218; Lee Jun-hwan, “Ilbon minjudang jeongkweonui sobise insangeuroui jeongchaek jeonhwangwa bunyeol” Hanguk jeongchi hakheobo 47, no. 2 (2013): 149-167.

8. For Japan’s political leadership, see Son Yeol ed., Ilbon buhwalui lideosip (Seoul: EAI, 2013).

9. The “quiet diplomacy” policy is the standard South Korean position regarding the Dokdo issue. This policy calls for a low-key diplomatic effort to maintain the status quo, which is the de facto occupation of Dokdo by South Korea, and prevent the status from reverting to the status quo ante.

10. Yuha Park, Jegukui wianbu [Comfort Women of the Empire] (Seoul: Ppuriwaipari, 2013).

11. Byung-Jik An (trans.), Ilbongun wianso gwanriinui ilgi [Diary of a Comfort Station Manager] (Seoul: Isub, 2013).

12. Statement by the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono on the Result of the Study on the Issue of “Comfort Women,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, (accessed October 31, 2013).

13. Kimiya Tadashi (Suk-ui Son trans), Ilbonui hanbando oegyo [Japan’s Diplomacy in the Korean Peninsula] (Seoul: J and C, 2013).