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Overcoming the Japan-South Korea Historical Identity Complex

by Scott A. Snyder
February 6, 2014

abe_park Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korea's President Park Geun-hye link hands during the family photo at the ASEAN Plus Three Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan on October 10, 2013. (Ahim Rani/Courtesy Reuters)


This blog post was co-authored with Brad Glosserman, executive director of Honolulu-based Pacific Forum CSIS. A version of this post also appeared as a Pacific Forum CSIS PacNet publication, and can be found here.

The announcement that China has cooperated with South Korea to open a memorial hall in Harbin in honor of Ahn Jung-geun, the independence activist who in 1909 assassinated Hirobumi Ito, Japanese colonial governor of Korea (then a Japanese protectorate), symbolizes the historical obstacles to forward-looking Japan-South Korea relations. The ensuing controversy reflects divergent views of history – one man’s terrorist is another’s “freedom fighter” – but this incident also illuminates a deeper, and more compelling, dimension of the split between Japan and the ROK as it is currently framed: contradictory conceptions of national identity that stand in the way of reconciliation steps necessary to improve relations.

The contrasting views of Ahn illustrate the divide. For South Koreans, he is a “national hero,” the man who struck at the embodiment of a hated imperial power that had subjugated Korea and sacrificed his life for national independence. To Japanese, he is a criminal, the man who killed a seminal figure in their nation’s history, a leading light in the modernization of Japan, a four-time prime minister who promoted Japan’s national interest and ensured its survival in a hostile world. Those images go beyond contention over historical “facts”: they reflect foundational views tied to national identities and cannot be easily overcome without doing damage to each nation’s conception of its self.

The causes of tension in Japan-ROK relations are well-known: territorial disputes, divergent interpretations of history, fractious domestic politics. Perhaps even more important, but much less discussed, are Japanese and South Korean notions of national identity. The conceptual building blocks in each society encourage divergent Japanese and South Korean perspectives of their respective situations and push the two countries toward conflict. Political solutions to the problems of Japan-South Korea relations will continue to fail as long as each country’s current identity – the sense of who it is and what it stands for – is framed against the other.

As long as the current narrative remains built around opposing national identity concepts, divisions will run deep. Despite South Korea’s remarkable modernization and democratization over the past six decades, four decades of Japanese colonial rule that it was forced to endure remain central in Korea’s conception of itself. As a result of having been subjugated to Japanese rule, South Korean identity has long been measured against and framed in opposition to Japan.

Japan has its own victim complex, the product of defeat in World War II, the atomic bombing, and a sense of being discriminated against in the postwar accounting of misdeeds. This identification complicates Japan’s concept of its identity, making it difficult for Japan to perceive itself as an aggressor. In addition, the decision 150 years ago to “go out of Asia” puts Japan on the other side of the historical and cultural fence and reinforces the distinction between the two countries.

Cumulatively, these narratives drive politics, reinforce one’s own preferred interpretations of history and harden territorial disputes. Paradoxically, the many similarities between the two countries reinforce their differences. They sharpen competition and deepen distinctions between them.

That is why the main missing ingredient necessary to achieve the task of healing the divisions between South Korea and Japan is statesmanship, in which both nation’s political leaders resist the temptation to succumb to popular and already established national identity tropes that protect their approval ratings and aid domestic politicking. Statesmanship will require leaders to address the past not simply as a legal issue between the two governments, but in a way that also addresses the lingering hurt of colonization at a personal and political level. Ultimately, South Korea will have to determine precisely what actions it will accept from Japan as expressions of remorse that would then enable the two countries to move their relations forward. Japan will need the courage to meet those requirements sufficiently.

If leaders from both nations can generate the political will among their respective publics to reframe the relationship, the realization of a solidified Japan-South Korea partnership would be mutually beneficial to both nations. A Joint Declaration is needed to establish the foundation for a renewed Japan-South Korea relationship; it would acknowledge and stop contesting historical hurts, affirm common democratic values, and pledge solidarity to maintain a peaceful neighborhood and respond jointly to new security threats.

Such an understanding would help transform perceptions within each country and blunt the sharp edges of identity that drive the two nations into conflict. First, it should contain a “no-war” statement that would assert that the two countries would never use force to settle any dispute between them.  This would put a cap on tensions and deflate suspicions that frictions might be resolved by force.

