Updated: Oct 18, 2021
The statue of a man with a likeness to Abe kneels before the statue of a “comfort woman” at Korea Botanic Garden, Pyeongchang (Image from The San Diego Union-Tribune).
Japan and South Korea’s historically rocky relationship has pressed on since the 7th century, instigated by a series of cultural and economic events. It seems frivolous that two of the world’s economic juggernauts persist in their mutual antagonism in the context of global trade, be the reason what it may be. A closer look shows us that a single player served a pivotal role in the history-worn friction: former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
For many reasons, Abe was a political firebrand; not only was he a leader of the far rightwing nationalist organization Nippon Kaigi, but he also cast his support behind his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, a declared Class A war crime suspect. An ardent leader of Japan’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Abe has advocated for both a controversial change in Japan’s history textbooks to invoke a “love for one’s country” in schoolkids and an amendment of the country’s pacifist constitution. The Prime Minister recently resigned from his position, citing the return of his chronic ulcerative colitis as the reason behind it.
The two Asian countries’ relationship soured initially over Japan’s historical annexation and occupation of Korea and has remained that way despite some newfound trade agreements between them before Abe took office.
By far, Abe’s most controversial action was his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. A Shinto Shrine, Yasukuni houses 2,446,532 people, 1,068 of whom were convicted of War Crimes in World War II. Of those 1,068 individuals, 14 were declared class A war criminals, whose tribunals were a team of victor countries in World War II. In the eyes of many, the shrine is a microcosm of Japan’s unapologetic and dismissive attitude toward its actions in the late 1930s and 1940s- Abe, in paying it an explicit visit shrouded his government in contention, offending not only South Korea, but also other neighboring countries that Japan invaded.
Another roadblock in the relationship is that the Japanese government’s World War II recruitment and coercion of an estimated 200,000 South Korean “comfort women” for the sexual entertainment of troops is unacknowledged as of today. The evasive wording of Japanese leaders’ – especially Abe’s- apologies for the treatment of these comfort women has remained a source of contention for decades. When then-prime minister Junichiro Koizumi reached out to South Korea in a heartfelt apology that his country “caused tremendous damage and pain,” Abe unabashedly yelled, “idiot!” on national television. He has persevered in his disregard for the suffering of thousands, claiming that “Japan and South Korea are now entering a new era,” and that “we should not drag this problem into the next generation.”
A 2015 agreement between Japan and South Korea mandated that Abe apologize to the comfort women and pay what amounted to $8.3 million to fund an organization to support the surviving comfort women who are now senior citizens. South Koreans did not consider this sufficient. Both nations signed the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), but, as this was signed during the stint of toppled-from-power demagogue Park Geun-hye, it no longer held its past significance when power transferred to Moon Jae-in. Moon took several months to evaluate the situation before deciding not to renegotiate the deal, despite making it clear that his country was not satisfied. Abe, in the face of Moon’s cooperation, declared that Japan would not move “even by a millimeter” on the agreement.
Even today, Moon cites the goal of his pursuit of Japan’s reimbursement as “reestablishing social justice” by addressing and rectifying the bumps in history.
Comfort women were not the only group that saw harsh dismissal and belittlement by Japan’s prime minister. In October of 2019, Korea’s top court ordered that Japanese-owned company Mitsubishi Heavy Industries pay 28 Korean victims that they exploited during World War II — or their families — what amounted to $133,000 per person. Another such ruling demanded that Japan’s Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal also reimburse former South Korean employees. To apologize and pay reimbursement would have been a step towards nurturing the tie with an expeditious trade partner and may have coaxed Korea into lifting trade restrictions on Japan.
Shinzo Abe did the opposite.
Japan’s revisionist government, under Abe’s auspices, began imposing restrictions of Japanese exports of high-tech goods into Korea in retaliation. Among these goods were quintessential components to fuel Korea’s semiconductor industry. His cabinet and he have repeatedly cited the 1965 treaty between the East Asian neighbors, which was meant to normalize postwar relations, as a kind of abrupt closure of the discussion of South Korean victims. Under the terms of the treaty, Japan was to pay $500 million in long term low interest loans and grants.
Of course, it is not fair to blame Abe entirely for bringing the relation between the nations where it is today. In the midst of diplomatic disputes, however, he showed only obstinate arrogance and reluctant apology in response to historical messes that South Korea feels have not been compensated for. The somewhat intact diplomatic interactions between Japan and South Korea are crumbling quickly and will continue this way. Abe’s lasting effect as Japanese prime minister lies in the dangerous precedent he set shunning the history of the exploited in favor of national pride.