Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Reconciling Colonial Memories in Korea and Japan

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Reconciling Colonial Memories in Korea and Japan

Article excerpt

The Republic of Korea and Japan share a tumultuous history, but arguably no period has caused greater trauma in bilateral relations than the twentieth century. After Japan's four-decade long colonial occupation of Korea, the two countries took two decades just to establish diplomatic relations. Subsequent interactions have remained seriously compromised by the memory of colonialism. This article reviews the tensions behind the tempestuous bilateral relationship, focusing on the depiction of Japan's wartime past in school textbooks. We advance three suggestions for reconciliation: viewing reconciliation not as the restoration of a harmonious pre-conflict order, but as an ongoing, incomplete process; expanding promising bilateral dialogues; and accepting that there will always be differences between Korea and Japan, most notably with regard to representations of the past. Rather than being an inevitable source of conflict, these differences should contribute to an ongoing process of negotiation between the two neighbors.

Key words: South Korea-Japan relations, history of East Asia


Japan and South Korea have much in common, from shared cultural values to interlinked economic interests and a common desire to contain the threat of North Korea. Both countries are liberal democracies. Both have made remarkable economic progress over several decades. And both have close political and security ties with the United States. But despite these strong bonds, significant problems often hamper the bilateral relationship between Tokyo and Seoul. The key source of tension is the memory of Japan's colonial occupation of Korea during the first half of the twentieth century. Although more than sixty years in the past, the wounds of that period are still fresh enough to generate significant political obstacles.

All political communities are in one way or another formed around questions of memory, most notably around how past traumas are used to construct a sense of shared purpose and identity. This process of identity formation is as inevitable as it is problematic. But the issues at stake are particularly significant and sensitive in Northeast Asia. Both Japan and South Korea have constructed their sense of national identity around a particular understanding of the past. And in many instances these understandings stand in sharp contrast to each other, thus generating regular political tension. The consequences of such tensions could be quite substantial, for a close relationship between Japan and South Korea may well be necessary to address a range of future security challenges in the region, such as dealing with a volatile North Korea or finding ways to mediate a possible clash between the United States and an increasingly powerful China.

Perhaps the most important (and certainly the most symbolic) point of friction is the manner in which Japanese school textbooks depict the actions of the imperial army in Korea, China and other countries. Strong disagreements have emerged between South Korea and Japan on how to represent this colonial period, and how to teach the respective "facts" to future generations. Korea regularly accuses Japan of painting a far too benevolent picture of the past-a picture that does not adequately recognize the pain and trauma inflicted by Japan's aggression and subsequent occupation of the peninsula. From a Korean perspective, Japanese leaders frequently exacerbate the situation by playing down the extent of the imperial army's responsibility for initiating and conducting war. Symbolic of this attitude are regular visits of prime ministers to the Yasukuni Shrine, designed to honor the spirits of the war dead, including convicted war criminals. This act is seen in Japan as a way of respecting the past and affirming a sense of national identity, but in Korea the same actions are perceived as a form of disrespect, even aggression.

The clash between these different representations of the past has been publicly debated for years. …

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