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359. Korea-Japan, Unresolved History Issues

By Park, Seon-joo, Seo, Ji-young, Jang, Su-jeong 기자2015.08.25 15:05:48

It has been almost 50 years since the South Korean government established diplomatic relations with Japan, on June 22rd, 1966. Although it has been a long time, many people would not agree that they have accomplished a perfect partnership. There are many reasons and obstacles that prevent them from doing so. In this article we will address some of these issues, based on the historical facts.


[Comfort Women]

Throughout World War Ⅱ, innumerable women were forced to serve as sex slaves in brothels set up by the Japanese military in China, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. They are referred to as “comfort women” and “military sex slaveries”. The women, recruited from the areas colonized or occupied by Japan, consisted of Koreans, who made up the majority, Taiwanese, Chinese, Indonesian, East Timorese and Filipinos. Some Dutch and Japanese women were also included. The number is estimated to range from 50,000 to more than 200,000. After the war, this issue remained unnoticed by the public for decades until 1991, when Kim Hak-soon became out as the first former comfort woman to make a public testimony of her experiences. However, despite of this and other subsequent following testimonies, their tragic history has not been resolved.


Changed Attitude of Japan

The Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan, Yoichi Kato, has admitted for the first time that the Japanese Imperial Army was in some way involved in managing military brothels. The Kono statement apologized for the involvement of Japanese armed forces and coercion in the recruitment of comfort women. The issue of comfort women was discussed in all middle-school history textbooks in Japan in 1997, but in 2007, the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, denied any coercion in the recruitment of comfort women.  Furthermore, most of the statements about comfort women had been removed from the textbooks when he made this statement. In 2011, South Korean government had failed to resolve the comfort women issue diplomatically with Japan because of the 1965 Korea-Japan Basic Treaty which ended the possibility of future claims against Japan. Thereafter, the Japan government has ignored the issue and has changed the existing historical documents, erasing any contents regarding comfort women.


Spurred Actions to Solve This Problem

Despite these facts, there has been an effort to inform people about this issue. The Comfort Women Memorial was installed in Bergen County, New Jersey, United States, on March 9th, 2013, World Women’s Day. The memorial is in Memorial Island Park in front of the Bergen County Court, and honors the memories of the numerous comfort women of World War II, including Koreans, Chinese, Netherlanders, Filipinos, and Taiwanese. In addition, “Flower Shoes”, a musical about the young comfort women story, has shown nationally since April 2014. Many organizations such as the Voluntary Agency Network of Korea (VANK) and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family Republic of Korea, recruited students to tell people the truth about the comfort women. These students wrote about the issue on their blogs and performed flash mobs. Others have directly demanded compensation for damage caused by the Japan government. On July 20th, 2015, in the Court of San Francisco Federal, the two former comfort women sued the Japanese government and associated companies for injuring their honor.


[Hashima Island, the Dead City of Japan]

What is Hashima Island?

           Hashima Island(or Hashima) is located in Nagasaki prefecture. It is commonly called Gunkanjima, Battleship island in Japanese, because its shape is similar to a warship. It was known for its undersea coal mines which were established in 1887. Mitsubishi Company bought the island in 1890 and use it as a base for an underwater coal mining facility. The company built the first large concrete building (a block of apartments 9 stories high), in 1916 to accommodate workers. However, the mine was closed in 1974, as petroleum had begun to replace coal in the 1960s. Since then it has been an uninhabited island, full of large, old concrete apartment buildings.

           Mitsubishi handed Hashima over to the local authorities in 2001 and a small portion of the island was re-opened for tourism on April 22, 2009. Increased interest in the island resulted in an initiative for its protection as a site of industrial heritage. In 2008, the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs added it along with other industrial properties to the tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage approval. After years of meticulous preparation by the Japanese government, the island was formally approved as a UNESCO World Heritage site on July 5th, 2015, as “The Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining”.


The Dark Side of Hashima

           Behind the industrial revolution of Japan, there has been a history of heartbreaking sorrow on the part of Korean and Chinese forced laborers, who called Hashima the “Stairway to Hell”. The Japanese government and Mitsubishi transported around 800 Korean prisoners to the island on Mitsubishi-owned ships known as “hell ships”, and then forced them to handle the most dangerous work in the coal mines, from 1943 to 1945. 122 Korean workers died there due to the poor living conditions and coal mining accidents. Eventually, they were freed in 1945, when the atom bombs dropped on Nagasaki.

           In the light of these historical facts, Hashima can be seen as a symbol of Japanese imperialism, the Auschwitz of Japan in World War Ⅱ, with Mitsubishi as one of the Japanese war criminal enterprises. Kuni Sato, a Japanese representative, acknowledged at a meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee that a large number of Koreans and others were forced to work under harsh conditions in the 1940s before and during World War. However, after Hashima was listed as a UNESCO heritage site, some Japanese politicians, including Kishida Fumio, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, changed their attitude insisting that they cannot acknowledge the forced labor. In addition, most current Japanese tour guide websites for Hashima do not mention that most of the workers were Koreans, forced to work in the colonial-era, and treated inhumanely. Only those people who know the facts warn that Japan might repeat its past errors and crimes against humanity, rather than reflecting upon them.


