While messages of condolences poured into Japan from all over the world after the death of Japan’s ex-Prime Minister Shinzo Abes, one channel remained silent: not a word of condolences came from Korea. And there is a reason for this: Under the murdered Abe, who served as Japanese prime minister for the longest time, the relationship between the two neighbors had more than cooled off.
For Shinzo Abe stood for a revisionist course that put into perspective the atrocities that imperial Japan had committed against the people of Korea. Abe’s point, in brief, was that Japan had already apologized and no further expressions of sympathy were needed.
This shocked people in Korea, especially with regard to so-called “comfort women”. That was the trivializing name given to those young girls who had to obey the Japanese armed forces when the soldiers were far from home and longed for human warmth after a day full of heinous crimes. Last year, a Korean court ruled that Japan had to pay compensation to the sex slaves its army kept in Korea. The Japanese government rejected the request to pay reparations.
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The two governments had reached an agreement for compensation in 2015, but this was rejected as insufficient by surviving victims. In essence, this refusal did not seem to relate to the amount of compensation, but to the attitude with which Japan had appeared in connection with the talks. During his tenure during talks on this agreement, Prime Minister Abe made several visits to a religious shrine dedicated to the memory of the soldiers who invaded Korea and China.
Alexander Görlach is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York. The PhD linguist and theologian teaches democratic theory in Germany, Austria and Spain as an honorary professor at Leuphana University. In the 2017-18 academic year, he was at National Taiwan University and City University Hong Kong to conduct research on China’s rise. He is currently researching new technologies at the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute and how they are used in democracies and abused in dictatorships.
When there was no condolence address from Korea, netizens on both sides suspected that the relationship between the two nations, which had been disrupted under Abe, was the reason for Seoul’s silence. Asking Korea to offer condolences to Japan is, as one post on Twitter put it, like forcing a Jew to lament the death of a Holocaust denier and offer condolences to his bereaved relatives. Such statements are a water level gauge of the relationship with Japan, which was allied with Hitler’s Germany. In Japan, meanwhile, people are in shock. There will be elections on Sunday and politicians from all parties condemned, stunned, the murder. Gun laws are very strict in Japan. The assassin assembled his gun himself at home.
Then, on Saturday, the telegram came from Seoul: President Moon Suk-yeol expressed his sympathy and condolences to the widow of the slain Abe and to the Japanese people, saying that the murder “is a crime that cannot be forgiven”. Both countries, Korea and Japan, would do well to recalibrate their tone and look more to the past than the future. For, unlike when Japan was the aggressor in the region, neighboring China is now the power seeking to subjugate countries in the region. On the way to a new rapprochement between the two countries, one must hope that the Japanese side understands that the perpetrators of the past can never determine when their victims have had enough with apologizing.