The power of narative, Part 2

I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that

Another one for the that’s-just-not-what-crime-does files:

Japan and South Korea recently came to a deal regarding compensation for former South Korean comfort women.

As a result there have been a certain number of think-pieces in the press analysing why it is that Japan has finally decided to do the right thing after all this time, and concluding that it’s probably a result of US pressure. Which makes sense, right? It’s the old narrative that we all know so well from childhood. You drop your sister’s My Little Pony off a bridge in a fit of pique, she cries, you refuse to display any contrition at all, and then daddy comes along and makes you apologise and shake hands and be friends again. That’s how it works, as the media experts have been keen to explain to us:

The fact that it was not was largely the fault of Mr. Abe and his right-wing political allies who kept questioning history and trying to rewrite it. Mr. Abe had earlier expressed remorse and promised to honor his predecessors’ apologies for Japan’s aggression, including on the issue of sex slavery. But he always added vague qualifiers, creating suspicions in South Korea and elsewhere that he didn’t take the apologies seriously. His words this time are more persuasive but he must be careful not to let his right-wing allies undercut them.

Beyond acknowledging its moral responsibility to make amends, Japan had practical reasons to put the matter to rest. Japan-South Korea tensions had gotten so bad that bilateral trade and efforts to work with the United States in opposing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program suffered.


An unequivocal apology from Japan has been long overdue. Now, more than 70 years after the end of the war, Japan and Korea have decided to “finally and irreversibly resolve” the issue. Japan has declared it is “painfully aware of its responsibilities” and its prime minister Shinzō Abe expressed his “most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences”. Japan will give 1bn yen to a fund for surviving victims (46 “comfort women” are still alive in South Korea today). The South Korean president Park Geun-hye has spoken of “building trust, and a new relationship” between both countries.

Strategic considerations have certainly helped the two countries to reach this point, after decades of strained relations over the wartime record. Japan and South Korea have come to recognise they need better security cooperation in the face of an increasingly assertive China and an unpredictable North Korea – something their mutual ally the United States has wanted to encourage.


Now, consider that after all this time, as we are heading into 2016, Japan has formally acknowledged and is apologizing for their participation in a shameful  part of history that was largely ignored until now.  Kudos to the Prime Minister and Japan.


Marvellous, isn’t it? The goodies won, the baddies admitted they were wrong, and now we’re all going to work together to contain China in a US-led coalition, just like in the olden days.

Unfortunately, to quote Ben Goldacre, I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that…

To have a good and memorable narrative, it is necessary that the victims be pure and innocent and good, which has not been the case here. While the comfort women themselves are certainly blameless, the South Korean government has rarely if ever missed an opportunity to act like a dick on the subject. As we’ve discussed here before, the comfort women were, for decades, treated as pariahs and collaborators, until South Korea’s politicians realised there was diplomatic hay to be made from them, and henceforth wheeled them out at every possible opportunity:

After Korea’s liberation in 1945, she said, former comfort women erased much of their memories, like their hatred of “their own parents and Korean recruiters who sold them.” Instead, she wrote, they were expected to serve only as a “symbol of a victimized nation,” a role foisted on them by nationalist activists to incite anti-Japanese feelings and accepted by South Koreans in general.

“Whether the women volunteered or not, whether they did prostitution or not, our society needed them to remain pure, innocent girls,” she said in the interview. “If not, people think they cannot hold Japan responsible.”


Moreover, while Japan has made repeated attempts to apologise and compensate the victims, the Korean government has always found a reason to reject the attempts. In one particularly glorious episode, former comfort women who accepted compensation from Japan were vilified by South Korean politicians and media. The political capital that can be made from the peculiarly South Korean brand of victim nationalism being of more value to politicians than either compensation or apologies. Why accept a deal when all you’ll get out of it is the same apology you’ve heard a million times before plus a bit of cash for some old ladies that you never actually cared about to begin with? Much better to go on stoking the fires of xenophobia. As the Hankyoreh puts it: “the perpetrator must keep their head bowed until the victim is satisfied”. And if the victim is never satisfied, then so much the better. (We’ve covered the particular Japanese and Korean cultural traditions surrounding apologies here. Long story short, in Japan refusing to accept an apology makes you look – if anything – worse than the original offender. In Korea you can quite happily crow over the person doing the apologising until you get bored or arrested, which ever comes first.)

In fact, rather than this deal being the result of a decision by the Japanese leadership to own up to historical crimes, it is the product of South Korea’s decision to finally accept one in a very long series of apologies.

US pressure was involved, but it was US pressure on South Korea. There has also been increasing pressure on the Park government from the domestic press – frightened of a rising China and increasingly tired of the US alliance – to be less inflexible in its dealings with Japan.




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