Renewed disputes over historical and territorial issues between South Korea and Japan have brought ties to their lowest ebb since the two countries normalized relations in 1965.
President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to South Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo last Friday sparked a chain of tit-for-tat accusations and actions that showed how deep antipathy stemming from their unfortunate history runs between the neighbors.
Brushing aside protests from Tokyo, which has also laid claim to the islets, Lee later said Japan’s continued denial of its past wrongdoings had led him to make the unprecedented visit by a South Korean head of state. In his Liberation Day speech Wednesday, Lee urged Japan to take sincere measures to resolve the issue of Korean women forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during World War II, describing the case as a “violation of universal human rights and historical justice.” On the same day in Tokyo, however, two Japanese cabinet members and about 50 lawmakers paid their respects at the Yasukuni Shrine honoring war dead including Class-A war criminals.
Concerns are mounting that relations between South Korea and Japan are entering a vicious circle in which diplomatic confrontations affect economic cooperation and then spill over into public emotion toward each other. It is certainly not the course to be followed by the two neighbors, which share basic values and should work together for a better future.
With antipathy expressed between the two sides in recent days, what should have drawn more attention ― particularly from Japanese officials ― were rallies organized by Japanese women living here a day before Liberation Day marking Korea’s independence from Japan’s colonial rule in 1945.
About 1,200 Japanese women, most of whom are married to Korean men, apologized for the wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women and urged Tokyo to admit its responsibility and compensate the victims.
They wanted to act on their conscience after knowing about the sufferings of Korean women forced to work at front-line brothels, many of whom had no chance to return home. Their resolution enabled the usually shy Japanese housewives to take to the streets at 13 locations across the country.
We see that their conscientious acts point to how to resolve the wartime sexual slavery and other historical issues between the two countries. Their voices should be heard by Japanese leaders, who regretfully do not appear moved by or even aware of them.
Though in a different setting, many Japanese housewives and the like have departed from their past passive attitude to raise their voice against high-handed politicians, who have been pushing their country to the right. Such a tendency has been conspicuous in anti-nuclear demonstrations since March.
Speaking at a rally in July, an 81-year-old writer appealed to participants to make a “Japan suitable to its small territory, but which can make its people feel happy” to be born there. Her appeal must have fallen on deaf ears, but it could be that the right path to Japan’s better future might eventually be found in such voices of ordinary Japanese citizens.
For their part, Koreans need to step up efforts to shed more light on movements by conscientious Japanese people and correspond them with more temperate and forward-looking attitudes.