But problem for the Japanese government has not been that it was unwilling to apologize. Contrary to what many Koreans mistakenly believe, Japan did apologize several times for its imperial past, most notably in Murayama Danwa issued by then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995. The problem has been that the Japanese government, and the Japanese society as a whole, had trouble maintaining that stance of contrition.
Well, same ol’ story now – Japan went one step forward with Mr. Hatoyama, and two steps backward:
The Japanese government fanned anger among Koreans after news came this week that it sent 99 yen ($1.08), or 1,280 won, in welfare pension refunds to Koreans who were used as forced laborers during the Japanese colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula.Japan offers $1.08 to the laborers it conscripted
More information is available in the Korean version of the Dong-A Ilbo article. Additional analysis is available here and here, all in Korean.
Former South Korean forced laborer Yang Geum-Deok, 81, who worked at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, cries during a rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
First, in a controversial issue like this one, it is very important to get all the facts straight. The women who claimed the pension refunds were forcibly conscripted to work for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries during World War II in Osaka, Japan for about a year when they were 13 to 14 years old. They were not paid for their labor, but they were automatically enrolled in a pension fund. In 1998, they claimed for the pension from Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, which oversees pension plans. Eleven years later, MHLW recognized that these women were indeed enrolled in a pension plan, and paid them 99 yen each – the absolute amount to which they were entitled in 1945, when World War II ended.
“Wait” – history buffs and reflexive Japan apologists might say – “what about the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea? Does it not ban individual claims of compensation for the wrongs committed by Imperial Japan during war time?” Indeed, the Japanese government takes the position that the unpaid wages were considered paid under the Basic Treaty. But MHLW thought about this for eleven years, and apparently decided that the Basic Treaty does not cover unpaid pension funds, which is governed by Welfare Pension Insurance Act. And because that law does not provide for indexing to the inflation rate, it decided to pay 99 yen – about a dollar – to the claimants.
Those are the facts. Now, let us sift through the moral aspect of this story. First, a fair share of the blame must be assigned to the dictator-president Park Chung-Hee who sold out his people and signed the Basic Treaty, and the subsequent Korean governments that failed to uphold its obligation under the Basic Treaty to be in charge of distributing the funds that Japanese government provided.
But irrespective of the merits of the Basic Treaty, the overriding fact remains very clear – Japan committed the original wrong of annexing Korea and put Korean people through a war not of their making, causing immense suffering through war time conscription, forced labor, comfort women and human experimentation. And simply signing the Basic Treaty does not make Japan appear to be a reformed character by any stretch of imagination – not when Korea was under duress for any modicum of aid; not when the signor on the Korean side is a dictator who came to power illegitimately through military coup and rigged elections; not when hundreds of thousands of Koreans protested in opposition to the Basic Treaty such that the Park dictatorship had to declare a martial law; not when the Japanese government got off the hook simply paying $200 per survivor ($1,351 in 2009 dollars) and $2,000 per injury, while the German government pays a lifetime pension to survivors of the Holocaust.
Picture from Unit 731, a Japanese military outfit that conducted live human experimentation. Various weapons were tested on more than 3,000 prisoners and civilians. This test subject went through a biological weapons testing. More Unit 731 pictures can be seen here.
Consider O.J. Simpson, for example. By now, we are more or less certain that he killed two people. But in 1995, a lawful process found that under criminal law, he was not guilty of the two murders that he was alleged to have committed. Another lawful process found he was responsible for the wrongful death of one of the two murders that he was alleged to have committed, and he paid a large sum of money because of that verdict. Are Americans not outraged because a lawful process found Simpson somewhat responsible for the murders and Simpson paid a substantial sum of compensation? Of course not. If O.J. now said, “Don’t look at me! I did everything that I was legally supposed to do. If anything, you should be blaming Lance Ito, Chris Darden or Mark Fuhrman for not doing their job right,” would any of us be any less outraged at him? (Does anyone even remember who Ito, Darden or Fuhrman are anymore?)
The same here. It is fair, and may even be fashionable, to blame the Korean government and/or Park Chung-Hee to some degree for the fact that the Korean people who suffered under the Japanese rule were not compensated. But at the end of the day, it is the party that committed the original crime that deserves the most outrage. Japan was never supposed to annex Korea and subject the Korean people to the aforementioned suffering, period. Regardless of what the Korean government/Park Chung-Hee did, there is no denying that Japan got off laughably easy, considering that in both Japan and Korea, wrongful death claims settle at much, much higher cost than around $11,000 per each death – which is what Japan paid under the Basic Treaty in 2009 dollars.
Having said all that, let us fire up the outrage afterburner. What is truly outrageous is that the Japanese government does not seem to care at all about the optics of their actions regarding its colonial past, much less the feelings of the victims involved. To its credit, the Japanese bureaucracy found that those who were enrolled in a pension plan deserved their pension money, regardless of the Basic Treaty. But the crass amount of 99 yen – not even enough to get one bus ride in Tokyo – instantly made a mockery of whatever credits it would have deserved. It really should not have taken a rocket scientist to figure out that paying out 99 yen after eleven years would look terrible. Eleven years! Couldn’t they have spent just one day of those eleven years to think about how to make this decision look better?
What is amazing to the Korean is that over and over again, Japan does not seem to understand how terrible it looks as this decades-old saga goes on. It is as if the country as a whole suffers from some type of brilliant autism, creating beautiful machines and arts while being completely oblivious to how others perceive its actions. And this historical autism is clearly causing harm. We need not even discuss the obvious human tragedy – namely, the anguish of those who suffered under Imperial Japan who have never received any meaningful compensation – because that is too obvious, and the Japanese government has shown time and again that it really does not give a shit about causing that harm. This historical autism is hurting Japan in another measurable way – by discouraging partnership with a rising regional economic power that is Korea. (And China, for the same reasons.)
