This year, the convergence of South Korea’s and China’s territorial disputes with Japan and Japan’s commemorative services at the Yasukuni shrine1 on the 67th anniversary of the end of World War II, has starkly brought forth the ‘living’ “war memory” in the political consciousness of the three most advanced nations in Asia and how the use of these memories as a political leverage along with the failure to decisively resolve the territorial disputes keeps them separate in building a common Asian identity and a Northeast Asian security community in the 21st century. The ‘memory rifts’ of their victimhood in their respective historical consciousness of WW II still continue to spur perceptions of shorthand acknowledgements. While Japan is blamed by China and South Korea for not having done enough for its wartime atrocities or for having failed to offer an apology commensurate with their expectations, Japan thinks that its contribution towards the economic development of South Korea and China is expediently overlooked along with the fact that Japan has offered apologies to both the nations on a number of occasions. On the other hand, the territorial disputes prevent the building of enhanced strategic relations which could better address the imperative issues of the North Korean nuclear threat. Hence, what could be the most powerful triangle on the international stage is still not in the making. The events surrounding the anniversary of the end of the Asia-Pacific War and Japan’s territorial fracas with South Korea relating to Takeshima/Dokdo islets, and the one with China over the Senkaku/Diayo Islands, corroborate this fact.
In a solemn ceremony on August 15, Japan observed the 67th anniversary of its World War II surrender. In order to avoid frictions with China and South Korea, all three DPJ Prime Ministers–Yukio Hatoyama, Naoto Kan and Yoshihiko Noda—have refrained from visiting the Yasukuni shrine.2 At a separate memorial service, Prime Minister Noda apologized to victims of Japanese wartime atrocities and reaffirmed Japan’s pledge to maintain its war-renouncement policy by stating:
“We have caused tremendous damage and pain to many countries, particularly the Asian people, during the war. We deeply regret that and sincerely mourn for those who were sacrificed and their relatives …We will not repeat the same mistake.”
Previously, in October 2011, in order to enhance bilateral relations with South Korea, Noda returned the historically significant five copies of treasured ancient royal documents dating back to Korea's Joseon dynasty (1392-1897) to President Lee. On December 6, 2011, in a special ceremony consisting of the traditional honour guard drill team and performers of Korea’s traditional instrument orchestra, South Korea received the complete return of 1,200 volumes of historic archives which include 150 royal texts known as the Joseon Wangsil Uigwe, a detailed record of ancient royal ceremonies and rituals which are now listed in the UNESCO Memory of the World.3
According to Ambassador Hiroshi Hirabayashi, Japan has consistently regarded the issue of comfort women as "legally settled with the Japan-Republic of Korea Basic Relations Treaty in 1965". In 1993, following the apology rendered by Yohei Kono, the then Chief Cabinet Secretary during the administration of Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, stating that "The Japanese army during the war deeply hurt the honor and dignity of many women", Asian Women’s Fund was founded to carry out the ‘atonement projects” for former comfort women. Ambassador Hirabayashi himself was engaged in a national fund-raising campaign in an official capacity spanning both the Tomiichi Murayama and Ryotaro Hashimoto administrations to implement the “atonement projects” with the object that “remorse and sympathy should be shared not only by the Japanese government but also by Japanese nationals”. However, the Korean government has taken the stance that "[w]ithout legal responsibility of Japan officially acknowledged, we will never accept compensation." There might be a difference of opinion between Japan and South Korea regarding the settlement of various historical issues but in the present case the old maxim that “10% of conflicts is due to difference in opinion and 90% is due to wrong tone of voice” comes to mind.
President Lee Myung Bak’s visit to Takeshima islands in the Sea of Japan on August 10, which made him the first South Korean President ever to do so, followed by his indiscreet remarks directed towards the Japanese Emperor on Korea’s Liberation day, celebrated as Korea’s independence from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule, emphatically stating that "If Japan's Emperor wishes to visit South Korea, I think it would be good if he apologizes sincerely to those who passed away while fighting for independence," has further vitiated the bilateral relations between South Korea and Japan which was painstakingly built by Lee himself during the course of his tenure. Lee also reiterated the demand that the Japanese government take “responsible measures” on the issue of “comfort women”. In response, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura provided the clarification that "The Japanese government has never introduced the topic of the Emperor's visiting the country to the South Korean government". Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda denounced these remarks and showed his exasperation by saying that his statement was “difficult to understand” and “regrettable”. In a press conference on August 17, 2012 Japan’s Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said, referring to President Lee’s remarks, that “his continued unconstructive statements would not benefit his country at all”.
