A new apology: The progression of Japan’s national remorse

Bonnie Tilland

On Oct. 15, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a one-day trip to South Korea to build a better relationship between Japan and South Korea, and prepare for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit which happened Oct. 20-21, in Shanghai. Although this peace-building event was overshadowed by recent events in the Middle East, it is a significant encounter in Japan-Korea relations, and what Koizumi does and says now could make or break a new era of relative peace between the two countries. Korea and Japan have had a long and strained historical relationship, with anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea largely the result of Japan’s brutal occupation of Korea from 1910-1945. Although Japanese prime ministers have made several formal “apologies” to Korea in recent years, many Koreans are concerned that these apologies have not undergone a significant change or encouraged enough progress in Japanese-Korean relations.

Some Koreans feel that Japan’s apologies are not really apologies at all, only flowery attempts to whitewash past actions, while some Koreans believe a spoken or written apology by itself is not enough. The Korean “comfort women,” who were forced to serve as sex slaves to the Japanese military, have been disappointed by the string of apologies and are protesting for monetary compensation and the punishment of war criminals.

The first apology issued by a Japanese prime minister for wartime atrocities was in 1994, when then prime minister Tomiichi Murayama apologized to all Asian countries for Japan’s colonial rule and aggressive wartime actions. His successor, Keizo Obuchi, took the apology one step further and apologized to Korea specifically, issuing the first-ever written apology and expressing his “deep felt remorse and heartfelt apologies over the pain and damage Japan inflicted on the South Korean people during its colonial rule.” This apology served to warm Japanese-Korean relations for a time, but the protesting began anew after two events this year.

The first event to spark protest was the approval in Tokyo of a junior high school history book which downplayed Japan’s past militarist actions. The second event took place only a few weeks after Prime Minister Koizumi took office, on Aug. 13, when he publicly visited a Tokyo shrine honoring Japan’s war dead, including a number of convicted war criminals. Koizumi tried to counteract the shrine controversy with a visit to the Sodaemun Prison Hall Museum in Seoul, where he laid a wreath for Korean independence fighters who were killed by the Japanese military. Koizumi also made the most straightforward statement of apology Japan has issued to date, saying, “I sincerely apologize for the pain and sorrow Japan inflicted on the Korean people under Japanese colonial rule.”

Koizumi’s apology is certainly an important step in repairing Japan-Korea relations, but it remains to be seen whether it will make much of an impact. Koizumi issued an apology to China earlier this month for Japan’s military control in the 1930s and 1940s, and the apology was accepted without much comment. Koizumi will have a much harder time receiving forgiveness from Korea; South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung is clearly waiting to see whether Koizumi will back up his verbal apology with peaceful actions. There is a growing concern in South Korea over Japan’s plans to support U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, and many Korean citizens fear that Japan is using this as an excuse to rise as a military superpower once more.

For more information on this issue, please see CNN.com and BBC News online.