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Wake Up, Japan!

Posted May. 11, 2010 07:10,   


Marking the centennial anniversary of the 1910 treaty on the Korean Peninsula’s annexation by Japan, Korean and Japanese intellectuals announced Monday a joint statement declaring the treaty null and void. The statement drafted by 109 Korean and 105 Japanese scholars after in-depth discussions said, “Japan’s annexation of Korea was literally an imperialistic and illicit act using military power to overcome vehement protests from the Korean emperor to grassroots Koreans.”

Among Japanese figures who signed the statement were Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe and University of Tokyo emeritus professors Wada Haruki and Yoshikazu Sakamoto. It is unprecedented for these Japanese intellectuals to support their Korean counterparts in demanding the Japanese government to own up to its past. Tokyo should listen to the sincere advice of its intellectuals, who believe it necessary to redefine bilateral relations and look toward the future of East Asia. The recognition of the Japanese scholars that the treaty was invalid indicates great progress towards rectifying the unpleasant history between both countries.

The treaty was signed in 1910 by Korean Prime Minister Lee Wan-Yong of Korea and Japanese Governor-General of Korea Terauchi Masatake. The signing of the illicit agreement was clearly forced by Japan’s military power and pressure, and Koreans know well that the accord was innately null and void. Japan’s strong denial, however, has sparked one of the most intense disputes over history between the two countries. The joint statement also said, “It is important for the governments and people of both countries to reach a consensus on how they should view the annexation treaty, and addressing this issue is the key to resolving the conflict over bilateral history and the basis for mutual reconciliation and cooperation.”

Japan originally stuck to the position that the treaty was forged out of free will between the two parties as equals. In 1995, however, then Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama took a step back and said, “Though the treaty was forged against Korea’s will, the agreement itself is valid.” In the 1965 bilateral claims settlement signed as part of the process of normalizing Seoul-Tokyo relations, both governments agreed that all bilateral treaties and agreements signed before or on Aug. 22, 1910, were null and void from the beginning. The two sides, however, are divided over a phrase that Korea interprets as “invalid from the moment of the treaty’s signing,” while Japan says, “Though the treaty was valid, it lost its effect with the birth of the Republic of Korea in 1948.”

If the Japanese government keeps ignoring the truth and insists on the treaty’s validity, rectifying history and reconciling with Korea will prove impossible. Defending the treaty’s validity is equal to justifying Japan’s colonial rule of Korea. If the treaty is deemed valid, the sacrifice of Korean activists who fought for independence will be reduced to an illegal act. The joint statement said, “Just as the U.S. Congress adopted a joint resolution acknowledging and apologizing for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, which served as the prerequisite to Hawaii’s annexation, as an illegal act in 1993, a new breeze of justice is blowing in Japan urging citizens to fundamentally look back on their nation’s past invasions, forced annexations, and colonial rule with regret.”

Seoul National University professor emeritus Yi Tae-jin said, “The fact that many Japanese intellectuals who signed the statement were historians shows there is a different atmosphere in Japanese academia thanks to the research conducted to date. I believe their act of owning up to their nation’s past is alleviating Japan’s historical burden.” Despite optimistic projections that the ruling Democratic Party of Japan will show signs of improvement on the matter, it instead strengthened its policy to “conceal Japan’s shameful past” in history textbooks and its officials continue to make absurd remarks. Tokyo seems to be going in the opposition direction. The Japanese government should take their intellectuals’ statement more seriously.

Professor Hiroshi Miyajima of Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, who signed the statement, said, “This year, which marks the centennial anniversary of the annexation, is a good time to address the historical matter between the two nations. It is critical that they provide a groundbreaking moment this year.” Leaders of both nations should do their best to build a consensus on the treaty, and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama must do more to convince his people. Recognizing the validity of the treaty will bring a new phase to the Dokdo Island dispute, which constantly blocks improvement of bilateral relations. It is time for Japan to build a new framework for perceiving its diverse issues with Korea.