Second, Japan should declare its support for the unification of the Korean Peninsula under the Seoul government, a statement that would end speculation about long-term intentions in Tokyo about the fate of the Peninsula. Third, it would delineate the shared values and interests that unite the two countries, including maritime security threats and bilateral trade issues. The agreement would also declare these commonalities as a basis for cooperative action by the two governments.

Fourth, it would establish a day for the two countries to jointly commemorate the history of the 20th century without being entrapped by it. The current August 15th commemorations memorializing Japan’s defeat and South Korea’s liberation from imperialist aggression should be replaced with an event that can allow both nations to be involved in the ongoing history-remembering process as equals.

A forthright effort to sensitively address the issues of the past might be one of the most important steps these two countries can take toward securing their common interests in the future.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by D

    Great piece, Scott and Brad. Allow me to add a little bit complexity here. Not all Japanese consider Ahn simply as a criminal and there was in fact a pan-Asianist side to Ahn. As a result, a Japanese prison guard befriend Ahn and his family in Japan still keep various momento of their friendship. I think it is the current government of Japan that openly called Ahn a criminal and in doing so, it missed another opportunity of Japanese-Korean reconciliation.

  • Posted by Yoshimichi Moriyama

    Ahn killed Ito, the seminal figure, the four-time prime minister and a decided dove who had propounded and was promoting a soft policy toward Korea. His assassination brought the hawks to the fore.

    It is true as D said that a lot of Japanese have admired Ahn. Perhaps no previous Japanese government called a criminal. But I am afraid he was wrong when he said, “The current govenment of Japan missed another opportunity of Japanese-Korean reconcilation.” The reconciation is not that easy. South Korea does not want reconciatiion of any sort with Japan. It is Japan that has been conciliatory, not South Korea, though it may be hard to believe as the world is filled with South Korea’s anti-Japanese propaganda.

    Mr. Snyder, too, proposes dreams here than implementable policies. South Korea has been trying to build its national identity, as some South Korean academics say, on what it should be against or against Japan.

    Korea is a fundamentalist country, like China, which is wholly dedicated to the metaphysical world-view of Zhu Zi. Korea’s Yi dyansty adopted Confucianism and “may have become more uniformly and fully permeated by Confucian ideas than China was itself. In fact, Korea became in many ways an almost model Confucian society (J.K. Fairbank, E.O. Reischauer, and A.M.. Craig, East Asia:Traditiion and Transformation.)” One of the dear prices that Korea hat to pay for this is “a narrowing of the range of intellectual interests and a growing dogmatism of thought (ibid.)”

    There are Western academics who say that Korean modernization started with the Japanese colonial rule, such as David S. Landes, Bruce Cuming, George Akita, E.O. Reischauer and Richard Storry. Landes, for instance, says, “By this standard, however, the best colonial master of all time has been Japan, for no ex-colonies have done so well as (South) Korea and Taiwan…The world belongs to those with a clear conscience, something Japan has had in near-unanimous abundance (The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.)” Cuming said that the Japanese rule in Korea stood in sharp contrast with the British rule in India which made Indian economy retrogress from industry to agriculture. This favorable opinion of the Japanese Korean rule is echoed by some South Koreans like Kim Wansop. 催基鑛, and 呉善花.

  • Posted by ms

    This article demonstrates full understanding of causes and results of relations between Japan and ROK; however, for the moment, there is no reason for ROK to build new relations with Japan when it especially shows its unwillingness from its recent provocative behavior. As long as Japan stays in that state, It’s rather better off for ROK to build closer relationship with China who are on the same page and have much more economic advantages.

  • Posted by Lee Chae-ryung

    This article provides insightful thoughts providing in-depth analysis. Especially I find the authors’ argument that South Korea’s colonial past and Japan’s victimization after the WWII complicates the relationship between the two nations. However, one point authors raised is hard to be convincing, arguing the future of reconciliation is up to the leadership (statesmanship) of the both nations. Any one who closely follows how the anti-Japanese sentiment has been surviving in Korea would agree that its leadership took an active role in forming and reinforcing such sentiment. (please refer to
    조은희, 남북한 정통성 만들기 역사와 비교, 2009.) The Korean government has nothing but to win by promoting anti-Japanese sentiment, at least domestically. Based on this fact, I strongly believe it is be a bottom-up approach, either by academia or civil organizations, that could fix the complicated relations between the two nations.

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