These tensions have their roots in a troubled history between the two countries – a history of Japanese annexation of the Korean Peninsula, of brutal colonial rule, and forced labor. This past includes the coercive recruitment, by some estimates, of more than 140,000 Korean “comfort women,” or virtual sex slaves, to work in brothels organized by Japan’s Imperial Army during World War II.
While all that came to an end with the defeat of the Japanese Empire in 1945, Koreans remain wounded by the periodic refusal of Japanese leaders to acknowledge that past and Japan’s responsibility. The problems over the past are also embedded in a minor territorial dispute over a small group of rocky islets, under South Korean control but claimed by Japan, which Koreans view as a symbol of liberation from Japanese colonial rule.
For Koreans, these issues are a matter of identity, and their leaders have learned never to ignore this popular feeling. Japanese complain that Koreans are too “emotional,” and that their leaders use the past for political ends. But Japanese politicians are not above playing to a sense of lost pride at home, fed by the rise of China.
This clash of historical perception has intensified with the return to power of the Japanese conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government last December under the leadership of Shinzo Abe. The prime minister was well known for his unrepentant view of wartime history, having run for office on the stated desire to reverse past conciliatory statements on the war, such as the official responsibility for recruiting the “comfort women.”