Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan apologized on Tuesday for Korea's suffering under colonization as part of a statement marking the 100th anniversary of the annexation in 1910. "I express a renewed feeling of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology for the tremendous damage and suffering caused by colonial rule," Kan said.
As a gesture of its commitment to a forward-looking relationship with Korea, the Japanese PM said his country will soon return royal records of national and court ceremonies from the Chosun Dynasty. Kan said Japan colonized Korea "against the will of the Korean people" who suffered great damage to their national pride and loss of culture and sovereignty as a result and added that he wants to take an honest look at his country's past with the courage and humility to address its history.
Kan's statement contains elements that could be perceived as being more sincere in terms of repentance than the apologies of former Japanese prime ministers. Kan's apology was viewed as an extension of a statement in 1995 by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, which apologized to all Asian victims of Japanese aggression. But Kan clearly stated that Japan's occupation of Korea was "against the will of the Korean people." Although it was an indirect reference, it was the first time that a Japanese prime minister admitted the coercive nature of the occupation.
Japan's decision to return the records can be seen as a gesture of repentance and a sign of willingness to act on the apology. The royal records are now kept by the Imperial Household Agency, the Japanese royal administrative service. It will be the first time in 45 years that Japan returns artifacts looted from Korea. That last time was in 1965, when Seoul and Tokyo normalized diplomatic relations and Japan returned around 1,400 treasures.
Kan and his Cabinet also decided not to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15, the day World War II ended. The shrine in Tokyo contains the remains of Japan's war dead, including officers convicted of war crimes during World War II.
Japan's efforts to atone for its past atrocities are worthy of recognition. But Kan's statement is still insufficient for Korea to accept and move on. Around 1,000 Korean and Japanese intellectuals have claimed that the 1910 Annexation Treaty signed by Korea and Japan was invalid and demanded that this be reflected in Kan's apology. But it was not. There was also no mention of the Korean women who were forced to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II. For almost 20 years, the women, whom Japan euphemistically referred to as "comfort women," have protested in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul every Wednesday come rain or shine. And there was no mention of compensation for Korean forced labor in Japan.
Japan's apology and the return of cultural treasures are only the beginning. If Tokyo wants to free future generations of Japanese from the shackles of its past atrocities and make them honorable members of international society, it must voluntarily confront the historical mess. It is up to Japan to show whether Kan's apology can be the starting point of a new century of Korea-Japan relations.