South Korea’s president has threatened to surround the Japanese embassy with “comfort women” statues if Japan does not start coughing up more apologies and cash for the alleged wartime misconduct.
The issue began with a Korean nationalist group erecting a bronze statue of a young girl “symbolising the comfort women issue” directly opposite Japan’s Seoul embassy.
Korean authorities refused Japanese requests that they intervene to stop the statue’s placement.
This soon inflamed Japanese sentiment, but when the Japanese government failed to make any concessions the Korean government decided to up the stakes.
In remarks made to the Japanese PM, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is said to have insisted that “this wouldn’t have happened if Japan had shown some understanding [toward the comfort women issue]” and went on to threaten that “if they don’t take steps in good faith, a second and third one will go up.”
There is strong Japanese resistance to acceding to potentially endless demands for wartime reparations – the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea contained secret provisions in which South Korea promised not to demand further reparations in return for billions of dollars of aid, which Korea chose to spend on economic development rather than victim compensation.
Although the treaty made compensation the responsibility of the South Korean government, it maintains it has no duty to provide further compensation to its people and that the matter is now closed.
Demands for compensation continue in spite of this, most notably by individuals attempting to sue the Japanese government themselves – but provisions in the various post-war treaties normalising relations with other countries and limiting further reparations have been upheld by Japanese courts as making these suits invalid.
As far as the actual historical facts are concerned, although the abhorrent behaviour of the Japanese Empire towards both its neighbours and its own people is beyond doubt, the situation is complicated by the competing versions of history on offer.
Both Japan and Korea boast long traditions of exporting their women as indentured prostitutes throughout East Asia (a tradition which arguably continues to this day in the form of both prostitutes and pornography) – the two opposing versions of this history are that all “comfort women” were sex slaves snatched up from Japan’s colonies, versus “comfort women” largely being simple prostitutes who voluntarily opted to provide sexual services in response to official recruitment efforts.
Koreans claiming victimhood have also been aggressively pursuing large cash settlements with the assistance of Korea’s notoriously shrill mainstream nationalists, most of whom display levels of xenophobia and jingoism which make even the Japanese look cosmopolitan by comparison.
On the Japanese side, those claiming the entire “comfort women” issue is merely a diplomatic cudgel being used to beat concessions out of Japan have generally been aligned with extremes of revisionism, which maintain Japan was an innocent victim, first of American aggression and later of Korean and Chinese propaganda – needless to say, this is the version which now predominates online.
Whatever the historical facts, in Japan there is a strong sense that erecting such statues opposite an embassy is an incredibly crude way of attempting to extort concessions, and one only likely to backfire:
“And if we withdraw the embassy?”
“There’s no point in even taking any notice of people like this.”
“‘Show us good faith!’ – pure yakuza tactics.”
“Bury your wretched country in the statues, please!”
“He’s not ‘warning’ anyone, that is a threat, plain and simple.”
“They just love picking fights with all their neighbours…”
“When I imagine the embassy hemmed in by comfort women statues I can’t help but laugh.”
“Keep at it, and show the world just how crude a nation you are.”
“Make 200,000 of them and you’ll have my respect.”
“Didn’t our government just conclude a 5 trillion yen currency swap in their favour? And this is how they repay us?”
“They will just keep demanding money forever.”
“Only in Korea could a bunch of prostitutes make themselves out to be victims and then threaten an entire government.”
“Make a thousand of them and perhaps in a thousand years they will be Korea’s moai…”
“Can we surround their embassy with statues of all the Koreans who have raped Japanese women?”
“The only people this harms are the Koreans in Japan who are desperately trying to manufacture a Korea boom. Now even the idiots can see how anti-Japanese their country is.”
“More of their threaten-and-beg diplomacy.”
“This is shameful – doing something like that to an embassy, I think it’s good grounds to withdraw it.”
“It takes a particularly kind of country to have their president try to hold another country’s embassy hostage…”