Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ask a Korean! News: "War criminals are not really war criminals"

The Korean previously wrote that the Japanese government is unable to make a truly meaningful apology and reparation because the Japanese people, as a whole, do not think their country did anything wrong in World War II and the occupation of Korea. And sure enough, Noda Yoshihiko, Japan's finance minister and the most likely candidate to be the next prime minister, confirms this view:
On August 15th [Noda] aroused the ire of South Korea, a country that [current prime minister] Mr Kan has steadfastly and sensitively courted, by reaffirming a nonsensical argument he aired six years ago. It claims that Japan’s 14 Class-A war criminals who are buried at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo were not, in fact, war criminals.

Some legal commentators have made a similar point in the past, arguing that Japanese law does not recognise the verdicts of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which convicted them. Legal hair-splitting aside however, Japan’s government accepted the verdicts as part of the 1952 San Francisco peace treaty, Article 11 of which begins: “Japan accepts the judgments of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and of other Allied War Crimes Courts both within and outside Japan, and will carry out the sentences imposed thereby upon Japanese nationals imprisoned in Japan.”

The bizarre part of Mr Noda’s argument is that he says the San Francisco treaty “restored the honour” of all Japan’s war criminals. When he made this point to Junichiro Koizumi in 2005, in response to the then-prime minister’s controversial visit to Yasukuni, even Mr Koizumi said he did not know what Mr Noda was talking about.
Be careful whom you wish for [The Economist]

The Korean will reiterate his previous position:  despite the occasional nationalistic spasms, Koreans are 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. Koreans provided a huge outpouring support when Japan suffered the massive damage from the recent earthquake and tsunami. 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.

This is doubly disappointing because  it is not as if Noda is Shintaro Ishihara, a governor of Tokyo and certifiable right-wing nutjob who famously claimed that Rape of Nanking was a Chinese fiction. Noda belongs to the same party as Kan Naoto, the left-over-center Democratic Party that has been more willing to accept Imperial Japan's war crimes.

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  1. I do think there are quite a few people in Japan who are aware of Japan's war crimes and feel regret for them. Read the "Wind-up Bird Chronicle" by Haruki Murakami for a pretty eye-opening treatment of the brutality of Imperial Japan, and the last days of World War II in general. I know that's just one data point, but Murakami is perhaps Japan's most popular contemporary novelist, so his point of view probably isn't that far out of the mainstream.

    With that said, I'm not sure that regret really extends to Japan's political class. Most of them, after all, are descendents of the people who were in Japan's political class during the Imperial era. As one historian put it: "In Germany, the U.S. largely uprooted the wartime power structure. In Japan, they took a weed-wacker to it." Given that, I would expect continued visits to Yasukuni, continued refusals to compenstate Comfort Women, and what have you.

    On the other hand, I don't really think that Korea is probably as ready to embrace Japan as you suggest- especially the South Korean political class. Every country needs it's boogeyman, and Japan plays that role perfectly for South Korea. If the domestic political winds are blowing against the government, what's better than a Dokdo eruption to distract the masses for a few days? Let's face it- for a number of reasons, a lot of South Korean politicians are unwilling to cast North Korea as the bad guy. The U.S. is pretty much off-limits, too; another eruption on par with the 2002 tank incident could lead to the U.S. withdrawing its forces from the peninsula. China is a continent-sized superpower that is Korea's main export market, so the government doesn't want to play up negative sentiments towards them, either. That leaves Japan, which while still economically significant, is in relative decline and is really in no way a military threat to Korea. Korean politicians can bash Japan all they want for domestic consumption while incurring a relatively small diplomatic penalty.

    I guess what this boils down to is that the peoples of Japan and South Korea might be ready for a more harmonious relationship, the two political systems are not.

  2. As a Japanese person I have to say -- a lot of people, at least in the younger generation, are aware of Japanese war-time atrocities despite the government covering them up...the people I have talked to certainly are open-minded about it, and are saddened by the events that happened.

    I agree with JB -- I think on either "side", there are a lot more people who are accepting of the other than folks think. It's just that the extreme right-wing nationalists are a lot more vocal and the government is fine with that.

    It also makes me rather sad when both Japanese and Korean people who are otherwise nice, reasonable people, are holding misconceptions about each other that were encouraged by right-wingers or the government; in a lot of cases, they are told historical untruths like they are fact and unfortunately, hold them to be true. This has happened with me countless times, even with US-born Japanese or Koreans.

  3. I agree with JB. Japanese cultural products might be popular in Japan, but American cultural products are also popular in Iran. Individual Koreans don't have much against individual Japanese, but I don't think anyone in Korea has anything to lose by bashing Japan.

