In the past year, South Korean activists and politicians have heightened their campaign for official Japanese apology and compensation to former “comfort women,” who were forced into military prostitution during the Asian Pacific War.  They reflect the urgency of providing moral closure to elderly women before they pass away.  Activists rally weekly in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, the foreign minister rebuke Japan in the United Nations, and the South Korean President land on the contested territory known as Dokdo (Korean)/Takeshima (Japanese), all in the name of forcing the Japanese government to address the issue.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the pressure campaign has elicited sharp backlash from Japanese politicians and embittered relations between the two, leading Asian democracies.  Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has rejected more apologies, and the two governments have shelved substantive discussions on economic and security cooperation, including plans for a $57 billion currency-swap agreement to insure against the global financial crisis.

The impasse suggests the need for a fresh, new approach to deal with the comfort women issue, and the general problem of reconciling opposed groups.  I stress forgiveness (along with apology) and civil society (along with government).

Among victim advocates, the conventional wisdom is that apologizing for past acts of injustice is a prerequisite for improving inter-group ties.  However, sincere apologies and remorse are more likely in an atmosphere of trust and friendship than in one of recrimination and hostility.  The festering dispute over comfort women, along with the Dokdo/Takeshima islets, has helped foster anti-Japanese prejudice in South Korea.

One of my university students (Junko), a young female, reported taking the Seoul subway.  “A stranger yelled, when he found me talking with my Japanese friend on my cell phone, ‘Hey damn the bitch child of disseizor [sly invader], get out of Korea now!’”

Another woman student (Naoko) said: “A random stranger suddenly came up to me in subway station and said ‘Fucking Japanese!’ (in Japanese) and just walked away. I got so confused with what just had happened and my brain completely froze. I was just surprised and didn’t understand why he hates Japanese that much.”

Junko and Naoko also experienced acts of kindness.  Naoko said that on a shopping trip, her Korean teaching assistant (and guide) prevented the shop clerks from cheating her.  “It turned out that those shop clerks were talking behind our back knowing that we don’t understand what they were saying, and they even gave me higher price just because I am Japanese and I don’t understand Korean. This is what made my TA really angry and she told us not to buy anything from those kind of stores.”

A pervasive sense of victimhood helps justify acts of harassment and discrimination against members of the despised, out-group; it undermines opportunities for dialogue, friendship and reconciliation.  In contrast, an attitude of forgiveness and grace expands such opportunities.  Grace is often a more powerful form of suasion than is coercion.  We can make an analogy with the fable of the sun and wind.  The cold wind pushes the traveler to hold onto his coat even tighter.  In contrast, the warm sun moves him to finally release his burdensome baggage.

In the Korean folk tale, Cheoyong-mu, a wise man named Cheoyong drove away the plague or evil spirit who bedded his wife, not by coercive force but by a persuasive song and gentle attitude.  In one version of the story, the plague spirit rose from the bed and fell on his knees before Choeyong, saying, “I admired your wife for her beautiful person and now I have despoiled her. When I perceived you were not angry with me, I was struck with wonder and admiration. Hereafter, when I see even the picture of your face, I swear I will not enter the house.”  Henceforth, the people hung Choeyong’s picture on their gates as protection against disease and other evil spirits.

A sense of grace is rooted in the understanding that no group has a monopoly on virtue or vice.  It is reflected in the wide variety of formal and informal organizations that connect different persons.  They include the Korean branch of the International Churches of Christ, founded by a Korean and Japanese couple; the Buddhist group Soka Gakkai; the weekly Meetup language mixers, and the ubiquitous Gangnam-style dances.  They foster an inclusive, transnational civil society, where people learn about each other’s experiences and perspectives in friendly, high-trust settings.

Focused on their narratives of victimhood, demonstrators in Korea and China seem to forget that their armies have also inflicted brutalities on civilians, whether in Vietnam or in Tibet.  Korean advocacy organizations have also consistently rejected reconciliation attempts from even the most progressive, sympathetic politicians in Japan.  In 1995, a Japanese governing coalition, led by Socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, expressed its “deep remorse” over colonialism and aggression and specifically apologized to the comfort women. It set up the Asian Women’s Fund, with public donations and state funds, to offer monetary compensation and health and welfare support to the surviving victims from South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia and the Netherlands.

Thousands of Japanese offered their monies and moral contrition, and hundreds of comfort women and their communities, esp. in Southeast Asia, offered their testimonials.  On the other hand, Korean advocates firmly rejected any “humanitarian” aid and demanded that the Japanese government accept criminal legal responsibility and official reparations.  In March 2012, before the current bilateral crisis, victim advocates rejected another proposal for “humanitarian” aid from the Japanese government.

Postwar Japan is a flourishing, pluralistic democracy, whose politicians depend on often-contentious public opinion.  For Japanese leaders to offer more robust apologies and aid, we need to cultivate a more sympathetic Japanese public.  Over the past four decades, advocacy organizations have spent enormous monies and efforts to criticize Japan.  In the next decades, it would be a better use of resources to reach out to ordinary Japanese citizens and to contribute to a mature, empathic civil society and politics that further justice to all.

Memories of victimhood need not lead to a perpetual cycle of bitterness and rage.  Suffering can also make us more understanding of the suffering of others, and to understand the beauty and power of grace.  Let us show a generosity of spirit to those around us.