Relations between South Korea and Japan have never been warm. Tokyo declared Korea a protectorate in 1905 and officially annexed it in 1910 (a year after Ahn made his mark). The occupation was brutal, with Japan insisting Koreans take Japanese names and forcing many into hard labor.
However, Park has been particularly frosty toward Abe, who has a long track record of trying to portray Japan’s wartime and imperial history with South Korea (and China) in a less negative light. Park has complained that, among other things, Tokyo has failed to fully own up to its actions against Korean and other women who were enslaved by the Japanese military as prostitutes during World War II.
Xi, who like the South Korean leader has refused to meet with Abe, quickly set about fulfilling Park’s request. The decision not only fits with the larger public relations push against Japan, it also allowed China, at least symbolically, to drive a wedge between the US’ two most important Asian allies.
The memorial certainly attracted the attention of the Abe government. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga called Ahn “a terrorist” soon after it opened.
The memorial, by contrast, depicts Ahn as a scholarly, serious and brave freedom fighter.
He was 29, well-educated (in Confucian classics) and was a member of the armed resistance against Japan when he decided to kill Ito, a four-time prime minister, and in Japanese history, generally depicted as a reformer.
Before the assassination in 1909, Ahn and a group of fellow conspirators cut their fourth fingers and used the blood to write “Korean independence” in Chinese on a Korean national flag. He was then elected leader of the group of 12, which called itself the “Cut Finger Association.”
Accounts from the period say that Ahn learned that Ito was planning to visit Harbin, then a boom town, to meet with the then-Russian finance minister Vladimir Kokovtsov to discuss their countries’ competing interests in Manchuria after the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War.
After shooting Ito three times in the chest at close range, Ahn was captured by Russian soldiers. He was handed over to the Japanese in Manchuria, put on trial and executed on Feb. 14, 1910.
“I didn’t do this as an individual; I did it as a soldier of the Korean Volunteer Army, and I did it for my motherland’s independence and for peace in the East,” an inscription under a photo of Ahn at his trial says.
Hua Zhengfeng, 36, a Chinese sports trainer, visited the memorial on a recent Sunday and exuded confidence about China’s trajectory.
He said that he admired Ahn but that unlike in those days, China was strong and, seemingly at odds with his government’s public relations push, no longer needed to worry about Japan.
“Ahn’s time was quite different to mine,” Hua said. “Japan is not dangerous now; Japan only flees. Compared to China, Japan is comparatively weak.”