The Reaction of the Korea Government

           Korea's Minister of Foreign Affairs has demanded that Japan clearly admit that some of the sites used Koreans under forced labor. Many Korean journalists have also found it significant that the Japanese representative acknowledged this forced labor officially for the first time, and some have praised the effort of the Korean government, on July 6, 2015. However, unlike the press, many Korean historians have criticized the behavior of the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They insist that the Korean government is overestimating the issue, because Hashima has been listed as a UNESCO heritage site of modern industrial facilities. By contrast, Auschwitz also has heritage value as reminder not to repeat the terrible history of the past. Furthermore, the Korean government and Ministry of Foreign Affairs are being criticized for their belated and incompetent response, unlike the timely and efficient preparation of Japan.


[The Territorial Dispute over Dokdo Island]

The Real Facts of Dokdo Island

           Two small-sized islands in the East Sea of Korea are called Dokdo (solitaty islands) by South and North Korea, and Takeshima (bamboo islands) by Japan. They have also been known as the Liancourt Rocks, named after their ship by French whalers in 1849. These islands belong to South Korea now, but ownership has been disputed for decades between Korea and Japan. The dispute depends on the unilateral claims made by Japan, based on fabricated evidence. However, there is much historical evidence and many records showing that Dokdo belongs to Korea. An old map lately found in Japan, A Map of Three Adjoining Countries, is one of these. It was drawn in 1802 by Hayashi Shihei, a famous Japanese geographer in the 18th century. It describes the borders and territories between Japan and its neighbors. This Japanese map contradicts Japan’s claim that Dokdo is Japanese indigenous territory.


Insistence of Japan on Dokdo

           The Japanese Foreign Ministry states on its website that Dokdo is indisputably an inherent part of the territory of Japan, based on historical facts and international law. They insist that Korea has been occupying Dokdo illegally. The Diplomatic Bluebook of 2015, a Japanese Foreign Policy Report, contains the claim that Dokdo is Japanese territory. The document was translated into several languages, revealing Japan’s plan to take Dokdo away from Korea. Furthermore, comprehensive and systematic information about Dokdo is available on a variety of DVD movies. These reveal the false arguments behind the Japanese policies.


Effort of Korea to Speak the Truth

           Dokdo is an integral part of Korean territory historically, geographically and under international law. There have been many non-governmental endeavors to help people understand this. For example, they have made many promotional videos, clubs, and active campaigns about Dokdo. The Korean government and Ministry of Foreign Affairs have also questioned and protested against the claims of Japan. However, they have not been wholly committed to pursue active methods, whereas Japan has shown an aggressive attitude on Dokdo. Furthermore, there are a variety of educational videos related to Dokdo, but they do not cover the issue comprehensively. The educational materials for students only rely on brochures and photos, unlike those of Japan.


[View of History]

The highly polarized historical differences in the view of history are the chief obstacles to improving the relationship between South Korea and Japan. Unfortunately, even though both countries are consistently working hard to adjust, they still show strong differences of opinion. The government of Japan insists on a distorted historical view, whereas the government of South Korea wants to correct these distortions, which are full economic corporation.



The Prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, who has been criticized for his revisionist view of history, is taking a strong stance on the historical arguments. Nevertheless, not only have foreign countries asked him to recognize and apologize for his country’s history of aggression, but civic groups and historians in Japan have also insisted that the government should admit Japan’s historical faults in history. However, according to his latest speeches addressed to a joint meeting of Congress on April 29th, and the reception of the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties on June 22th, Mr. Abe has not referred to or made any sincere apology about national invasions, comfort women, and forced labor. He has rejected accepted versions of history awareness and has justified past international misdeeds of Japan, based on his nationalism. In contrast with the stance of Mr. Abe, there are some signs of change within Japan, in the direction of correcting a distorted of view of history. Kyodo News announced that 54.5% of Japanese respondents to a nationwide telephone survey said Mr. Abe should express reflection and apology for colonial rule and natural invasion in his statement, which will be announced on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Ⅱ. Therefore, Mr. Abe needs to reflect public opinion and keep a national conscience by recognizing the correct perception of history.


-South Korea-

The president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, has modified the diplomatic strategy into a two-track policy, handling diplomatic and historical problems separately, since the April 29th special election. This is because the government is concerned about the possibility of a diplomatic isolation among rapidly changing situations around the Korean peninsula. Ms. Park insisted that the government of South Korea should seek the normalization of relations with Japan, while clarifying and investigating past affairs.

In 1982, the issue of Japanese history textbooks was first raised in South Korea, when the South Korean government protested to the Japanese government about the depiction of Japanese war crimes in governmentally-approved textbooks. However, there were insufficient academic research projects and historical resources at that time in South Korea. Academic assistance from Japan in the study of history made it difficult to rearrange historical records from a Korean perspective. Even though South Korea is able to respond politically and academically now, the countermeasures against Japanese distortions of history are relatively unsophisticated. Consequently, the government of South Korea should reorganize a national crisis management process with a systematic and logical design against diplomatic disputes, requiring cooperation from academia and non-governmental organizations.

            History is relative because it depends on what historians make. It is important to write a history as unbiased and fact-based as possible. Denial and distortion of historical facts cause conflicts. To improve strained relationships between South Korea and Japan, both countries should settle their differences not to distort the truth. As they mark the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties, we hope they focus on resolving  historical problems, which will contribute to the development and peace of both countries.

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