|A Japanese tourist, second from left, holds up a "No Abe" banner with a Korean civic activist after leaving a message of protest to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the banner, in front of Seodaemun Prison History Hall in Seoul, Thursday. / Korea Times photo by Seo Jae-hoon|
By Lee Suh-yoon
Underneath the intensifying Seoul-Tokyo trade war led by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe against the South Korean Supreme Court's rulings on compensation for wartime forced labor, a new alliance is forming between civic groups in the two countries.
The Abe administration's export curbs triggered a mass "No Japan" boycott among the Korean population last month. The "No Japan" slogan, however, can't be taken too literally; what Koreans mean when they say "No Japan" is "No Abe's Japan." Boycotting Japanese products and trips to the country is their show of resistance to a Japan that is led by conservative right-wing nationalists, with no qualms about scrapping the country's peace constitution and using its economic clout to wage a mock war on the same neighbor it once colonized.
On Thursday, a coalition of writers in Korea published a joint statement saying they wanted to form bonds of solidarity with Japanese writers and citizens who were also against Abe and his path into "far-right fascism."
"We will join hands with Japan's conscientious writers, intellectuals and peace-loving citizens who are also victims of the Abe administration," the statement read. "We take this chance to recall the path taken by our predecessors during the humiliating colonial times, those who sang of peace rather than bowing to imperialist violence, including Jeong Ji-young, Yi Yuk-sa, Yun Dong-ju, Kenji Miyazawa, Shigeji Tsuboi and Noriko Ibaragi."
The group said it would suspend group literature tours to Japan, and warned Abe's refusal to drop the economic provocations would lead to a zero-sum game.
"Abe's economic reprisal hurts Japanese citizens too ― it's a kamikaze-like suicidal measure," it said.
Though small, Japanese civic groups and scholars are speaking up against Abe and his moves to break the peace in East Asia. Many suspect Abe is intentionally racking up tensions with Korea ― an easier punching bag than China or Russia ― to stir up nationalism and cement the far-right faction's grip on power in Japan.
A group of Japanese protesters rallied in front of their prime minister's office in Tokyo on Thursday, saying the export curbs will only hurt both countries and threaten peace. Pictures of miniature versions of the "Statue of Peace," a statue of a girl symbolizing Japan's sex slavery victims during WWII, recently taken down from the 2019 Aichi Triennale arts festival in Japan, became a hashtag relay on Japanese social media.
Japanese civic groups will also join Korean counterparts at a peace parade planned in Seoul Plaza on Korea's Liberation Day, Aug. 15. On Sunday, Japanese pastors will join a special service at Seoul Gospel Church organized by the National Council of Churches in Korea calling on Abe to stop the economic retaliation and distortion of history.
The solidarity shown by Japanese civic groups is nothing new. Scores of Japanese historians and scholars have also spoken up on the matter before. Many Japanese activists and lawyers helped Korean wartime forced laborers when they first took their case to the Japanese courts in the 1990s.
"The civic support group in Japan did everything they could for us, creating a legal team, digging up historical evidence, and taking care of the elderly plaintiffs from the moment they reached the airport in Japan," Lee Hee-ja, co-president of the Korean Council for Compensation for the Victims of World War II, told The Korea Times.
The need to recast the battle line grows clearer when one sees how extremist far-right groups here have aligned themselves with Abe. Ultra-conservative groups, YouTubers and churches in Korea have recently been in the media spotlight for praising Abe.
Vladimir Tikhonov, a Korean studies professor at the University of Oslo, says the far-right factions in Korea ally themselves with Abe due to decades of collusion and joint development with counterparts in Japan.
"Especially during the Park Chung-hee era, the ties with Japan ran deep. The recent fuss over how a renowned Korean university has been accepting money from Ryoichi Sasakawa's foundation is also linked to this history. Sasakawa was a fascist of Japan. And from whom did he get a medal of honor? Park Chung-hee," Tikhonov, who also goes by Pak No-ja, explained in a CBS radio interview here on Friday.
In consideration of these things, Tikhonov says it is a good idea to strengthen solidarity with Japanese civic society.
"Yes, some Japanese people I meet and talk to when I visit still have trashy notions about Korea, and think they are superior to Koreans," he said. "But still peace is very important for the Japanese, who have experienced nuclear warfare in their own country. Using peace as a keyword, Korea can gain a strong ally against Abe."