Memory war over colonization of Dokdo
This is the fourth of a five-part series examining Korean and Japanese claims regarding Dokdo and the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951 that fell short of clearly defining the legal ownership of the rocky islets in the East Sea. —ED.
By Lee Tae-hoon
By Lee Tae-hoon
The issues of Dokdo, Korea’s easternmost rocky islets, and “comfort women,” a euphemism for describing women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II, have much in common.
Both bring back bitter memories of Japan’s harsh colonial rule and wartime atrocities against Koreans, who still feel guilty and ashamed of failing to defend their own territory and women.
It was hard to fathom how many young Korean women suffered from sexual enslavement when Seoul and Tokyo signed a treaty to normalize bilateral ties in 1965 because Japan had destroyed countless documents that would expose its Imperial Army’s coercion of young women into sexual slavery.
By the same token, the Korean government struggled to convince the Allied Powers that Japan secretly annexed the remote islets in 1905 for military purposes in the drafting process of the San Francisco Peace Treaty as a fratricidal war ensured after the 36 years of colonial rule.
Japan constructed watchtowers on Dokdo in Aug. 1905 and laid submarine communications cables between the rocky islets to Ulleung Island later that year during the Russo-Japanese War.
It is true that Korea and Japan overlooked the thorny issue of comfort women in the Korea-Japan Basic Treaty of 1965, but it cannot also be denied that Koreans have a collective memory of the inhumane practice of institutionalized prostitution by Japanese troops.
The Allied Powers also failed to clearly define the sovereignty of Dokdo in the 1951 peace treaty with Japan but many Koreans are aware that their border islets were illicitly incorporated into the Shimane Prefecture a century ago.
After decades of silence, three former Korean comfort women filed a suit for damages in the Tokyo District Court in December 1991.
Nevertheless, top Japanese politicians, including Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko, continued to deny their government’s involvement in sexual slavery even though historians estimate the number of women affected was between 50,000 to 200,000 and that the majority of them were Korean.
The Dokdo issue also resurfaced in the late 1940s, some four decades after Japan annexed not only the rocky islets but also the entire Korean Peninsula against the will of the people.
Historical documents reveal that Korea failed to recognize Japan’s unilateral decision to annex Dokdo in 1905 because Tokyo did so in such a stealthy manner soon after forcefully depriving it of diplomatic rights
For Koreans, it hurts to see a handful surviving comfort women, mostly in their 80s and 90s, stage a rally every Wednesday in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to demand a sincere apology to the victims of coerced prostitution.
A bronze statue of a young girl sits barefoot in a chair, starring expressionlessly at the Japanese Embassy, in spite of Tokyo’s repeated demands to remove the 1.2-meter-tall peace monument, a symbol of wartime sexual slavery by Japanese troops.
Japan’s claims over the rocky islets also constantly reminds Koreans of Japan’s past misdeeds and reluctance to respect the sovereignty of Korea leading up to the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty on Sept. 8, 1950.
It will be incredibly humiliating and embarrassing for the Japanese to admit the fact that their country forced Korean teenage girls to work as sex slaves and unlawfully annexed Dokdo despite the fact their country long had the knowledge that it was part of Korean territory.
Kim Mi-kyoung, associate professor at Hiroshima City University, and other experts claim that Japan would be better off facing the truth that its government was responsible for the wrongs committed against Koreans and its territory than remaining as an unrepentant hostile power.
Bone of contention over Dokdo
The dispute over Dokdo, which Japan refers to as Takeshima and Europeans sailors named the Liancourt Rocks, continues to plague bilateral relations between Korea and Japan.
At an international forum at Columbia University under the theme, “60 Years after the San Francisco Peace Treaty,” Kim pointed out that Koreans regard the contention as a historical problem, whereas the Japanese perceive it as a territorial issue
She said that the lingering legacy of the San Francisco Peace Treaty adds more to the disputes by compounding mnemonic praxis with ambivalent legal stipulations.
“Japan, the colonial perpetrator, was transformed into a strategic ally of the United States in the emerging Cold War architecture. The victor rewarded the former aggressor at the cost of the victims’ grievances,” she said
She believes that the current clashes over the islets in the East Sea are on the continuum of unsolved memory problems where resentment, lack of convincing repentance and territorial ambition co-exist.
“In the eyes of Koreans, an unrepentant Japan continues its aggressive posture by making impudent territorial claims, and Koreans confuse territorial issues with peripheral historical sentiments, in the eyes of the Japanese,” she said.
Kim argues that Japan is the antagonist in Northeast Asia’s memory wars and that the island country, spatially isolated and economically superior to its former victims, took its time.
She says that postwar Japan deemed demands for an apology and compensation less urgent than its own citizens’ sense of victimhood, but as former victim-nations became economic competitors in the late 20th century, Japan mellowed.
Her research shows that Koreans take great interest in the way Japanese people remember the Asia-Pacific War (1931-1945) and that Dokdo stands as a powerful symbol of their unequivocal impudence and whitewashing of its colonial past and wartime atrocities.
“This mindset has been continually reinforced by Japanese prime ministers’ paying their respects at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. When Japanese prime ministers visited Yasukuni, they were more concerned with their present political problems than the sacredness of the past,” she said.
“The presentist mode of collective memory is stronger in Japan than in Korea. A residual culture of communitarianism and honor and an emergent culture of individualism and dignity coexist.”
She argues that facing a difficult past is not a matter of coming to terms with wrongdoing alone but also of salvaging the sense of shame in Japan.
“Every defense of past wrongdoings is rooted in cultural, economic, and political contexts that promote official and private expressions,” she said.
“This is particularly so when we consider the limited economic advantage that Japan can get from the surroundings of Dokdo. It is the very desire to redeem its past in the collective memory that makes territorial issues so critical.”
She has found that many Japanese regard winning international recognition that Dokdo unquestionably belonged to Japan as one of the key tasks in rectifying the misdeeds and injustices committed in the process of relinquishing their territories “which she has taken by violence and greed,” as stated in the Cairo Declaration of 1943.
Kim says Japan expects silence from Koreans over issues as Dokdo, but Koreans consider any contest about its sovereign control over the islets to be tantamount to denying their historical memory as the victims of imperialism.
“For Koreans, Japan’s persistent claims to Dokdo are seen as unmistakable evidence that the former colonizers do not repent their past sins and have every intention of reviving their violent greed,” she said.
“The fact that Dokdo is practically useless makes it a perfect symbol of the memory wars.”
She added that the peace treaty, compounded during the Korean War when the United States was concerned about maximizing Japanese support against the communist threat to Asia, means a great deal to Japan. She believes it constitutes proof of Japan’s being an ally of democracies, a respected nation that has compensated for its historical crimes.
On the contrary, she says Korea’s claim to the islets was based on remembrance of past suffering and disgrace, intensified on the anniversaries of Japanese occupation of Korea, the end of the Asia-Pacific War, and the normalization of diplomatic relations with Japan.
“The recovery of honor is the overriding mnemonic task in contemporary Korea,” she said.
“Amid political democratization and rising national affluence, those wronged and defamed under Japanese hegemony are reclaiming historical justice.”