Postwar Japan’s Relations with South Korea and China

Japan’s relations with China faced, first of all, the obstacle of Cold War geopolitics. After Japan signed the peace treaty, as well as the bilateral security treaty, with the United States in San Francisco in 1951, the United States demanded that Japan recognize Taiwan as the legitimate China. The US Senate even argued that the ratification of the San Francisco Peace Treaty should be contingent on Japan’s recognition of Taiwan.103 Given the strong pressure from the United States, Yoshida Shigeru’s government decided to normalize its relations with Taiwan. In turn, Taiwan agreed to renounce its compensation claims against Japan, even though Chiang Kai-shek had initially intended to pursue compensation for war-related damages.104 In April 1952, Japan and Taiwan signed a peace treaty to normalize their relations, locking Japan into the US Cold War strategy in East Asia.

In response, China’s prime minister Zhou Enlai issued a statement in May 1952, criticizing the San Francisco Peace Treaty, the US-Japan Security Treaty, and the Japan-Taiwan Peace Treaty. Zhou, however, directed his criticism against the United States rather than Japan. To be sure, Zhou did criticize the Japanese government for going along with the United States: “After signing the San Francisco Peace Treaty, Yoshida’s government immediately released eighty-eight diabolic Japanese war criminals whose hands were all tainted with blood of the Chinese people. This shows that reactionary rulers of Japan have no sense of remorse and atonement . . . and plan to resume their imperial rule of China and Asian peoples.”105 Zhou nonetheless criticized the United States as China’s real enemy by attacking the San Francisco Peace Treaty as the US government’s attempt to rearm Japan and wage a war of aggression against Asian peoples. Zhou also carefully distinguished the Japanese people from the Japanese government, even praised “the Japanese people’s resistance against the illegitimate San Francisco Peace Treaty [and] the imperialist occupation by the United States,” and went on to express “the Chinese people’s unlimited solidarity and enthusiastic support for the Japanese people’s struggle.”106

Zhou’s statement illustrated the benign commemorative position that the Chinese government took toward Japan’s past aggression. While condemning prewar Japan’s militarist government, high-ranking government officials in China, most notably Mao Zedong, described ordinary Japanese citizens as victims of militarism. Instead, the Chinese government held the Kuomintang responsible for the Chinese people’s suffering.107 For the Chinese government, resistance against US dominance in East Asia was more important than commemoration of Japan’s past wrongdoings.

For the Japanese government, in turn, economic relations with China were more important than war commemoration. From the late 1940s through the mid-1950s, Japanese politicians and businessmen created various associations to promote trade with China as a way to boost postwar Japan’s economic development: for example, the Association of Diet Members for the Promotion of Japan-China Trade (Nitchu Boeki Sokushin Giin Renmei) in 1949, the Japan-China Friendship Association (Nitchu Yuko Kyokai) in 1950, the Committee for the Promotion of Japan’s International Trade (Nihon Kokusai Boeki Sokushin Iinkai) in 1952, and the Union for Japan-China Trade (Nitchu Yushutsunyu Kumiai) in 1955.108 These efforts resulted in a series of nongovernmental trade agreements with China in the first half of the 1950s, but Japan’s economic relations with China remained limited and fragile. Economic relations between the two countries began to improve only in 1960 when Ikeda Hayato, who was keen to pursue economic development, became prime minister. The Chinese government, too, was eager to strengthen economic cooperation with Japan since it had suffered substantial economic losses during the Great Leap Forward movement of the late 1950s. China’s relations with the Soviet Union also began to deteriorate around the same time, thus making rapprochement with Japan more desirable for the Chinese government.109

While Japan-China relations were largely confined to the economic dimension, some NGOs in Japan tried to commemorate Japan’s past wrongdoings against China. The Japan-China Friendship Association, for example, commemorated the “misery that the Chinese people suffered from aggressive policies (shinryaku seisaku) of Japanese militarism” and sought “to correct the Japanese people’s mistaken view on China” that had facilitated Japan’s past aggression.110 When Yoshida Shigeru’s government signed the Japan-Taiwan Peace Treaty, the association also issued a statement criticizing the treaty for “denying Japan’s war responsibility to the Chinese people.”111 Such cosmopolitan commemoration of Chinese victims, however, was rare in Japan at the time.

In the meantime, Japan had more issues with South Korea in terms of war commemoration, even though Japan and South Korea had no official diplomatic relations. Soon after Japan surrendered to the Allied powers in August 1945, Koreans formed associations to demand compensation for their military and l abor services during the war from the Japanese government and corporations, and South Korea’s transitional government set up a committee to deal with compensation claims against Japan in August 1947.112 Then, in September 1948, an association of former soldiers and laborers demanded that the Japanese government compensate three billion yen for unpaid military and labor services.113 The South Korean government, headed by Syngman Rhee, a longtime pro-independence nationalist, also submitted to SCAP multiple survey reports on South Korea’s compensation claims against Japan. The amount of total compensation that Rhee’s government demanded exceeded thirty billion yen, covering damages that Korean people had suffered during the war as well as during “Japan’s colonial rule, a coercive act against the will of the Korean people, which violated principles of justice, fairness, and mutual benefits.”114 In addition, Rhee’s government sought to participate in the San Francisco Peace Conference as a member of the Allied powers.

