South Korean President Lee Myung-bak yesterday warned that conflicts over bitter shared history were complicating ties with former colonial master Japan and urged Tokyo to do more to resolve an emotive dispute over Korean women abducted to serve as sex slaves to wartime Japanese soldiers.
Underscoring how history haunts Japan’s ties with neighboring South Korea and China, two Japanese Cabinet ministers paid homage at a controversial Tokyo shrine for war dead on the 67th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Despite close economic ties, memories of Japanese militarism run deep in China and South Korea.
Recent feuding over rival claims to rocky islands are the latest sign of how the region has been unable to resolve differences over its past nearly seven decades after Japan’s defeat and the end of the occupation and colonization of its neighbors.
Lee, whose visit on Friday to an island claimed by both Seoul and Tokyo frayed ties between the two US allies, yesterday called Japan an “important partner that we should work with to open the future.”
However, in remarks commemorating Korea’s liberation from Japan’s 1910-1945 rule, Lee also said the countries’ tangled history was “hampering the common march toward a better tomorrow.”
He urged Tokyo to do more to resolve a dispute over compensation for Korean women abducted to serve as sex slaves for wartime Japanese soldiers, known by the euphemism “comfort women” in Japan and long a source of friction.
“It was a breach of women’s rights committed during wartime, as well as a violation of universal human rights and historic justice. We urge the Japanese government to take responsible measures in this regard,” Lee said.
Japan says the matter was closed under a 1965 treaty establishing diplomatic ties. In 1993, Tokyo issued a statement in the name of its then-chief Cabinet secretary and two years later set up a fund to make payments to the women, but South Korea say those moves were not official and so not enough.
The feuds reflect skepticism among Japan’s Asian neighbors over the sincerity of its apologies for wartime and colonial excesses. On Tuesday, Lee told a meeting of teachers that Japanese Emperor Akihito should apologize sincerely if he wants to visit South Korea, saying a repeat of his 1990 expression of “deepest regrets” would not suffice.
Speaking at a ceremony marking the war’s end yesterday, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiko Noda acknowledged the “enormous damage and suffering” caused by Japan to other countries, especially in Asia.
“We deeply reflect upon [that] and express our deepest condolences to the victims and their families,” he said, vowing that Japan would never go to war again.
Tapping into anti-Japanese sentiment remains a way to seek public support in South Korea and China, which face leadership changes in the coming months, and some experts see a new strain of nationalism surfacing in Japan amid frustration at the country’s stagnant economy and disappointment with Noda’s ruling party three years after it surged to power on hopes for change.
In a sign of the domestic pressures, Japanese National Public Safety Commission Chairman Jin Matsubara and Japanese Transport Minister Yuichiro Hata visited the Yasukuni Shrine for war dead, defying Noda’s urgings to stay away.
Many see the shrine as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism because 14 Japanese wartime leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal are honored there, along with Japan’s war dead.
Wednesday’s visit was the first by a cabinet minister since the Democrats swept to power in 2009, promising to forge warmer ties with the rest of Asia.
The China Daily, Beijing’s main English-language newspaper, warned that the shrine visits risked “putting hard-won diplomatic relations with China in jeopardy.”
“Some Japanese politicians are trying to distract the Japanese public from domestic problems by creating conflicts with China, but this is just doubling down on a bad bet,” a commentary said.