At first glance, China, Japan and South Korea seem to have a lot in common. They’re located in the same geographical region, all have traditions of writing with Chinese characters and all of them have certain social norms influenced by Confucian teachings and concepts.
In the modern era, all three countries have become major, industrialized economies and trade extensively with each other. Despite this, all three countries remain more competitive than cooperative. Though civilians from all three countries visit the others in large numbers and generally there isn’t much open conflict, the three neighbors still don’t seem to like each other all that much.
There are several reasons for this, but the situation can be boiled down to lingering resentment and disagreement over events that took place decades, and often centuries, ago. The Korean Peninsula and parts of China were annexed by the Japanese empire in the early twentieth century and many of their people feel that Japan hasn’t properly atoned for cruel acts by its Imperial Army at the time. South Korea is by far the smallest country of the three and has throughout history been frustrated by its junior status in relations with both countries, especially by Japan during the colonialist era.
Critics in Japan sometimes look down on citizens of the other two countries as unsophisticated whiners who refuse to leave their past behind. There is also a small but vocal part of Japanese society that sees the country’s imperial era as something to be proud of, instead of apologize for. Also, the three countries have several bilateral territorial disputes over certain uninhabited islands.
But to understand these complex relations it is necessary to address Japan’s relationship with each country on a bilateral level.
China and Japan
Of all two-way relationships, this might simultaneously be the one that is most combustible, and has the most potential for productive interchange.
According to the latest public opinion poll data, the two countries’ feelings about each other are still lukewarm, but improving. In particular, the percentage of Chinese people who said they do not have a positive impression of Japan fell from 77 percent in 2016 to 67 percent this year. The news wasn’t as good for views the other way, with 88 percent of Japanese saying they had a bad impression of China — nevertheless an improvement over 92 percent in 2016.
Interestingly, the data show more positive impressions among young people, and among those who get their information from mobile devices instead of television and newspapers.
In explaining the negative impressions, the number one most cited issue is territorial disputes. Both China and Japan claim a set of islands that are called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. No one lives on the islands, which sit in the ocean somewhere between the two countries and not far from Taiwan.
Japan formally claimed the islands as part of its sovereign territory in 1895. After World War II, Japan renounced its claims to some territories, but these islands were controlled by the U.S. and returned to Japanese control in 1971. Japan claims that China only took interest in them when it was learned that the area around the islands contains reserves of oil. China claims that the islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times. Taiwan also claims them.
Japan, like Korea, has been strongly influenced by China in terms of its language, culture, religion, philosophy and more throughout its history. But Japan has not always gotten along with its larger continental neighbor. Chinese rulers styled themselves ‘sons of heaven,’ claiming a directly-conferred celestial mandate, while the Japanese imperial house did the same, provoking the ire of China. In the 13th century the Mongol Yuan Dynasty of China even mounted two unsuccessful naval invasions against Japan.
Mutual feelings of antagonism worsened in the 19th century as Japan actively adopted Western culture and practices. It began regarding China as an inferior country as the latter succumbed to Western powers during the First and Second Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60). Having developed superior military capabilities, Japan later colonized parts of China and even established a puppet state in Manchuria with the last Chinese emperor of the Qing Dynasty as its figurehead.
The other big source of dislike between China and Japan is unsettled historical questions, particularly the 1937 rape and massacre committed by Japanese troops in the Chinese city of Nanjing. China says 300,000 people were killed as the city was pillaged, and feels that Japan has never adequately atoned for the atrocities that were documented, including violent killings of civilians and mass rape of women. Japan officially acknowledges “the killing of a large number of noncombatants, looting and other acts” but stipulates that “there are numerous theories as to the actual number of victims, and the Government of Japan believes it is difficult to determine which the correct number is.”
South Korea and Japan
As is the case with China, Korea once had strong ties with Japan. In 2002, Japan’s Emperor Akihito declared his own Korean ancestry by claiming that the grandmother of his eighth-century imperial ancestor had been of Korean heritage — or, more specifically, that of Baekje, an former kingdom (18 BCE to 660 CE) located in the southwest of today’s South Korea. Records indicate that Baekje had close cultural and political ties with the Japanese, including royal intermarriage and vibrant economic trade.
Pervasive anti-Japanese sentiment can be traced back to 1592 — the middle of the Joseon period — when Japan invaded Korea. The resulting so-called Imjin Wars were initially launched by then-Japanese emperor Toyotomi Hideyoshi, whose ultimate intent was to conquer China. The second war ended in 1598 upon Hideyoshi’s death.
Much of the current anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea, both the North and South, stems from the Japanese colonization of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945 (although unofficial colonization happened much sooner, in the mid-to-late-19th century).
During the colonial period, Japan actively oppressed the cultural, academic and political freedom of Koreans. The Korean language was removed from the school curriculum, Koreans were forbidden to speak or write in Korean in schools, businesses and even public spaces. Japan eventually forced Koreans to adopt Japanese names. Towards the end of the colonial period, many Koreans were drafted into the Japanese war effort as soldiers or laborers.
In the present era, two issues weigh heavily on bilateral relations: so-called ‘comfort women’ and sovereignty over Dokdo, or Takeshima in Japanese.
The Dokdo Islands, as the rocks are known in Korea, are a small group of uninhabited islets claimed by both countries as their own (as a side note, they are also claimed by North Korea). These islands, internationally known as the Liancourt Rocks, have been administered by South Korea since 1954, after the U.S. revealed that the Japanese claim to the islands would not be renounced as part of the U.S.-Japan peace treaty. Japan proposed taking the dispute to the International Court of Justice, but this proposal has been constantly rejected by the South Korean government.
Japanese and Korean researchers on both sides have used historical documents to ‘prove’ which country has sovereignty — but such documents are often conflicting, ambiguous, and inconsistent about the name of the islands. It’s not clear who first exerted administrative control over the rocks.
The biggest sore point regarding relations with Japan for many Koreans is the issue of so-called ‘comfort women.’ During WWII, as many as 200,000 Asian women — mostly Korean — were taken as sex workers to ‘comfort’ Japanese soldiers. Japan argues that the issue was settled in 1965, when South Korea and Japan normalized diplomatic ties — in return for accepting colonial-era abuses as settled, South Korea received more than $800 million in aid and loans. But the comfort women issue only began to surface in the early 1990s, when women who had kept silent for decades out of shame began to speak out.
Over the years, the Japanese government has made efforts to apologize and provide monetary assistance to the victims — including the Kono statement in 1993 and a landmark deal in 2015 — but victims in South Korea, and in other Asian countries, are skeptical about accepting Japanese efforts as genuine. They criticize the vague wordings in the deals, the fact that there is still a huge internal inconsistency within Japan about atonement for war crimes — the lack of appropriate education in schools, denials by right-wing politicians, and so on — and frequently compare Japan to Germany, a WWII perpetrator hailed in South Korea for its attitude toward its dark past.
There’s so much more to the bilateral relations of Japan with its closest neighbors, but we’ll leave you with the biggest brushstrokes for now.
Juwon Park and Steven Borowiec co-authored this article.
Cover image: The three flags. (Source: Future Atlas via Flickr, CC by 2.0)
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