Japan – South Korea Military Spat

(CNN) Why a military spat between Japan and South Korea could snowball into crisis.  This is a good article,  omitting only what should be common knowledge: Japan invaded Korea in 1910,  occupied, colonized, and predated it  until 1945. Japan’s enormous explosion of potential energy, resulting from the Meji Restoration of 1867, projected into the 20th century. It combined with a complete lack of regard for the rest of Asia, except as grounds for exploitation.

When Douglas MacArthur reconstituted Japan along the lines of Western democracy, he left at least two institutions in place:

  • The emperor, Hirohito, privately unrepentant, continued as a figurehead. Stripped of his divinity, enough of the institution was retained to give the Japanese the comfort of cultural continuity, with the privacy of  thought to believe in the old way. See (Long Reads) How the Emperor Became Human and MacArthur Became Divine.
  • The criminal justice system, with a penal code established in 1907, was left untouched. This accounts for the strange tales of Westerners incarcerated in Japan, a stark, harsh existence with occasional torture. While in the best  Western prisons, a basis  of shared humanity governs the interaction of guards and prisoners, this is not so in Japan, where the guard is the master and the prisoner the slave.

This much is known; it implies other areas left untouched and unnamed. In Germany, the Nazi political structures were razed and salted.  In Japan, the existing structure was co-opted, with a whisk-broom cleaning.  Was this because the scope of Japan’s war crimes, in areas that came under Western control, were less than those of Germany? Was it because, as close cultural relatives, you could look a German in the face and get the gist of a soul, while the Japanese remained inscrutable? Or was it because the alien Japanese culture required MacArthur’s use of intermediaries?

MacArthur may not known himself, since total absorption in the task robs the self of perspective. But it is accepted in the West that Germany completed her apology, and became a moral paragon.  With Japan, it’s less clear, and less vital to us. We think the visits of Japanese politicians to Shinto war shrines as a little strange, but we have no emotional involvement. We keep hoping  it will pass, but it doesn’t, because of a misplaced Japanese  reverence for a warlike past.

An all-American example is close at hand, Confederate monuments, precisely analogous to the Shinto war shrines, celebrated by losers and hurtful to the victims. But what makes one country capable of the apology that vaulted Germany into the highest moral echelon, while Japan apparently cannot?

While Nazism promulgated the superiority of Germans, it sat on top of a tradition of cultural exchange and respect that goes back at least 500 years. Hitler decreed that every German soldier would have two weeks in Paris. Apart from their abhorrence of modern art, the Nazis looted Europe of artwork,  a back handed compliment to the nations looted. By the time of the Renaissance, multilingual Europeans were reading each other’s books. Europe became culturally transnational centuries before the idea of political integration.

So only five years after VE Day, Robert Schuman, the French Foreign Minister, proposed the European Steel and Coal Community, the ancestor of the Common Market, which was followed by the EU. Quoting Wikipedia,

The ECSC was first proposed by French foreign minister Robert Schuman on 9 May 1950 as a way to prevent further war between France and Germany. He declared his aim was to “make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible”

73 years after VJ Day, Japan and Korea can’t do what the Europeans did in 5.  The reason is cultural. While the Asians share cultural heritage in distant forking paths, the national myths do not permit this admission. What they share instead is a kind of racism-among-equals. While racism in the West is visible in social stratification, the Eastern form is xenophobic national identity.

In Pivot To Asia, Cultural Aspects, Part 2, I wrote,

Complaints! Every member of ASEAN bordering on this sea disputes economic zones, atolls, and islets with the others. There is not a shred of cooperation against their common adversary, which happens to be their largest trading partner. A few years ago, some pundits averred that the Asian tradition of consensus prior to agreement might not be correctly understood by western diplomats. But the disputants may not understand it themselves. Sometimes a charade shrouds a meaningful process, and sometimes, a charade is just a charade. Part of this charade are claims against Japan by the Republic of China, a country that occupies the island of Formosa, the whole of which is claimed by The People’s Republic of China. It’s a very convoluted charade!

So far I’ve written 802 words. Words equate with time. This begins to sound like a trial delayed forever by motion practice. The East Asian countries are stuck in a loop. In a counterfactual history, if  China did not exist, East Asia would be at war.  Unthinkable? Remember the UK-Iceland Cod Wars. 

The effect of disunity on the U.S. attempt to pivot to Asia is profound. All of the fixtures of a policy can be in place, yet without the magic sauce of regional cohesion, a policy becomes a place holder instead of a functional achievement.

The evolution of this situation is beyond the influence of statecraft. Japan has a desperately low birth rate, 1.44; South Korea’s is 0.96. In the long term, immigration, perhaps from the Philippines, encouraged by demographic desperation, may result in dilution of the grudges. A misstep by China could catalyze, but note,  there have thus far been none. The statesman can only watch, wait, and work around the margins.




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