Government and governance, International relations | East Asia

17 September 2020

The legacy of departing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be defined by nationalism, historical revisionism, and a deterioration in Japan-South Korea relations, Dominique Tasevski writes.

Four days after Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became Japan’s longest continuously serving prime minister, he announced his resignation due to ill health, the same issue which ended his first stint in power almost 13 years ago.

During his tenure, Prime Minister Abe attempted to inculcate Japanese children with nationalist ideas. He condemned Japanese school curricula for promoting an ostensibly ‘masochistic’ historical narrative and attempted to influence the content in Japanese school textbooks.

In 2014, his government introduced a textbook screening policy to compel publishers to replicate the government’s language regarding the so-called ‘comfort women’ and forced labour issues. This led to publishers removing references to the aforementioned issues in their textbooks.

Abe’s legacy will be marred by his revisionist attitude towards historical human rights abuses perpetrated by Japan. From 1932 until 1945, approximately 200,000 women and girls across Asia were kidnapped or coerced into sexual enslavement by Japan’s military.

These women – euphemistically labelled ‘comfort women’ – were from countries which Japan occupied prior to and during World War II. Approximately 80 per cent of the women were from Korea, which was a Japanese colony from 1910 to 1945.

In 2007, Abe stated that there was no evidence of the Japanese military forcibly recruiting ‘comfort women.’ In 2014, Abe’s government reviewed the Kono Statement, issued by the Japanese government in 1993, which acknowledged that the Japanese military oversaw the creation of so-called ‘comfort stations’ and coercively recruited women. The statement apologised for the women’s suffering.

Additionally, Abe refused to apologise to all victim-survivors for their mistreatment by the Japanese military. In 2015, an agreement was reached between Abe and then South Korean President Park Guen-hye to resolve the issue. Under the agreement, Abe was supposed to apologise to Korean victim-survivors and pay $8.3 million to a fund supporting them.

More on this: Looking back on the Abe era

The deal was widely criticised for its disregard of non-Korean victim-survivors as the apology and compensation were only offered to South Koreans. The agreement has since been abandoned and the reparation fund dissolved due to opposition from Park’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in. Despite this, Abe continually insisted that the ‘comfort women’ issue has been resolved through the agreement.

However, this is not the case. Every Wednesday, Korean victim-survivors and their supporters continue to protest outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul to demand justice for the ‘comfort women.’ Statues replicating the monument of a young Korean victim-survivor situated outside the embassy continue to be erected across the world.

In 2020, a replica of this statue, alongside a man resembling Abe kneeling and bowing before the girl, was unveiled in South Korea. The act of kneeling and bowing on the ground is significant as it is a symbol of remorse in Korean and Japanese cultures.

Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s Chief Cabinet Secretary and successor as Prime Minister, warned that if the statue represented Abe, it would constitute an ‘unforgivable’ act and would have a ‘decisive impact’ on Japan-South Korea relations.

Abe has arguably left the South Korea-Japan relationship in the worst state since the countries normalised relations in 1965. This is due both to tensions over the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima Islands, and the ‘comfort women’ and forced labour issues.

Much like his revisionist approach to the ‘comfort women’ issue, Abe also downplayed Japan’s mistreatment of forced labourers. Approximately one million men were taken from Korea and China to work as forced labourers in Japan and the South Pacific islands, predominantly in World War II.

Many Japanese companies used slave labour, notably Mitsubishi and Nippon Steel. Often, this labour was used to facilitate the Japanese war effort and many labourers were worked to death.

In 2016, Abe described the men as ‘former civilian workers from the Korean Peninsula’, negating the experiences of non-Korean forced labourers and downplaying the men’s enslavement, which angered Seoul.

Then, in 2019, the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation to forced labour victim-survivors, and the Abe government asserted that this ruling violated the 1965 treaty which normalised relations between Japan and South Korea.

More on this: Abenomics needs people power

In response to the Supreme Court’s decision, Abe removed South Korea from the so-called ‘whitelist’ of favoured trading partners. Abe’s decision antagonised Seoul which viewed it as an attempt to reduce the export of materials essential to South Korean industries.

Abe’s position on the aforementioned human rights issues is linked to his family’s history. Nobusuke Kishi, Abe’s grandfather and Japan’s Prime Minister from 1957 to 1960, was an official in Japan’s puppet state in China’s north-eastern region of Manchuria and was implicated in the use of Chinese forced labourers. During his tenure, Kishi also promoted the inaccurate notion that forced labourers were voluntary workers.

Although Abe’s historical revisionism reflects a broader trend in Japanese politics, his legacy starkly contrasts with that of progressive Prime Ministers Tomiichi Murayama and Naoto Kan. In 2010, then Prime Minister Kan issued a ‘heartfelt apology’ for Japan’s colonisation of Korea, which was embraced by Seoul, but Abe refused to continue this legacy.

Kan’s apology built upon the 1995 Murayama Statement in which then Prime Minister Murayama apologised for Japanese colonial and wartime atrocities. Murayama recognised the violence and ‘tremendous damage’ associated with Japanese imperialism. Unsurprisingly, Abe opposed the Kan apology and the Murayama Statement.

Additionally, Abe’s government failed to reduce longstanding discrimination towards the Zainichi, the ethnic Korean minority in Japan, many of whom migrated to Japan from Korea during Japanese colonial rule.

In 2002, the Japanese media revealed that North Korea had abducted Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 1980s. In response to these allegations, Zainichi individuals and organisations including the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryun), were harassed due to perceptions that they were involved in these kidnappings.

In accordance with Abe’s nationalist agenda, one of his foreign policy goals was to secure the abductees’ release.

His government undertook police searches and arrests of Chongryun officers to garner support amongst Japanese who were resentful about the unresolved status of the abductee issue. In so doing, Abe perpetuated ideas about the Zainichi being associated with the kidnappings.

Abe was also complicit in other discrimination against the Zainichi. He failed to strongly condemn the actions of Zaitokukai, an extreme right-wing, anti-Zainichi organisation which advocates in favour of cleansing Japanese society of Koreans, or ‘cockroaches’ as it has called them.

On Monday, the Liberal Democratic Party appointed Abe’s close ally, Yoshihide Suga, as the new party leader. As Abe’s long-time ally, it is likely that the new prime minister will replicate this nationalist and discriminatory agenda, rather than dismantle it.

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