Japan–ROK ‘comfort women’ agreement not so final?

Author: Mark Caprio, Rikkyo University

The ‘irreversible’ agreement signed recently by the Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers to bring closure to the ‘comfort women’ issue already shows signs of reversal, even as the ink dries. The logjam centres on the golden ‘comfort women’ statue that has glared outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul since it was erected by activists in 2011.

A statue of a girl symbolising the issue of "comfort women" in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. (Photo: AAP) Is its removal, as some Japanese argue, a prerequisite for Japan releasing the pledged one billion yen (about US$8.5 million) fund to support former ‘comfort women’? Or, as the South Korean side counters, is it enough that their government ‘strives to resolve this issue appropriately’?

Both parties face serious dilemmas. The Abe administration can anticipate explosive criticism coming from ultra-conservative circles if they perceive the South Korean government to be reneging on this condition. On the other hand, any lingering support for the unpopular Park administration would quickly evaporate should it attempt to silence the fading voice of the former ‘comfort women’ by using force to remove the statue.

At the heart of this problem is a more fundamental issue that transcends the Japan–South Korean dispute: the reluctance of states to both recognise and offer contrition for their role in victimising others. Nations erect statues and deliver testimonies in the memory of those who answered the call to duty and condemn the enemy’s victimisation of their own people. But it is a rare case when a state acknowledges victims wrought by their belligerency.

As seen in Japan’s demands for the statue’s removal, states seek ways to forget this unfortunate side of history. Using the national narrative to hide a state’s ‘dirty historical laundry’ has proven to be the norm, not the exception.

The US’s wartime history is framed as a series of sacrifices made by its citizens ‘to liberate not to conquer’, as we are reminded at the World War II memorial in Washington, DC. Seoul’s War Memorial of Korea displays South Korea’s participation in the Vietnam War by telling of the schools it built rather than its egregious military excesses. Japan’s Yushukan museum at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine explains why Japan’s imperial expansion was ‘necessary’ rather than focusing on the enormous damages Japan perpetrated.

Efforts to select which aspects of history to remember — and which to forget — create glaring contradictions. Japan, for example, accepts as valid oral accounts of Japanese victimisation at the hands of the advancing Soviet armies in Manchuria and northern Korea, but rejects similar testimony of atrocities committed by Japan’s military in Nanking and other Chinese cities as fabricated.

How a state choreographs the bookends of war contributes to its treatment of the victims of that war. Establishing ‘just’ origins of war enables the belligerent to justify its actions, especially if a particular action can be argued to have contributed to a peaceful conclusion. Atomic bombs, in such a narrative, forced Japan’s surrender and prevented further horrors that direct invasion would have brought. Establishing the war’s starting point as a sudden attack on US interests justified in the minds of many the appropriateness of using the bombs to conclude the war, thus eliminating any consideration of a more peaceful option to attain this end.

These narratives are devised on the false premise that wars have clear beginnings and endings, and that within these bookends ‘good’ and ‘evil’ can be properly distinguished as absolutes. States generally justify their decision to engage in war as a response to an actual attack, or as a pre-emptive act to silence a growing threat or impending attack. A different picture emerges should war’s origins be calculated from the less transparent point at which the atmosphere of peace was breached.

Through examining war’s origins in relative — rather than absolute — terms, the responsibility for the war itself, as well as for the victims it creates, becomes collective rather than unilateral — the result of diplomatic miscalculations, human misunderstandings and shortsightedness by multiple parties. Rather than who fired first, why the initial shot was fired and how this first shot could have been prevented then becomes the operative questions in determining responsibility for the breach of peace.

This perspective does not change the direction of the golden ‘comfort women’ statue’s accusatory gaze: it should remain focused in the direction of Japan. But it may help shift the way the debate about the statue is framed. It suggests the need for a more holistic, multi-faceted narrative to allow her to view her victimisation in broader terms that also include institutions such as imperialism and war, along with their participants.

Considering this atrocity within a broader context that seeks to restore the trampled dignity of all Pacific War victims might resituate the statue as part of a larger internationally supported monument and learning centre. Such an educational memorial could signal acknowledgement of collective responsibility for war and the imperative to honour the victims inadvertently caught in its crossfire.

Mark Caprio is Professor of Korean History at the College of Intercultural Communication, Rikkyo University, Japan.