    The issues of Dokdo and the East Sea are significant, and on top of that there's the issue of war crimes. It's easy to cast yourself off as a patriot by bringing up Japan. Cabinet member Lee Jae-oh wanted to rename the Sea of Japan as the Sea of Korea, and he he even went over to Dokdo and put on a military uniform to protect Dokdo from the Japanese invasion which never came.

    Commenters on this blog and elsewhere on the Internet, many of them ostensibly liberal people, take pains to spell Korea with a 'c' because they want their country to come before Japan in English alphabetical order.

    Even if Japan made a stronger apology and offered some other reparations, it wouldn't give Japan the moral high ground. Does Germany have the moral high ground over Holocaust survivors? Japan should do those things because it ought to, but I don't think Koreans would stop bashing Japan because of its colonization. Why would they? Because Japan gave another apology?

    When it comes to "protecting" Korea against Japan or America's encroachments, the ensuing furor crowds out all reason. It's not as though Korea is unique in this sort of intellectual stampede, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

  4. Korea was spelled with a "C" before the Japanese occupation. That is why some Koreans continue to spell it with a "C". But be aware that "Corea" is also still the common spelling in Europe.

  5. >Japan is constantly provoking their nationalist sentiments that Koreans are generally happy to ignore otherwise.

    When Koreans keep pushing for East Sea, are they "happy to ignore" their "nationalist sentiments"?

  6. Do you know the meaning of the word "generally"?

  7. Considering that the whole East Sea movement is actually officially backed by the South Korean government, I personally find it difficult to see as something small enough to slip under "generally".

    It seems more like in this case at least, Koreans are generally being irrationally nationalistic, even without being provoked. Unless the ubiquitous status of "Sea of Japan" is in itself a provocation.

  8. Considering that the whole East Sea movement is actually officially backed by the South Korean government, I personally find it difficult to see as something small enough to slip under "generally".

    Let's see. The U.S. government is currently officially backing the war in Afghanistan. Are Americans generally irrationally warmongering? The U.S. government is also officially backing the conservation of nature in national parks. Are Americans generally nature-loving conservationists? Try and come up with a better argument than this, because it is not working.

    It is easy to overrate the extent of the nationalism held by ordinary Koreans, especially if all you see is the occasional nationalistic spasms while being blind to the ordinary lives of the people. It is not as if Koreans live through their daily lives consumed with the thought about how to impart their nationalistic fervor. They are happy to live their lives using Japanese products and enjoying Japanese culture -- as long as Japan does not do something ludicrous, like denying that war criminals are war criminals.

  9. Many would actually argue that the American population is somewhat warmongering, considering that America does get itself involved into all kinds of wars and maintains the most powerful and arguably the most offensively oriented (so much an euphemism called Power Projection was invented) military to facilitate this in the entire world. Even counting the influence of the military-industrial complex, it is hard to explain with a pacifist population.

    If you have a pacifist population, for example like Japan and you are at least vaguely democratic, no matter what the government wishes, or even what the national interest dictates, even deploying 4 wooden minesweepers after the war is already over would be a struggle, let alone supporting fighting in a country that can barely be located on a map year after year.

    Similarly, without a substantial green faction in the population, it is unlikely that those national parks would be so well maintained - no doubt at the cost of other possible improvement areas.

    Thus, while I of course do not say the average South Korean would turn himself into Bee Man or attack pheasants over "East Sea", it is difficult to not conclude that there most Koreans feel passionately enough about this East Sea issue that the South Korean government would push it even though it is a issue that frankly is pure loss. Unlike the war in Afghanistan for example, industry does not benefit from damaging relationships with Japan, so it is not an explanation. So what's left? The people.

    Now, back to the War Criminal thing. When the South Korean government backs East Sea, I'm not supposed to see even a large fraction of Koreans behind it but when this one Noda says something, it is "Japan"?

    Maybe if his opinion is formalized on MOFA's webpage it'll be a different matter but right now, it is just Noda.

  10. while I of course do not say the average South Korean would turn himself into Bee Man or attack pheasants over "East Sea"...

    You can feel free to clarify your statement -- I dislike beating people up for a less-than-ideal phrasing. But what you said earlier was far from clear. Same goes with the way you now talk about "a large fraction of Koreans" instead of "Koreans".

  11. hm, the idea of "Corea" being spelled that way before the Japanese is a myth:

    1. "hm, the idea of "Corea" being spelled that way before the Japanese is a myth"

      Did you actually read that Monster Island post you linked to? It states unequivocally that: "Indeed, it is an irrefutable fact that Korea was at one time spelled as Corea". While it does say that Japan is probably not responsible for the change in spelling, that's a different question.

      I'm willing to be generous and assume you were just being sloppy rather than malicious, but your comment, in its present wording, is still misleading and possibly caused a number of people to believe that 'Korea' was never spelled with a 'C' in the past, which is simply not true.

  12. Naoto dropped and noda was voted in.


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