In August 1947, however, the Allied powers decided that South Korea had no compensation claims against Japan and should be satisfied with various facilities and goods that Japan had left behind. (The Japanese government and citizens had lost ownership of their properties in Japan’s former colonies upon their surrender to the Allied powers.) This decision was coterminous with the increasingly lenient position of United States in regard to Japan’s responsibility for compensating war-related damages: the US government judged that it made more strategic sense to quickly rebuild Japan as its ally in the Cold War, rather than impose a large amount of compensation that would hinder Japan’s reconstruction efforts.115

The Japanese government, too, rejected South Korea’s compensation claims. Japanese returnees from Korea even argued that the Allied powers should compensate them for their confiscated private properties, arguing that such confiscation violated the Hague Conventions.116 After Japan signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty, these returnees began demanding that the Japanese government should compensate them instead. The logic of their demand was similar to the claim that A-bomb victims made: because the Japanese government had renounced compensation claims against the Allied powers, it should now take responsibility for compensating Japanese returnees from Korea and other former colonies.

Thus, when the Japanese and South Korean governments began the first round of normalization talks in Tokyo in February 1952, they had radically different views on the issue of compensation. While the South Korean side was determined to press its compensation claims, the Japanese side argued that the annexation of Korea had been legal at the time and demanded compensation of confiscated private properties that had belonged to Japanese citizens.117 Japan and South Korea could not resolve their differences during the next two rounds of normalization talks. Then, during the third round, one of the Japanese representatives, Kubota Kan’ichiro from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, remarked, “Even though I admit there was a negative aspect to Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, it is undeniable that Japan also did good things for Korea.”118 This angered the South Korean side, but the Japanese government refused to retract Kubota’s comment. As a result, the normalization talks broke down in 1953.

The normalization talks resumed in 1960, however, when certain key political developments occurred in both South Korea and Japan. In August 1960, Yu Bo Seon became president of South Korea and adopted a new policy toward Japan. Instead of demanding compensation for Japan’s past wrongdoings, the South Korean government began to consider accepting economic aid from Japan in lieu of compensation. The policy shift was prompted by two significant changes in South Korea’s economic situation in 1957: US economic aid to South Korea began to decrease, and North Korea launched a five-year plan to industrialize its economy. Under these changed conditions, the South Korean government began to view Japan as an important economic partner. This view was consolidated after Park Chung Hee seized control of the government through a military coup in May 1961. In Japan, too, Ikeda Hayato, who became prime minister in July 1960, was eager to stimulate Japan’s economic growth by exporting goods and services to South Korea. In fact, the Japanese government had already begun to develop this economic approach to compensation of war-related damages in the 1950s, when it had negotiated peace treaties with Southeast Asian countries such as Burma, Indonesia, South Vietnam, and the Philippines. The Japanese government provided these countries with “compensation” for Japan’s past wrongdoings in the form of goods and services produced by Japanese corporations.119

Moreover, the Cold War escalated in Asia in the early 1960s. North Korea signed a mutual defense treaty with the Soviet Union and a friendship and mutual assistance treaty with China in 1961. As the United States was increasingly involved in the Vietnam War, it wanted more stable relations between Japan and South Korea, its two allies in East Asia. From the US perspective, Japan’s economic aid to South Korea would not only help the United States financially but also induce South Korea to send its troops to Vietnam.120 The combined threat of North Korea and pressure from the United States thus moved Japan and South Korea to compromise over the issue of compensation.

During the final stage of normalization talks, the Japanese and South Korean governments agreed that the former should offer grants and soft loans instead of compensation to the latter, and that normalization of their relations should resolve all issues of compensation between the two countries. But opposition parties and university students in South Korea protested against normalization in March 1964. The opposition criticized the terms of normalization for essentially abandoning any demands for apology and compensation from Japan. Protests in Seoul between March 25 and 27 drew forty thousand to sixty thousand participants daily, and university students continued to organize protests until early June, when Park’s government declared a state of emergency to suppress the protests.121

Similarly, opposition parties in Japan pressed the LDP government to confront Japan’s past wrongdoings. To be sure, when Minister of Foreign Affairs Shiina Etsusaburo visited South Korea in February 1965 to conclude negotiation talks, he offered his “deep remorse (fukaku hansei) for the unfortunate period in the long history of the two countries.”122 But JSP member Hososako Kanemitsu had already urged Ikeda himself—as prime minister of Japan—to offer an apology to South Korea: “If you want to establish friendly relations with Korea . . . you should first of all apologize. . . . It is not shameful to apologize for the wrongs that Japan committed. In fact, it is shameful not to.”123 JCP member Kawakami Kan’ichi also demanded that the Japanese government apologize to South Koreans: “It goes without saying that Japan committed all sorts of atrocities to the Korean people over a long period of time—aggression, oppression, extortion, and enslavement. Today, the Japanese government should reflect on its responsibility for these acts, offer an apology to the Korean people, and set an example of righteousness for the Japanese people.”124 Nevertheless, these criticisms were voiced by only a minority of Japanese politicians. As a result, the Japanese and South Korean governments proceeded to finalize the terms of normalization in Tokyo in December 1964, officially prioritizing economic interests over questions about the past.

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