Japan has initiated a series of tough measures against South Korea. On August 21, 2012 it formally delivered an official letter to the South Korean government proposing the joint filing of a suit over the sovereignty of the islets to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). It has decided to postpone three scheduled governmental-level meetings with Seoul but has refrained from shutting diplomatic channels. Sagaciously, and contrary to earlier suggestions, Japan has also opted not to undertake the review of the foreign currency exchange agreement with South Korea which was due to expire in October 2012. The swap arrangement was expanded from $13 billion (1.03 trillion yen) to $70 billion in October 2011 to strengthen the South Korean won, which was suffering from the Eurozone debt crisis.
Japan’s growing diplomatic tensions with South Korea on the issue of Takeshima/Dokdo islets and the adoption of a harder stance on the Senkaku Islands with China signals Noda’s thinking that “Japan should engage in Asian diplomacy from a strong position." Noda is reported to have said that, "I want to handle issues related to national sovereignty with unwavering resolve, even at the risk of my political future." The unwavering positions of the three East Asian neighbours reflect their strong international stature. Japan has always been a significant player in the East Asian economic and security sphere, and it still is despite varied opinions regarding its relative decline and apparently weak government. In the last two decades, China has risen as a formidable power on the international scene. South Korea, on the other hand, has recently appropriated international prestige as the host of the March 2012 Nuclear Security Summit; Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean, is the present secretary general of the UN; in 2014 Incheon in South Korea will hold the XVII Asiad, the largest sporting event in Asia, with an estimated cost of US$1.62 billion. South Korea has also emerged as a significant nuclear exporter, having won bids to supply four nuclear reactors to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and a major supporter of nuclear energy development in Southeast Asia. It is aspiring to acquire 20 per cent of the world market for nuclear reactors by 2030. It has successfully “graduated” from the Japanese ODA in 2000 and has presently become a major foreign aid donor,4 and has achieved the prestigious membership of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as of January 1, 2010.5
The US has styled South Korea as a “global partner” and the personal chemistry between Lee and Obama is akin to what had developed between the erstwhile Japanese PM Junichiro Koizumi and President George W. Bush. The latter’s relationship was dubbed as a “marriage of convenience” and the one between Lee and Obama is similar in nature. Though Lee’s visit to Takeshima Island is being interpreted as a response to Japan’s claim to the islets as Japanese territory in its 2012 edition of the Defense White Paper, the wisdom of venturing into the disputed islands and the delivery of pointed remarks at the Japanese Emperor are being questioned in his own country from the “standpoint of diplomatic strategy and courtesy”.6
Despite the generational change, the war memories continue to adversely affect foreign policy and feelings of slight, disrespect, and disparagement could well assume a latent credence that ignites national outrage and dislocates the fragile power equilibrium in the region. The problem-driven approaches to the management and settlement of historic and territorial issues ultimately get side-tracked and outmanoeuvred by power-centric responses. This time all three countries have backed their territorial claims in the background of upgrading their military apparatus aimed at force readiness response which dangerously exacerbates the lingering strains in bilateral relations. In such a state of affairs, the effect of unnecessarily goading national pride has the potential of taking an unavoidable ugly turn. South Korea’s President Lee Myung Bak is encountering such a setback because of a glitch of his own making. Japan is showing its sensibility by not escalating the issue; as one Foreign Ministry official said that “Countermeasures should not go beyond the accepted boundary of the international community”. On different occasions, all three nations have demonstrated a tendency to scale down mutual tensions and arrest deteriorating relations, and that’s what has kept the elusive peace in East Asia. As major players in the international community, all three are expected to play a more mature role as responsible stakeholders, a role not reserved just for China.
Preeti Nalwa is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. She is currently a Japan Foundation Doctoral Fellow and also a Non-Resident Kelly Fellow at the Pacific Forum, CSIS.