This damage to Japan is not an idle imagination. It is a mistake to think that Korea’s nationalism causes Koreans to hate Japanese people or Japanese products. Koreans are nationalists like Americans are Christians – in their everyday lives, they generally do not give much thought about whether or not their action violates their ideological/religious principles. And while no Korean will admit this in a direct answer, Koreans are actually ready to love Japan. Koreans already consume Japanese products in droves despite incredibly high tariffs. Japanese cartoons are so popular in Korea that they essentially merged in as a part of Korean culture. You cannot have a conversation with hipster Koreans without watching the latest Japanese movies and dramas. The only thing – literally, the last possible thing – that is holding Koreans back from completely embracing Japan is that Japan is constantly provoking their nationalist sentiments that Koreans are generally happy to ignore otherwise.
Lexus dealership in Gangnam, Seoul. In 2009, Lexus ES is the second most popular imported car in Korea, trailing only BMW 528.
In fact, this is the perfect time for Japan to make a Godfather offer regarding its past history to Korea – an offer that Korea can’t refuse. What if the Prime Minister of Japan offered this to the President of Korea next year, at the 100th anniversary of the annexation?
“Mr. President, Japan wishes to have a fruitful partnership with Korea toward the future, and we recognize that Japan’s handling of its historical issues so far has been a roadblock for that partnership. Now that a century has passed since the annexation, we wish to resolve the historical issues once and for all. To that end, I propose the following:
(1) Japanese government will establish a pension fund for all surviving Koreans who suffered during the Imperial Japanese rule, which will pay pension to all survivors and their children until they die. Korean government can name the price as to how much each individual will get.
(2) The Prime Minister will re-issue an even stronger worded apology than Murayama Danwa, and will be made available to personally deliver a letter of apology and personal visit to every Comfort Women survivor. Each survivor can name her own form of apology desired from me. I will kneel and bow as long as it takes.
(3) Japanese government will pass a hate speech law similar to those existing in Germany where Holocaust denial is a crime. Anyone who denies the damages caused by Japan’s imperial past will be punishable by fine.
(4) No one who is in the cabinet of the Japanese government will be allowed to visit the Yasukuni Shrine. Instead, the Japanese government will fund and maintain a memorial museum dedicated to displaying Japan’s war crimes, and the Prime Minister will make a yearly visit. There will also be a scholarship established to fund students who study Japan's occupation of Korea.
(5) All history textbooks in Japan will be written by a joint committee consisting of both Japanese and Korean scholars. I hope Korea will do the same.
(6) And lastly, just to let you know I am serious, right here is a declaration from the Japanese Parliament that says Dokdo belongs to Korea. Take those islets – they are yours. And think about our offer.”
This truly is an offer that Korea cannot refuse. It more or less addresses all of Korea’s complaints’ about Japan’s treatment of its history. And it would be an incredibly daring gambit that, in the end, would cost Japan very little in practical terms. Even if Japan were to pay enough money to the survivors and their children to make them not lack anything for the rest of their lives (around $200,000 a year will do the trick,) most of Korea’s wartime survivors are dead and even their children are old. Building a museum and maintaining a scholarship, in the grand scheme of things, cost next to nothing. The fishing rights by gaining Dokdo/Takeshima could potentially be significant, but there is no way Japan can have them in the foreseeable future at any rate.
But what Japan will gain from it is incredibly significant. This will not be an easy offer to make without offending the Japanese nationalism, but that is exactly the point. By disarming Japanese nationalism, Japan can legitimately claim the moral high ground for the first time since the end of World War II. On that high ground, Japan can finally put Korean nationalism on trial. Because really, the dirty little secret in the Korea-Japan relation is that some Korean politicians just love having a whipping boy in Japan to stir up nationalist sentiments that serve as an instant support/distraction. If the Korean government waffles even just a little bit facing this offer, the Japanese government can finally claim legitimately that it has done everything it could, and it is Korea’s political opportunism that is getting in the way of true reconciliation.
If the Korean government accepts the offer – and it can’t not accept, if it is offered this – the payoff for Japan is massive. The japanophiles in Korea will finally have the guilt-free conscience to indulge in Japanese products. Allied with Korea, Japan can be a much more meaningful counterbalance against China. By jointly writing history books, Japan can directly influence the way Koreans think about the occupation and the aftermath. In the long run – when the memories of the occupation fades enough for Koreans not to have a gag reflex over the idea – Japan and Korea can enter into a free trade agreement or even a NATO- or EU-like alliance.
The benefit for Korea under this offer should be obvious. Its people can be finally compensated adequately without the embarrassment of hashing out the terms of the Basic Treaty. It can finally have a historical closure, and move on. At this point, Korea no longer has to worry about being annexed or otherwise controlled by Japan because its position is incomparably stronger relative to that at the turn of the 20th century. Given this, a close partnership with Japan could lead to Korea's being a world power, at last -- something that Korea has dreamed of since the independence.
Will this happen? Of course not. File this under “The Korean’s Cockamamie Proposals That Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time,” next to the Korean’s preferred immigration policy. But the Korean’s larger point is this: at this point, Japan really needs to do something about its past. Year 2010 will be the perfect time to do something. Missing this opportunity will not only be a moral outrage (again), but also a huge cost to the future of Japan.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.