(Tokyo Shimbun: November 3, 2015 – p. 5)
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited South Korea for the first time and met President Park Geun-hye on November 2.
Japan identifies South Korea as its “most important neighbor” that “shares the principles of democracy and market economy.” But the bilateral ties were in an abnormal state because the leaders did not meet for one-on-one talks for such a long time.
History issues, particularly the one involving former comfort women, have long been an irritant to bilateral ties. This issue has been brought into the international spotlight, sparking calls for a settlement.
During the meeting, Park stressed that the comfort women issue has long remained a stumbling block in improving the bilateral ties and demanded that Japan settle the issue in a way that would be “acceptable to victims recruited as comfort women during World War II and the Korean people.” After the meeting, Abe told reporters, “We will accelerate negotiations for an early settlement.” The two governments have been holding director-general consultations between their Ministries of Foreign Affairs, but opinion remains split. The chances of reaching common ground at an early stage are small.
The Japanese government has maintained the stance that the issue of comfort women was settled based on the agreement on the right to claim that it signed with South Korea in 1965. Meanwhile, Abe said in his statement issued on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II: “The dignity and honor of many women were severely damaged during wartime.” This message can be taken to mean that [Japan] will not offer state compensation but the historical fact should not be forgiven that women became victims of sexual violence during a terrible time of war.
Of the former comfort women, 47 are still alive in South Korea. Their average age is close to 90. The Japanese government paid compensation to the victims through the “Asian Women’s Fund,” which also solicited donations from the private sector. Based on this experience, Tokyo should try to seek a humanitarian solution once again.
South Korea is demanding an apology from the Japanese government and monetary compensation from state coffers. But considering the age of the victims, it needs to take a softer approach to find common ground.
“We candidly exchanged opinions,” said Abe. Even if Japan and South Korea held intense discussed the historical issues, their leaders can chart a clear path to addressing concerns if they can build mutual trust based on candid talks.
Meanwhile, it is noteworthy that Japan and China agreed to proceed with efforts to improve bilateral ties when Abe and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met the day before.
The leaders agreed to organize reciprocal visits by the two countries’ Foreign Ministers and to hold high-level economic dialogue. But the deal suggests that they have shelved resolving issues of concern to prioritize the economy due to China’s economic slowdown. For Japan and China to restore true partnership, their leaders must build a relationship of mutual trust.
During the meeting, Li warned that history issues “serve as the political basis of the China-Japan relationship and are about the sentiments of our 1.3 billion people.” Abe, meanwhile, stressed during his three-way talks with Li and Park that focusing too much on the particular events in the past is not productive.
When it comes to history issues, Tokyo and Beijing have given priority to ensuring their domestic influence. This attitude is heavily responsible for slowing down efforts to improve bilateral ties.
The Abe government enacted the security legislation by force of numbers to go beyond its defense-oriented posture. Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to play up the legitimacy of the Communist Party rule, as its founding principle is based on the country’s fight against Japan. Meanwhile, Abe wants to demonstrate a stronger Japan. It seems that Tokyo and Beijing are growing anxious about being criticized by their people as taking weak-kneed approaches to history issues.
Japan and China should face history with humility. The Chinese leaders should refrain from using history for political purposes. The Abe government will not be able to win trust if it focuses too much on building a “future-oriented” relationship and setting aside a history of wartime aggression.
The number of Chinese tourists to Japan topped a record 2.4 million last year. People-to-people exchanges between the two countries have been restored already. The efforts that are lagging behind most are building a relationship of mutual trust between the leaders of the two countries and pursuing political dialogue.
Xi will stay in power for another seven years. Abe is also expected to hold onto the reins of government for a while. They should develop personal ties so they can have candid talks.
Japan will host a three-way meeting with China and South Korea next year. Park and Li will make their first visit to Japan since they came to office. The three leaders should continue dialogue by making use of venues for multilateral discussions. They will be tested on their abilities to calmly respond to history and security issues and enhance exchange and cooperation. (Abridged)