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Japan's Relationship with it's Neighbors

Updated 6/23/05

The recent visit of Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi to Korea was an unsuccessful formal meeting.  Each leader stood their ground in issues that were most important to them - with the main issue being that of Koizumi's visits to the Yakusuni Shrine.   South Korean President Noh asked Prime Minister Koizumi to stop visiting the shrine, which has memorialized 14 "Class A" war criminals.  Also, he demanded the separation of the war criminals from the soldiers who died in war.


The Prime Minister's answers were to refuse to stop visiting the shrine and also he would consider separating the war criminals from the other soldiers.  Although Koizumi stated he would consider a new memorial without war criminals, it is very unlikely he will.

Many Japanese don't understand the controversy.  Why are South Korea and China so adamant about stopping the visits?  A visit to the Yakusuni Shrine is just like an American visit to the Arlington Cemetary.  Also, many Americans don't quite grasp this issue.  The simplest way to describe this issue is to compare


The relationship between Japan and the countries they previously invaded (China and Korea in particular) is very tenuous at best.

With Japan's attempt to have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, an oil-drilling rights disagreement, and the textbook controversy (which hasn't gone away and won't for some time), China has reacted with a vengeance.  From Tianjin and Beijing to Shanghai, the outrage has been visible with anti-Japanese demonstrations turning violent.  The Japanese though, aren't buying that these protests aren't sanctioned by the Chinese government because there were no attempts to stop the violence.  

Koreans, although peacefully demonstrating, are also upset with Japan - there is call for boycotting all things Japanese.  In addition to their dissatisfaction with Japan's nonchalance about the war and the watered-down history in their school textbooks, they're very upset about Japan's intent to claim Korea's Tokdo Island as their own.

The crux of the issue is that when Japan invaded China during WWII, a path of murder, rape and destruction was left behind...and they've never apologized for it or acted truly repentant.  

The same can be said for Korea.  They were dealt the same blow by the Japanese, with their women forced to be prostitutes for the Japanese soldiers, as well as many other atrocities (slave labor, for one), with no recourse or apology.  

Now that China has a little more clout with it's economy, it's not letting Japan push it over...and Japan is not willing to let China control them.

With the tension over the textbook controversy, in which Japan glosses over it's brutal history in regard to other countries, it seems they would be more careful in their actions.  But this was not the case in August 2001, when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited the Yakusuni Shrine ~one that honors  Japanese soldiers who died during war (for the emperor), which includes numerous war criminals.  In an attempt to appease China and South Korea, Koizumi didn't go on August 15 (the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II), but made a last minute announcement on the 13th that he was going that day.  This still incensed China and South Korea, but to a lesser degree than expected.

In addition to the yearly ritual at the Yakusuni shrine, another issue has been a thorn in Asia's side.  That of the Japanese textbook.  The textbook issue has been simmering for years, with outcries of rage from China and Korea regarding the glossing over of  Japan's aggressive invasions and subsequent brutality.  

Some in Japan feel that to have a "too dark" view of history is not acceptable, whereas others feel a true account of their past will help prevent a re-occurrence in the future.   Of course, the countries who citizens were killed, brutalized, maimed and raped, think nothing but the truth is best.

A small light of hope for Korea is that Korean and Japanese women's rights organizations have been working together.  Their goal is to develop an alternative history book that details the truth about Japan's invasion of Korea and its effect on the women, namely those forced to be "comfort women."  Unlike the Japanese government approved textbook, this one will not "whitewash" historical facts.

These issues bring to light some very interesting questions about Japan's motives.  What is their reason for honoring war criminals?  What is their reason for glossing over their history of aggressively  invading other countries?  For what reason, do they want to have a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council? What is their reason for an unrepentant attitude?

Maybe the some of the answers can be found within Japan itself.  The past few years have seen Japan with a sluggish economy. Not only are they having economic issues, there are personal and social issues to be dealt with.  The Japanese people themselves are not happy with their lives and one indication of this is that they have the world's highest suicide rate. As with any country, there is great nationalist pride.  This pride has seemed to diminish recently by lower than usual school test scores by OECD. 

To make matters worse, Korea is becoming a very popular place for many Japanese to visit.  Korean melodramas are making a big splash in Japan, doing more than any sappy political official meeting to repair the breech between the two countries.  All things Korean (actors and actresses, especially ~ Yonsama, anyone?) are beloved by many of the public.  Tours to Korea are shocking everyone with their increased frequency in the past few years.  

China on the other hand has become a force to be reckoned with, economically and even more surprisingly, politically.  Just recently, China has overtaken Japan as the third largest exporter...and Japan won't take it sitting down.  

Not only does Japan have to be concerned with China, Korea is knocking...rather knocking down...the door to technological superiority.  Samsung and LG are becoming household names to many in the cell phone sector.  Hyundai cars are well-built, well-warranted, well-priced competitors to Japan's more expensive, albeit better branded, counterparts.  Japan's innovation has slowed down, at a time when they can't afford it.  Instead of being on the cutting edge of electronic technology and the automotive industry, they seem to have been caught twiddling their thumbs.  

What does all this have to do with textbooks, war atrocities, oil-drilling rights, and shrines?  Well, with the Japanese government quickly losing face along with a lackluster economy, they have to shift the attention from themselves to others.  Reuniting their people and re-establishing a strong nationalism, without diluting it with other Asian influences, might be the end goal for the Japanese government.  This can be accomplished by bringing attention to the distrust and wariness China and Korea have toward Japan.

How will the Japanese government wield their power in the U.N.?  Many in Asia fear that the power will be abused to further Japan's cause, whatever that may be.  Although Japan seems to feel 60 years is plenty of time to "get over" the invasions, it's still too soon for many...  

America is supporting Japan's inclusion, but I wonder at what cost?  Those lost at Pearl Harbor would certainly question or doubt the sanity of a government who seems to forgive so readily a country who has an interesting history of repeating itself.

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