The tectonic shift in S. Korea-Japan relations

Posted on : 2021-01-24 10:31 KST Modified on : 2021-01-24 10:31 KST
Seoul continues to move forward into the future, while Tokyo remains mired in the past
The cover of Lee Myeong-chan’s book “The Korea-Japan Reversal as Witnessed by the Japanese”
The cover of Lee Myeong-chan’s book “The Korea-Japan Reversal as Witnessed by the Japanese”

“So close, yet so far.” Has this cliche description of Japan ever seemed so apt? It certainly seems that way when we look at the things that have been happening between South Korea and Japan over the past few years.

Under President Park Geun-hye, we had the intergovernmental “comfort women” agreement and the signing of a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). Since Park’s impeachment and the arrival of the Moon Jae-in administration, we’ve seen a constant feud over the forced labor issue, Japan’s trade retaliation measures, Seoul’s announcements first terminating GSOMIA and then postponing that termination, the two government’s differing responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and so forth.

Anti-Korean and anti-Japanese

“Anti-Korean” and “anti-Japanese” tend to mean different things. The “anti-Japanese” sentiments directed at the people responsible for historical suffering make some degree of sense, while it’s more difficult to fathom the endless “anti-Korean” sentiments from the perpetrators.

According to Lee Myeong-chan’s book “The Korea-Japan Reversal as Witnessed by the Japanese,” the origins of those hard feelings can be found in a sense of inferiority, which is often another name for a superiority complex. The book predicts the Japanese mainstream’s “psychological victory” — the perception that the country’s defeat in World War II was simply a “cessation of hostilities” — is likely to loom larger going forward.

But there’s no reason for Koreans to take a page from the same book. In that sense, the content of this book, including the objective data as well as the reflective reminiscences by Japanese intellectuals that provide the main basis for its arguments, is not only significant in itself, but also an important signpost for Koreans.

As the title says, the book focuses on the “reversal” of power between South Korea and Japan. There’s no need to bring up how successful South Korea has been with its COVID-19 response, in comparison with Japan or other countries. The book offers a fresh treatment on the changes that have taken place in South Korea-Japan relations in economic terms. It comes down most crucially to politics: the difference between South Korean and Japanese diplomacy provides a clear picture of how this reversal in power came about. The stark contrasts of today stem from the difference between a Japan that has never gotten over its defeat and a South Korea that has moved beyond its colonization and developmental dictatorships to successfully devote its energies to industrialization and democratization.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. (UPI/Yonhap News)
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. (UPI/Yonhap News)
Abe’s failures as prime minister

The political backsliding in Japan reached its zenith with former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who ended up stepping down over his administration’s COVID-19 response failures. According to the book, the seven years and eight months of the Abe administration left some of the blackest marks in Japan’s history. Japan’s administrative efforts to control the COVID-19 pandemic broke down early on amid a failure to conduct polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing. A list of invitees to a “cherry blossom-viewing meeting” organized by Abe as prime minister was destroyed; allegations of preferential treatment for private education corporations were joined by revelations of collusion between the administration and the advertising behemoth Dentsu.

Yet even as the administration laid waste to the idea of governance based on the law, the Japanese public never withdrew their support. Together, the administration and public both show how Japan remains mired in its defeat. To support this point, the author introduces the “theory of permanent defeat” according to young Kyoto Seika University professor Satoshi Shirai. In great detail, the book explains how the Japanese public was hoodwinked by militarists who believe that the war merely “ended” without Japan’s defeat, and how this “pathetic effort” collapsed over the course of the Abe administration and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Japanese government’s COVID-19 response clearly showed the inefficiency of its administrative system — one characterized by the silo mentality of its antiquated bureaucracy and hard-wired deference to superiors. It’s well known that the reason Abe blocked PCR testing was chiefly political. He took a casual view of the pandemic, hoping to achieve the more immediate goals of having Chinese President Xi Jinping visit Japan and hosting the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

One of the more surprising revelations in the book has to do with the context that made this kind of absurdity possible. The author locates the origins in Unit 731, where human experiments were routinely conducted during the era of Japanese militarism. Lee concludes that the “expert council” set up in Japan to respond to the pandemic early on inherited its DNA from none other than Unit 731. In an April 2020 piece published in Bunshun Online, Japanese journalist Adarashi Koike shockingly claimed that a members of a far-reaching network of former Unit 731 members formed after the war had gone on to roles in the major infectious medicine institutes represented in the council, allowing them to operate as “shadow elements” in the COVID-19 pandemic. The bureaucracy and concealing of information that have characterized Tokyo’s COVID-19 response are also hallmarks of the imperial military.

The lost decades

It’s been claimed that the Japanese economy’s current state is the result of its “lost three decades.” After achieving explosive economic growth through dependence on the US in the postwar era, Japan experienced a sustained decline over the Heisei period from 1989 to 2019. Lee explains this development by citing the value of major corporations, GDP, the national debt ratio, and the exchange rate. His argument is that the various changes in Japan’s international stature prove that it is no longer an “advanced nation.”

Under those circumstances, the export controls that the Abe administration imposed to sustain the “1965 system” amounted to an own goal. It only led to South Korea domestically producing the materials, parts, and equipment it had been importing from Japan, or diversifying its imports of them. In addition, it ignited anti-Japanese sentiments that have ended up dealing a blow to the Japanese economy. On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic has hastened the digital transformation of global industry, and South Korea is a clear leader when it comes to digitalization. Lee shows that the reversal of South Korea and Japan is only going to accelerate in the future; in 2017, South Korea passed Japan for the first time in terms of per capita GDP at purchasing power parity (PPP).

How should Koreans be approaching the era of the “big reversal”? The author, who resigned last year from his research work at the Northeast Asian History Foundation, stressed the importance of using the opportunity to finally resolve the historical issues between the two sides. An important part of this, he says, will involve “breaking down the belief that Japan is always right and superior, which is seen as a truism by right-wing nationalists and historical revisionists in Japan, and by no small number of Koreans too.”

Kim Jin-cheol, staff reporter

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