So, there’s this thing in the UK where if England are playing against Germany in practically any sport (especially football, there’s this big brou-hah-hah about “Ah, the old enemy!”, bitter rivalries reignited, the game becoming a metaphor for…well, see the blog title post.
But to be honest, it really isn’t that bad. True, you are always going to have some meathead squad who probably can’t locate Germany on a map leaping on any chance to cause trouble, but on the whole the ‘rivalry’ these days is tongue-in-cheek and good-natured. And, of course, people move smoothly between the two countries: nobody would think twice about a German on holiday in the UK, and likewise holidays to Germany for Brits is a popular choice. Especially in October.
I’m not saying it’s like a gold standard of international buddy-ness, but it serves as a good contrast to how Japan, China and South Korea, also old war enemies, still have scars too sore to touch, will openly express very real dislike to one another, and still have disputes that, while they may seem petty, are loaded with double-meaning for things that have never really been forgiven.
I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of what went down between these three countries in World War Two. Let’s just say that they really don’t like each other, and it’s not just because of that one war: like the European Alliances of old, these Asian giants fell in and out of favor with each other down the centuries. So, with all of the similarities between Europe and Asia, then and now, why haven’t these countries moved on to the much more mature phase of poking silly fun at one another and Tabloid newspapers making godawful puns?
Well, because this a Japan blog, let’s focus on the Japan-side of things. The big sticking point here is “Japan has never apologized for their war crimes.” But that’s not really true. If by way of national apology you mean the Head of the Nation apologizes, then yes, Prime Ministers down the years have apologized multiple times. The previous Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, said this:
“During the last war, Japan caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations. I hereby express my feelings of profound remorse and sincere mourning for the victims of the war and their bereaved family members.”
Fair enough, right? Except, where are the national museums dedicated to the second world war? Where are the monuments? Basically, where is that lasting apology that is a standing, emphatic statement of remorse? The closest Japan has to this is Hiroshima, which is a hotbed of entangled emotions for the Japanese, and Yasukuni Shrine, dedicated to Japan’s own war dead. See, that’s the problem: at any moment Japan could retract a well-worded apology to Korean ‘comfort women’ (read: sex slave) if it benefits them politically, or undo the good it did when some dumbass Japanese politician puts his foot in it. Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto said earlier this year that ‘comfort women’ were “necessary” to keep the discipline amongst Japanese soldiers in Korea, and that “the American soldiers based in Okinawa should do the same.” I kid you not. Best yet: when he was on the receiving end of a shitstorm of complaints, he felt it was ‘unfair’. He retracted his words, but never apologized for them. The mayor of Japan’s 3rd biggest city, everybody.
But is it all Japan’s fault? Oh, no. This is not in any way to cover up Japan’s side of things, but China and Korea also play games here. For one thing, China is a semi-closed country with a carefully controlled media, but the world is opening up and knocking on the doors of the world’s second-biggest economy. The one-party system is under threat, and the quickest, most effective way to whip up some unity is by beating the nationalistic drum. This, mixed with the average Chinese’s ignorance of true Japan because of the screened media, means that Japan will find it very hard to reconcile with them no matter how hard they try.
For Korea, there is a better chance of reconciliation by virtue of being a more open, democratic country. It’s a similar story here, though: politician gets unpopular, said politician seeks to score cheap points against Japan. That, and the ‘comfort women’ issue continues to be on old wound that never heals while folks pick at it.
Never say never, though. When all is said and done, day to day most people in Japan, and I’m sure in Korea and China too, are indifferent to their Asian cousins, and quietly enjoy each others shared products and pop-culture. It is only the upper-crust who play territorial dispute games while beating their chests that seem to really care about their old enemies any more, and sadly, for now that is all that’s needed to drag enough people along with them in their argument.
Can’t we all just calm down and play football? Oh, wait…