When Yohei Kono made a landmark 1993 apology to the wartime “comfort women,” the chief Cabinet secretary was speaking for a moderate conservative mainstream seeking to reconcile with its Asian neighbors.
The term is Japan’s euphemism for those who provided sex, including those against their will, for Imperial Japanese troops before and during World War II. Many were Koreans.
A quarter century later, Kono’s son, Taro, now foreign minister, is on the front lines of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s escalating feud over compensation for Koreans who were forced to work in wartime Japanese mines and factories, an unresolved legacy of the two countries’ bitter past.
The contrast between father and son reflects a change in the ruling party symbolized by Abe’s own rise to power.
“There has been a generational shift,” said Andrew Horvat, a visiting professor at Josai International University.
“Those who saw Korean conscript laborers in their emaciated condition forced to work in Japanese mines and companies have died or are very, very old,” he said.
“The failure to reach consensus on a difficult past … has resulted in a lack of tolerance in a new generation that sees things in a less nuanced manner, devoid of real experience.”
Ties between the two countries have seen good and bad times but never escaped the bitter legacy of Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula and its wartime abuses.
Relations soured last October after the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese firms to compensate Korean wartime workers, a move strongly condemned by Tokyo.
They got worse when Japan tightened export controls on materials vital to South Korean chipmakers and then dropped Seoul from a list of countries eligible for fast-track exports, steps angrily denounced by Seoul.
Those moves, which Japan said were not retaliation over the history row, threaten to disrupt global supply chains and undermine security cooperation in the face of North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, analysts say.
Japan’s government says the South Korean court rulings broke the 1965 treaty that normalized ties and an accompanying agreement that settled compensation “completely and finally.”
Japanese critics also accuse Seoul of moving the goal posts with its demands for historical accountability. They point, for example, to President Moon Jae-in’s decision to dissolve a fund for the comfort women set up under a historic agreement in December 2015 by Abe and Moon’s predecessor, Park Geun-hye. The agreement was supposed to bring a permanent end to the comfort women row.
“The biggest problem is a matter of trust, and whether promises made between nations are kept,” Abe said this week.
Abe, 64, was first elected to Diet in 1993, the same year the Kono statement was issued.
Two years later, then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, a socialist who led a coalition with the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, made a “heartfelt apology” for suffering caused by Japan’s “colonial rule and aggression.”
The acts of contrition sparked a backlash in the LDP among a younger generation including Abe, who felt their elders were selling out and adopting a “masochist” view of history.
“On a broad trajectory, the Murayama statement was the high point of Japanese war responsibility and there was a reaction against that,” said William Underwood, an independent researcher who has done extensive work on the wartime labor issue.
Abe, elected in 2006 as the first prime minister born after World War II, quit abruptly after one troubled year. He made a rare comeback in 2012, supported by a corps of conservatives sharing his commitment to pride in Japanese culture and history and a less apologetic view of the war.
Electoral system changes and three years in opposition helped ultraconservative lawmakers and lobbying groups strengthen their clout in the LDP.
“It’s like the NRA (National Rifle Association) in the United States. A very small group … can leverage the democratic system in a direction the majority do not wish to go,” Horvat said.
Pressure in the LDP to take a tough stance is strong.
In June, Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya came under fire from party colleagues for smiling before cameras at a meeting with his South Korean counterpart.
Diet members favoring good ties with Seoul met their Korean counterparts in Tokyo last week but made little progress in easing the conflict.
Abe’s government has embarked on an aggressive public relations campaign.
Trade minister Hiroshige Seko took to Twitter to chastise NHK for using the term “export restraints” for moves that could slow product sales to Seoul. He said the proper term was the more neutral “export control” or “export management.”
NHK declined to comment on Seko’s tweet, but said in a statement that it made independent decisions and constantly revised terms to be more appropriate and easier to understand.
In reporting on the topic on Thursday, NHK used the more neutral expression.
Diplomats have reached out to domestic and foreign media with detailed briefings and handouts on the dispute.
“I think there is very strong pressure, especially toward major media such as NHK,” said Kozo Nagata, a former NHK producer and professor of media studies at Musashi University.
Opinion polls show the public is mostly supportive of the government’s tough stance.
A survey by the conservative Sankei newspaper and Fuji News Network released on Monday showed two-thirds of respondents backed removing South Korea from the fast-track export list, but nearly 60 percent were also worried about future ties.
“There is ‘Korea fatigue,’” Underwood said, before adding that the general public wasn’t as harsh as many in the ruling party.
“As for the younger generation, they have no knowledge base, but they have a sense the Koreans are intractable,” he said.
With Tokyo and Seoul digging in their heels for now, the prospects for ending the feud appear slim until it starts to hurt their economies or security cooperation, experts said.
“The reality of historical redress settlements is that it boils down to a cost-benefit matrix,” Underwood said.
“It is only when the costs of perpetual intransigence are perceived as greater than the costs of settlement that anyone moves,” he added.
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