In one of my previous essays for The Interpreter, I argued that Japan at some point needs to come around on the history questions that divide it so sharply from South Korea and China.

I argued that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his coalition persist in interpretations of the empire and the war that are accepted nowhere outside Japanese conservative circles. Unit 731, the Rape of Nanking and comfort women are established facts in historiography everywhere else in the world. Normatively and empirically, the Japanese right will never win Asia's 'history wars.' At some point it would help enormously if Tokyo would just admit what the rest of the world already knows anyway. The whole thing is fairly fatiguing, not to mention immoral.

But I received a number of responses from Japan-watchers noting that despite all the moral pressure, US arm-twisting for rapprochement and the enormous light on the subject right now because of both the 50th anniversary of Japan-Korea diplomatic normalisation and the 70th anniversary of the war's end this summer, Japan has given rather little.

Why so?

When it comes to China, geopolitics enables obfuscation. China is an authoritarian oligarchy which opportunistically manipulates the Japanese invasion for political legitimacy.

Sadly, Japanese behaviour in China was probably the most appalling in the entire empire, but the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) authoritarianism and its own historical myopia – Mao is responsible for far more Chinese deaths than the empire was – basically lets Japan slip off the hook. Of course Japan should be honest about its record, but so long as China is not a democracy and so obviously lies about its own history, the political pressure on Japan is considerably blunted. Certainly the Americans will not push Japan over this.

South Korea is a far tougher case because it is a democracy. It can therefore claim a moral and normative legitimacy in its calls for restitution which China cannot. But here too, Abe has proven surprisingly recalcitrant, for several reasons:

1. Geopolitics: South Korea is simply not as important to the US as Japan is, so there are limits to how far Washington will push Tokyo. And so long as the US provides security to both, Japan is shielded from regional pressure on its unwillingness to move. In the same way, the US alliance also enables Korea's Japan maximalists. Elsewhere I have called this 'moral hazard' .

2. Park Geun-Hye's flailing presidency: Park is very unpopular. After multiple scandals and public safety disasters, her approval rating is around 30%. She is desperate for a major achievement in order to derail a looming presidential legacy of incompetence and cronyism. This has weakened the Korean Government's hand in its regular behind-the-scenes negotiations with Tokyo over historical issues. Because Abe knows Park could use a major foreign policy achievement back home, he can negotiate harder for concessions. Korean and Japanese media widely suspected that Seoul's sudden climb-down on its previously loud opposition to Japan's recent UNESCO bid was an unwanted Korean concession to help pull some kind of deal (possibly on the comfort-women issue) out of Tokyo before Park's term ends.

3. Exaggeration: Korean critics of Japan often compare the imperial occupation of the peninsula to the Holocaust. I think this parallelism is deployed because it carries so much weight before a Western audience and implies that a Willy Brandt-style, on-your-knees apology from Japan is the appropriate outcome. It's up to Koreans to decide what kind of apology they will accept, but I wonder if Koreans actually realise just how 'eliminationist' the Nazi Neuordnung was, particularly toward Jews, Poles and Russians. The Japanese empire intended to absorb Koreans as something like sub-Japanese second-class citizens. Hence the 'cultural replacement' efforts, such as forcing Japanese language instruction and insisting on Japanese names. By contrast, the Nazis intended to exterminate peoples wholesale, by the millions. There were no death camps in Korea.

A better, if far less evocative, analogy might be English control of the Celtic fringe in the British Isles, especially Ireland. There, a far longer period of colonial control did indeed significantly eliminate the original language (Gaelic), anglicise much of the population and led to so much socio-political assimilation that the Irish went out into the further Empire as imperial representatives. Like Japan in Korea, there were collaborators and there were brutalities (most notably the insistence on food exports during the Great Famine), but these were not deliberate, planned exterminations.

4. Politicisation: Elsewhere I have argued that South Korea's legitimacy needs fire a politicisation of the colonial period. My critics reject the notion that South Korean 'anti-Japanism' is driven by anything other than legitimate objections to Japanese behaviour from 1910-45. Several data-points suggest this is not so, all of which make it easier for Japanese conservatives to muddy the waters by claiming that 'South Korea demonises Japan beyond reason' (as I heard a Japanese scholar say at a conference once):

  • North Korea does not fixate on Japan the way South Korea does. The primary objects of North Korean enemy propaganda are the 'Yankee Colony' South Korea and the US. Japan is surely a villain but mostly serves as a foil to demonstrate Kim Il Sung's early heroics and nationalist commitment. If anti-Japanism were a deep, Korea-wide sentiment, surely the North would use it more for legitimacy's sake instead of the far-away Americans, or the preposterously mystical 'Baekdu bloodline.'
  • Dokdo military drills. Japan and South Korea are US allies. A war between them is unthinkable; indeed, given that US commanders are strewn throughout the defence structures of both, it would be nearly impossible for each to seriously fight the other. Were a conflict to break out between them, the US would likely leave the region, an eventuality no decision-maker in Seoul or Tokyo would risk. Yet Seoul nevertheless runs annual military exercises around the islets, such as test flights of combat aircraft or amphibious landings. These could be called off with no detriment to Korean security because Korean police, fishermen and tourists would still be present. In short, the exercises serve political rather than military goals.
  • The Sea of Japan renaming campaign. This appears almost purposefully antagonistic and political. One can certainly understand how the body of water to the east of Korea would be the 'East Sea' in Korean, just as Germans refer to the Baltic Sea in German as the 'East Sea'. But why should such a non-descript name (there are many places 'east' of other places) be a new global standard? Should the Indian Ocean be renamed for Sri Lankans? Should the Arabian Sea be renamed for Pakistanis? If the Sea of Japan becomes the East Sea, should the Korea Strait be renamed the South Strait, as the Japanese will almost certainly insist?
  • Ethnic Korean lobbying against Japan inside the US. Ethnic Korean-American lobbying has brought comfort-women memorials and the 'East Sea' to the US. This is marketed in South Korea as spreading global concern over Japanese recalcitrance, when in fact these are the outcome of concentrated Korean-American interest-group politics in the US with strong support back home. This is South Korea competing to negatively define Japan to the US, even though Japan is a US ally.

Each of these actions make sense within the framework I provided in my earlier Lowy essays – that Japan acts as a national identity 'other' against which South Korea constructs its political self. Each has an obvious political-theatrical element that does not advance the cause of Japanese softening on Korea's concerns. Rather, each clearly provokes Japan to stiffen its spine and hang tough as Abe has done – a point I have heard from many Japanese colleagues and friends over the years. 

The Korean, and Chinese, moral positions on the war and Japan's empire are correct. But a great deal of politics has enabled surprising Japanese recalcitrance. While no one expects moderation from the Chinese Communist Party, South Korea might smooth the path by rolling back some of its most maximal positions, such as points 3 and 4 above. None directly impact South Korean security or growth. All would strip the political cover from Japanese conservatives who claim 'Korea fatigue' as cause to reject concessions.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.