War memories and territorial disputes in Northeast Asia

Author: Preeti Nalwa, Pacific Forum CSIS

This year, the territorial disputes between South Korea, China and Japan have coincided with Japan’s World War II commemorative services at the Yasukuni shrine.

The 67th anniversary celebrations have brought the memory of war back into the political consciousness of the three most advanced nations in Asia.

The three countries’ histories of World War II continue to negatively affect their perceptions of one another. China and South Korea blame Japan for having failed to offer an apology over wartime atrocities commensurate with their expectations. Japan, for its part, thinks its contribution toward the economic development of South Korea and China is expediently overlooked. Japan has also offered apologies to both nations on several occasions.

The territorial disputes over the Dokdo/Takeshima and Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have prevented strengthening strategic relations that could better address the North Korean regional nuclear threat. As a result of these disputes, what could be the most powerful triangle on the international stage is still not being developed.

In a solemn ceremony on 15 August 2012, Japan observed the anniversary of its World War II surrender. In order to avoid frictions with China and South Korea, all three Democratic Party of Japan prime ministers — Yukio Hatoyama, Naoto Kan and Yoshihiko Noda — have refrained from visiting the Yasukuni shrine. At a separate memorial service, Prime Minister Noda apologised to victims of Japanese wartime atrocities and reaffirmed Japan’s pledge to maintain its war-renouncing policy by stating that ‘we have caused tremendous damage and pain to many countries, particularly the Asian people, during the war. We deeply regret that and sincerely mourn for those who were sacrificed and their relatives. … We will not repeat the same mistake’.

In October 2011, in an effort to improve bilateral relations with South Korea, Prime Minister Noda returned five copies of treasured ancient royal documents dating back to Korea’s Joseon dynasty (1392–1897), to Korean President Lee Myung Bak. On 6 December 2011 South Korea received an additional 1200 volumes of historic archives from Japan.

According to Ambassador Hiroshi Hirabayashi, Japan has consistently regarded the issue of ‘comfort women’ as ‘legally settled with the Japan–Republic of Korea Basic Relations Treaty in 1965’. In 1993 Yohei Kono, the then chief cabinet secretary, offered a formal apology and stated that ‘the Japanese army during the war deeply hurt the honour and dignity of many women’. The Asian Women’s Fund was subsequently created to carry out ‘atonement projects’, and a national fund-raising campaign was organised to raise money from Japanese nationals for ‘remorse and sympathy’ payments for former ‘comfort women’.

But the Korean government, in consonance with the feelings of the ‘comfort women’, has taken the stance that it will not accept compensation without Japan’s legal responsibility being officially acknowledged. There is a difference of opinion between Japan and South Korea regarding the settlement of various historical issues especially the unfulfilled legal obligations towards the ‘comfort women’, but in the present case the age-old maxim that ‘10 per cent of conflict is due to a difference of opinion and 90 per cent is due to wrong tone of voice’ comes to mind.

During Korea Liberation day celebrations Lee remarked that if Japan’s Emperor wished to visit South Korea, ‘it would be good if he apologises sincerely to those who passed away while fighting for independence’. He also repeated that the Japanese government should take ‘responsible measures’ on the issue of ‘comfort women’. These comments have further vitiated relations between South Korea and Japan.

Despite generational change, war memories continue to adversely affect foreign policy. Growing feelings of disrespect could ignite national outrage, dislocate the fragile power equilibrium in the region, and further complicate power politics in Northeast Asia.

Problem-driven approaches to the management and settlement of historical and territorial issues are ultimately overtaken by power-centric responses. This time, Japan, China and South Korea have made their territorial claims while upgrading their military apparatus so it is ready to respond with force, should the need to do so arise. This dangerously exacerbates the lingering strains in trilateral relations. In this atmosphere, unnecessarily goading neighbours’ national pride could take an ugly turn; the current setback is Lee’s own making.

Japan has taken strong measures against South Korea by conveying its intent to fairly and unequivocally assert territorial sovereignty over the disputed islets, by instituting the case in the International Court of Justice, cancelling a few scheduled meetings and strongly requesting an apology for the remarks made by Lee relating to the Japanese Emperor.

Japan is taking a sensible approach by trying not to further escalate tensions. For example a Japanese Foreign Ministry official has said that ‘countermeasures should not go beyond the accepted boundary of the international community’.

On different occasions, all three nations have demonstrated a capacity to scale down mutual tensions and to stop relations from badly deteriorating. As major players in the international community, China, Japan and South Korea are expected to become responsible stakeholders in East Asia’s elusive peace. The use of war memories as political leverage — along with the failure to decisively resolve territorial disputes — is keeping these three countries from successfully building a common Asian identity and a Northeast Asian security community.

Preeti Nalwa is a Non-Resident Kelly Fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Japan Foundation Doctoral Fellow and PhD candidate at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi.