South Korea-Japan relations have experienced growing tensions over the disputed islet of Dokdo/Takeshima, Japanese historical textbooks, and especially apology and compensation to former Korean “comfort women,” who were forced into military prostitution during the Asian Pacific War. Addressing the U.N. General Assembly on Sept 29th, South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan declared: “It requires a sound historical consciousness and heartfelt soul-searching on any past wrongdoings in order for solid peace and stability to be established between nations” (Korea Herald).
The confrontation has soured public opinion in both countries. On 26 November 2012, the Japanese Interior Ministry reported survey findings that only 39.2 percent of the Japanese public liked Korea, a massive plunge from 62.2 percent last year. It was the first time since 1999 that a majority said they do not like Korea (ChosunIlbo). Although Japanese dislike of Koreans has increased only recently, Korean dislike of Japan is longstanding. A 2010 Korean survey showed that only 38.4 percent of respondents felt friendly toward Japan (and 59.5 unfriendly), even though 64.8 percent agreed that Japan has helped Korea’s development.
Anti-Japanese public sentiment has sometimes led to prejudicial actions against Japanese students and visitors in South Korea. Ms. Junko Iwasaki, 21, student at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (Beppu, Ōita, Japan) and currently an exchange student at Hanyang University, reported an incident at 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 Hanyang exchange student, Ms. Naoko Yoshimura, 24, replied: “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.”
To gauge global views of Korea-Japan relations, we surveyed more than thirty native Koreans, four Japanese, and international students from Asia, Europe, America, and the Middle East. Respondents generally expressed favorable views of Japanese culture (e.g., food, music) and the general kindness of Japanese people. However, Koreans and international residents expressed sharply divergent perspectives on the Japanese government and the necessity of apology.
Reflecting the views of Korean students, Mr. Dosung Shin, 25, HUFS, said: “Japan should apologize about the comfort women issue to the victims. Some people might argue that those issues are already over since the Japanese government already paid a fair amount of money to the Korean government [in 1965]. However, that decision was made by late President Park Junghee and some government officials without including the people who’ve suffered by being comfort women.”
Ms. Junko Iwasaki replied that no amount of apologies can placate the Korean government or public. The Japanese government has already apologized more than fifty times since the second World War. “I think we should apologize if victims want but it is endless because they do not accept our apology.” Even when Japanese government apologizes, “Koreans will not be satisfied…because they are not ready to accept. I think Korea is not ready to accept apology of Japan unless Korean society change their thoughts.”
Iwasaki blamed the Korean education system for teaching a one-sided history of Korea-Japan relations, where Korea is always the victim and Japan the perpetrator.
Many Koreans believe that their education is right but Japanese education is wrong, but I do not think so. Both of them should teach right history, it cannot be said which is exactly right or wrong. I found that many Koreans do not mention about their education, they only blame Japanese one! How can they believe their education is completely right? I really like Korean people but I cannot understand it.
Iwasaki said that historical textbooks in her school provided a comprehensive, balanced perspective, including a discussion of Japan’s war crimes.
Mr. Osamu Kira, writer of the Nishinippon Shumbum, Japan, came to Busan in April 2012 to serve as an exchange-writer with the Busan Ilbo (newspaper) for six months. Like many young Japanese, he likes Korea and “want to be objective regardless of my nationality.” He was surprised “how strong the anti-Japanese campaign of Korean government and media is, especially after Dokto problem occurred.” Kira warned that the anti-Japanese campaign is leading to a public backlash in Japan. “Now in Japan the bad mood against Korea and China is increasing rapidly. I understand why the Koreans hate Japanese but it is a reverse effect if they go too far. I think Japan and Korea need to make favorable mood to talk each other rather than fighting.”
The international students generally agreed with Kira. Mr. Jochen Sproll (Hanyang), 27, Germany, said “For me as a foreigner, it is difficult to understand why there are a lot of problems between these countries today. The Japanese occupation is a long time ago and the people should get over the past and start a common future, because economically there is already a close cooperation between the two countries. ”
Mr. Danish Javed (Hanyang), 24, Pakistan, said that his country has fought many wars with Indian, as recently as 1999, but they are currently working to improve ties. He said that Korea can do the same with Japan, which has mostly been a peaceful, helpful neighbor. “Japan especially after world war two has been a country which has set many positive examples of peace and economic growth, with hardly any hostile direct confrontation on military grounds. It has been a beacon of growth peace and progress in my eyes.”
Even though Korean students and international residents have divergent opinions over Korea-Japan relations, they shared the view that the current confrontation only worsens relations. If Korean and Japanese politicians refuse to meet each other, such as during the 2012 Asia Summit, then it is up to the civil societies in both countries to do so. Ms. Kristina Kashfullina (HUFS), 20, Russia, said that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) need to take the lead in improving bilateral relations. Mrs. Colette Takigawa, born in France and currently an activist in the Seoul-based Universal Peace Foundation (www.upf.org), announced a World Summit on February 2013 to include government, business, religious and other community leaders from all over the world.
Mr. Kang (Hanyang), 23, suggested that prominent scholars from both countries jointly publish a common history text book which could be selected by public schools. Ms. Junko recommended the 1995 Asia Women’s Fund, which provided each surviving comfort woman with a signed apology from the Prime minister and material compensation jointly funded by the government and private donations.
Ms. Sohee Kim (Hanyang), 23, wished that better communications and understanding between the two countries would lead to Japanese society’s consensus on remorse and government apology to victims. This would bring “bright future and mutual cooperation.” Conversely, Ms. Kristina Kashfullina expressed the hope that Korean society can reach a consensus “that it was the previous generations that have committed the sins, not the current one; and that the current one deserve being forgiven.”
Professor Joseph Yi added, “No country is perfect. I love Korea, and I welcome Japanese people to visit and share that love. I also encourage Koreans to visit the kind people of Japan. Students from Japan, and from all countries, are always welcomed and appreciated in my classes.”
This work was supported by Hankuk University of Foreign Studies Research Fund of 2012.