On Monday, the Western world stood still to remember the end of World War I, which ravaged the European continent, claimed over nine million lives and had far-reaching consequences the world over. Since 1919, the eleventh of November has been a day of war remembrance in the UK and beyond, commemorated with a two minute silence and bright red poppies, reminiscent of the blood that was spilt “In Flanders Fields”. Although initially a remembrance of WWI, with passing time and further conflict Remembrance Day has become an occasion on which to recognise the sacrifices of members of the armed forces in all campaigns and serves as cue to reflect on the causes and consequences of all wars.
It is on this note that the relevance of Remembrance Day to the Asia Pacific region rests. Last week, the president of South Korea, Park Geun-Hye, publicly questioned what point a summit with neighbouring Japan would have, given ongoing disagreement between the two countries over the different ways in which each perceives their shared history. President Park specifically referenced the issue of comfort women, Japan’s war-time use of military sex slaves, as a key sticking point in Japan-South Korea relations.
Although the mainstream media coverage of this issue could lead you to believe so, Japan was not alone in instituting sexual slavery during wartime, and Nazi Germany also established brothels in the concentration camps, an estimated 34,410 female inmates were forces to serve as prostitutes during the Third Reich, compared to estimates of between 20,000 and 410,000 women involved in the prostitution corps of the Empire of Japan.
So why then, is the issue of sexual slavery during World War II so problematic for Japan’s relationship with Korea, and not for Germany’s relationships with its neighbours?
The key to this question lies in how each country views its past and why. In the case of Germany, the war crimes of WWII are consistently regarded as gravely immoral. However, Japan’s perception of its responsibility for war crimes committed during WWII has been relatively inconsistent. Japanese governments have, on multiple occasions, offered sincere apologies and significant compensation packages to former comfort women. In 1965 the Japanese government awarded US$364 million to the South Korean government for war damages, including injuries to comfort women, and 1994 saw the foundation of the Asian Women’s Fund, intended to distribute additional compensation to survivors in South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, the Netherlands and Indonesia, each of whom received a signed apology from the Japanese prime minister at the time, Tomiichi Murayama. However, in spite of these significant and apparently genuine attempts at reconciliation, Japanese historians, politicians, authors and even NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting organisation, have expressed revisionist views as recently as this year, either playing down the number of comfort women, denying that comfort women were taken against their will, stating that comfort women worked in better conditions than regular prostitutes and even going so far as to deny that the Japanese government had kept sex slaves, despite previous official admissions of guilt. Consequently, the inconsistency of the messages coming out of Japan with regard to the issue of comfort women has undermined any significant attempts at reconciliation.
The difference between this and the perception of WWII in Germany can be, to some extent, explained by a combination of legal and psychological factors. In Germany, a very consistent interpretation of Germany in WWII is offered because, put simply, it is against the law to express any other view. In the immediate aftermath of WWII a conscious process of denazification took place across Europe, which included criminalising the display or use of Nazi symbolism in Germany and Austria. Further to this, Holocaust denial is explicitly or implicitly illegal in 17 European countries, despite the difficulty in accommodating these laws alongside freedom of speech. Consequently, WWII is very rarely a point of contention in relations between Germany and its neighbours, and revisionist ideas are only ever expressed on the furthest edges of the political spectrum.
Post-war reactions to WWII play a significant role in how the conflict is perceived in the shared consciousness of nations involved. In Europe, a deliberate propaganda campaign by the Allies pushed home a sense of collective responsibility for the actions of the Nazi regime amongst ordinary Germans. This was reinforced by the personal experiences of the many Germans who were involved in exhuming mass graves and burying corpses in concentration camps after the war, experiencing first-hand the horror of the Nazi regime’s worst excesses. Conversely, the Japanese public had a very different experience following WWII, able to re-cast themselves as victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, detached from the majority of Japan’s war crimes which occurred overseas. The differing interpretations of events that exist in each country’s national psyches affect how acceptable it is for public figures to deny or trivialise the events of WWII.
To conclude, war crimes committed in WWII continue to dog Japanese relations with its neighbours because there is very little redress for those who question or deny the actions of Japan abroad during this time. Public figures in Japan can say what they like about WWII without fear of criminal prosecution or public outrage. However, this freedom has a serious impact on relations with Japan’s close neighbours and would-be allies, which is of growing importance as the U.S. repositions its foreign policy towards Asia, and China and North Korea continue to present ongoing security concerns. Perhaps, just as the Western world remembers the consequences of its conflicts on the 11th of November, Japan should be implored to remember its actions during WWII, the successful attempts at reconciliation that have taken place since, and the importance of good relations with friendly countries over national pride based on historical revisionism.