Given the pressing issues facing East Asia, it can be baffling to outside observers just how much time and political capital is spent on history. Disputes between China and Japan, two nations on opposite sides of a geopolitical divide, are perhaps understandable. South Korea and Japan, however, ought to be natural allies. They are economically developed progressive democracies who share many concerns and challenges, and could overcome these more effectively through cooperation. Yet barely a month passes without them being at loggerheads over World War II history and commemoration.
Among these, the question of the “comfort women” is the most contentious and emotive point of dispute. Attempts to bring Japan and South Korea together on questions of economic and physical security have regularly been stymied by escalations of the comfort women issue. This month, important negotiations over a currency swap designed to insulate both economies, but especially that of South Korea, against future global financial shocks were suspended after a statue commemorating the comfort women was placed by activists outside the Japanese consulate in Busan.
In this case, like many before it, South Korean activists have run rings around Japanese diplomacy. In spite of the facts of the matter (which in this case are on Japan’s side to some extent; it does violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the 2015 agreement between South Korea and Japan), it’s Japan that ends up looking bad. The suspension of economic negotiations and recall of the ambassador to Seoul looks awfully like a country throwing a petulant huff; the “provocation” of the statue’s placement looks awfully like a country simply commemorating only its own wartime victims.
The reality is more complex. The Japanese government’s seemingly disproportionate reaction reflects its fear that the deal it struck with the collapsing regime of impeached President Park Guen-hye will be upheld by her successor; the Abe administration wants to show that there would be consequences to the abandonment of that agreement. As for the statue, placing it at a Japanese consulate is a contemporary political statement, not just commemoration of a historical wrong. South Korean activists often draw attention to their cause by placing memorials or making statements to which the Japanese authorities will publicly react. Why wouldn’t they? The Japanese government falls for this strategy every single time, despite the fact that its reactions (ranging from high-profile diplomatic outrage to clumsy efforts to “re-educate” foreign journalists) invite more international opprobrium than the activists’ memorials ever could.
It seems that the Japanese government can’t help itself. It’s suggestive of an intrinsic failure of Japanese public diplomacy; a total lack of understanding of the power of optics. The Japanese government argues in technicalities; it argues that the statues violate a certain clause in a certain agreement. That the number of victims cited by activists is wrong. That past apologies need no repetition, even after being re-opened for “study” by conservatives in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. That the definition of “coercion” as applied to the comfort women is unclear or unsatisfactory. The Japanese authorities recite these technical arguments and pick at specific flaws in the activists’ narrative, and then wonder why the world continues to see them as the bad guys.
Here’s why; if your opponent fields a kindly-looking grandmother who stands in protest on a freezing street to tearfully tell a horror story of her abuse and rape at the hands of an occupying army, and you respond by sending out a well-fed, expensively groomed career diplomat in a sharp black suit to quibble over technicalities, you’ve lost before you even start. You’ve lost because everyone has seen or experienced a villain try to escape responsibility by arguing that the precise details of the villainy weren’t quite as described. There is a fundamental human revulsion to that kind of tactic. Revulsion isn’t, generally, something you want your public diplomacy to be inspiring.
Yet Japan’s authorities seem unable to stop falling for this trap. South Korea’s activists (and to a lesser extent, Chinese activists) have learned that the best way to draw the world’s attention is to include some exaggeration, embellishment or provocation in their narrative, and wait for Japanese “public diplomacy” to charge in and do their work for them. Thus the memorials frequently cite the highest possible estimate for the number of victims, no matter how historically unlikely that number may be. Other aspects of the narrative are chosen selectively, sometimes even from discredited testimonies like that of Seiji Yoshida, precisely for the reaction they will provoke.
This isn’t just a problem for Japan, but also for South Korea itself. Successive South Korean governments stoked domestic anger over the comfort women because (much like visits by Japanese politicians to Yasukuni Shrine) this played well with domestic nationalists and boosted approval. In the process they created a monster they cannot control; the landmark 2015 agreement with Japan was utterly rejected by nationalists who consider it evidence of traitorous pro-Japanese sentiment in the Park administration. Attempts by South Korean leaders to build regional cooperation with Japan in future will be undermined by exposing participants to such damaging accusations.
The best hope for defusing this issue lies not with South Korea but with Japan itself. Japan does officially accept the key elements of the Imperial Army’s role in the “comfort stations” that supplied these women to their soldiers; it is not beholden to also accept every exaggerated accusation laid by activists. But it needs to stop responding so predictably to minor provocations and to focus on the need for cooperation with its neighbours rather than demanding the “correction” of historical technicalities.
Most of the demands of activists are, by design, impossible to fulfil; as a free country, Japan cannot and should not force the minority of writers, academics, or even politicians who hold extreme views on the comfort women issue to be silent or to retract their statements. As a consequence, some activists will insist that Japan, as a whole, has failed to show appropriate contrition. That means that this issue is never going away, at least not in our lifetimes, and Japan needs a new approach that moves onto more constructive territory.
One idea which Japan has tried but never properly committed to is to defuse the weapons of the most vehemently anti-Japan activists by actually cooperating with them. The reality is that the mainstream understanding of the comfort women within Japan is not so far removed from the understanding in Korea and elsewhere; while there are points of historical dispute, much of the sound and fury is over detail and terminology. What, then, if every unveiling of a comfort women statue or memorial for the victims were attended by a representative of the Japanese government who made an offering, listened sympathetically, and spoke not to argue or quibble, but to reiterate the nation’s official apologies, acknowledge the difficult shared history of East Asia, and express hope for future cooperation and progress, especially in the field of women’s rights? Not only would this be the right thing to do; it would, given time and repetition, take the wind out of the sails of those who wish to use this historic wrong as a contemporary political weapon. Japanese public diplomacy will continue to fail miserably as long as it remains committed to arguing over details of the past; it will succeed when it focuses instead on the possibilities of the future.