Japan stuck in past, as future threats grow

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” reads the enigmatic final line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

There’s something to the idea that nations, try as they might, are also constantly borne back into the past. In trying to shunt a country forward, politicians inevitably rattle off the glories of the past, fuelling nostalgia as much as any sense of forward momentum. 

Japan’s diplomatic position is a victim of this trend. Last week, Newsroom covered the country’s long, slow road to remilitarisation after the Second World War, and the country’s foreign policy is every bit as constrained by the past as the very real constraints the war placed on Japan’s pacifist constitution. 

For a start Japan is ringed about with enemies. Take the Korean peninsula. North Korea is an obvious threat, and officials in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs concede the rogue state is seriously dangerous, but this does not necessarily draw Japan closer to South Korea, who should be a natural ally. 

Instead, officials concede relations have sunk to a new lows with South Korea over the thorny subjects of the Liancourt Rocks and war reparations. The Liancourt rocks, called Dokdo by South Korea, and Takeshima by Japan and claimed by both, have been a bone of contention between the two countries since the Second World War. Korea currently administers the islands, although Japan continues to claim sovereignty on the basis of the fact that it did not cede sovereignty over them after the war, a fact Korea denies.

A far more emotive issue looming over the South Korean relationship relates to an ongoing dispute over compensation paid to Korean women forced to work in brothels for Japanese soldiers during the war, euphemistically known as “comfort women”.

After decades of legal disputes, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye thought they had settled the issue with a formal apology and a ¥1 billion (NZ$ 13.2 million) fund, the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, to assist the survivors - but the South Korean legal system intervened. 

South Korean victims of Japanese aggression feel their own government signed away their rights of appeal. A group took Japan’s Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp to South Korea’s top court, which ruled the company must compensate four South Koreans for their forced wartime labor. South Korea says there could be as many as 5,000 victims in a a similar position and able to receive compensation from Japan. There is currently a similar suit against Mitsubishi. Japan is refusing to uphold the claims, saying they were waived by the 1965 post-war "normalisation treaty". 

Domestic politics is changing the South Korean position. Korea’s new President Moon Jae-in had the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family disband the compensation fund. South Korea has pushed for a further apology, but has yet to tear up the original agreement.

In memorialising the sacrifices of soldiers past, Abe might have sacrificed relationships needed to secure his country’s future.

History is the lifeblood of any country. Each year around Waitangi Day, New Zealanders ponder what it means to have an open wound as the point of origin for our modern nation. We are not immune from the desire felt by Japan, to have such issues dealt to fully and finally — and to move on. But we are fortunate in that the sins of our past are dealt to in an exclusively domestic context. The Treaty settlement process allows Māori to decide when claims are settled. The process isn’t shoehorned into the staid, rehearsed context of international diplomacy as is the case of the South Korean and Japan dispute.

But Japan does itself no favours through its miserly compensation and its insistence that every settlement is final. It also harms its cause when its leaders play to their own conservative base by flirting with wartime nostalgia.

In 2013, Abe decided to visit Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine where Japan’s war dead are remembered - including those executed for grievous war crimes. The move played well at home, but enraged China and South Korea who took issue with Abe appearing to honour war criminals. In memorialising the sacrifices of soldiers past, Abe might have sacrificed relationships needed to secure his country’s future.

Japan’s fraught relationship with South Korea plays out in miniature across the region, where victims of Japanese aggression wish to make themselves felt and - equally as important - heard. It’s not difficult to see the resentment some Japanese feel at the state of affairs. The large European empires managed to avoid paying large compensation for their own atrocities or, as is the case in New Zealand, palmed off the issue of reparations onto domestic governments. But allowing the issue to breed resentment will only prolong the problem. Japan could look to its old wartime ally, Germany which used the idea of post-war reconstruction to forge stronger bonds with former foes. 

Thomas Coughlan travelled to Japan at the invitation of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.


Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: Thank you.

With thanks to our partners