Japanese Imperialism and Annexation of Korea: 1905

The strategic importance of the Korean Peninsula has enacted as the bridge between Asia mainland and Japan. It was believed that dominance over the Korean Peninsula signified influence over East Asia. It was during 1876 that diplomatic ties between both the countries were established. The Sino- Japanese War fought during 1894- 1895 must be analyzed from the perspective of Japanese imperialism or ‘Empire of the East’ countering the notion of western imperialism. However, the latter is not the only form of imperialism. Clearly, the aim of the Japanese government was to exercise political and economic control. Public opinion supported this action and clearly believed that Japan should play a pivotal role in helping Korea to free itself from the clutches of China. On the other hand, Qing China during the 1880s espoused the necessity to dominate over Korea. It is indeed true that nationalism and the trajectory of civilization have an intimate relationship as can be clearly seen by the case of Japan. Both the countries emphasized on their narratives to point out the righteousness in their actions (Sook, 2011, p: 39-74). Clearly, the Japanese government had manipulated the public opinion towards its aggressive foreign policy. Japan engaged in the discourse of civilization or bunmei kaika to present itself as a progressive nation which saw the light of Westernization (Darua, 2001, p: 99- 130). This altering contour emerged during the reign of the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912).  However, Russia’s emergence as a threat to Japan pushed the latter to be protective about Korea which led to the Russo-Japan War in 1905. 

Colonization of Korea (1905- 1945): Etched in Korea’s Collective Memory

Russia’s defeat was the stepping stone for Japan as Korea was formally annexed and become a part of the Japanese empire in 1905. Korea remained colonized till 1945 after which she was freed from Japan’s clutches with the latter’s defeat in the Pacific War. It was in 1912 that the Japanese Governor-General propagated laws that allowed the Japanese people to have ownership of land in Korea. A resettlement program was introduced by the government wherein many Japanese families settled in Korea before the end of the First World War. A large scale displacement took place. Additionally, 724,777 Korean workers had been sent to mainland Japan and Sakhalin as labourers in industries for mining, shipbuilding and construction. The Koreans were treated as second-class citizens and the Japanese government attempted to erase their culture by drawing up policies that would lead them to speak in the language of the colonizers. It was believed that Korean history and geography books were burned down by a nationwide search as well as confiscation of books of its independence and biographies of its national heroes was conducted by the government.

Not only that, gender-based violence on the Korean women was emerging as a disturbing issue during the Second World War. 20,000 Korean and Asian women were trafficked in military brothels to serve as ‘comfort women’ to the Japanese soldiers during the Asia-Pacific war. Comfort stations had been established in Indonesia, Indochina, Thailand, Okinawa, Korea and Taiwan. The women were treated as forced sexual slaves and must be analyzed from the perspective of gender-based violence. On the other hand, Japan had been the signatory of the International Convention for the Suppression of Traffic in Women and Children of 1921, yet Korea and Taiwan did not come under its purview. (Min, 2003, p: 938-957) The terminology of jugun inafu or comfort women was coined by the Japanese Government officials to cloak the reality of sexual slavery. Women who rebelled were brutally beaten up, raped and tortured.  It took 20 years before the former Korean President, Park Chung- Hee had agreed to normalize ties with Japan as collective memory etched on to its horrifying history.

Changing Contour of Republic of Korea and Japan Ties

The relations between South Korea and Japan can be examined from the point of view of a former suzerain state and colonizer since the 19th century. Japan had argued that by the treaty of 1965 with South Korea, the former has provided compensation of $9.5 million for its sexual slavery as well as apologized in 1993. It was in 1952 that the first territorial dispute emerged between South Korea and Japan. Although Tokyo came under the jurisdiction of Korea, it had been administered by the latter for 41 years.  Kim Young- Sum’s Government declared the construction of a wharf facility in 1996 which was protested by the Hashimoto Government of Japan. However, on the face of North- Korean Teapeo- Dong Missile Crisis, Republic of Korea, President Kim and Japanese Prime Minister, Obuchi in 1998 signed the Joint Declaration and Action for a New Korea- Japan partnership in the 21st century. It was in 2015 that the former Foreign Minister of Japan, Fumio Kishida offered a formal apology and the Japanese Government stated that it would establish a Reconciliation and Healing Center which would care for the victims of sexual violence.  As Korea was in the process of democratization, civic organizations such as the Association of War Victims and Bereaved Families of Korean’s and Citizens Coalition for Economic Justice insisted that their Government must bring out a resolution to the colonial problems faced in South Korea. However, it cannot be denied that Japan was heralded as an economic partner. The post- Cold War period witnessed shifts in Korea- Japan relationship as security cooperation between USSR, North Korea, China and on the other hand, Japan, Republic of Korea and the USA broke down. Nonetheless, it cannot be forgotten that Japan and South Korea have espoused an anti-community narrative which is significant in their alliance as constructivism argues. These countries distinguish themselves from the other or Communism in this regard which is rooted in the perception of the self and other. The alliance is established when North Korea emerges as a common threat that leads them to shift from friction. It is imperative that the norms or a common ground must be shared for cooperation to flourish. Adding to that, the alliance did not last very long when in 2010 South Korea recalled the ambassador to Tokyo to protest against the approval of the Japanese Government of middle school textbooks written by the Society for Making New History Books, a Right- Wing intellectual group that aimed to conceal the atrocities of Japan’s wartime history. (Cho, 2008, p: 2-117) It clearly glorified Japanese militarism and fueled anti- Japanese sentiment in Korean public opinion. South Korean domestic policies have the impact of post-colonial history. The General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) had been signed in 2016 which allowed Seoul and Japan to exchange information on North Korean missile which was supposed to expire in November. Ties experienced a downward spiral after the Supreme Court of South Korea in 2018 had ordered Japanese Firms to pay reparation for mobilizing Korean men and women as forced labours. Japan responded in July by removing South Korea from its list of trading partners as well as curbing exports namely fluorinated polyamides, photerists and hydrogen fluoride which are pivotal to the former’s semiconductor industry. The decision of not renewing the GSOMIA was upheld by Moon Jae’s government. The trade war that had been declared by both the countries has been perceived as a warning sign for USA and fear looms of the trilateral alliance breaking down.  

Portrayal of Japanese Media House Towards the Issue of Comfort Women

Journalism plays a pivotal role in bringing the truth to the public, yet this is determined by the coverage of the issue and if its portrayal is influenced by Government representation. ‘Sorrowful Homecoming’ was a Documentary which was released by the Korea Center of Investigative Journalism in 2016 that contained interviews of Korean women who were treated as sex slaves. This documentary had been created to raise awareness of the brutality done by the Japanese Imperial Army on Korean women and reconstruct the past human abuses. This has played an important role in building the collective memory of South Korea.  (Runquist, 2020, p: 2-17) On the other hand, Hirayasu Minzo, the Executive Editor of the Japan Times had criticized Reuters for not taking into account Japan’s viewpoint of colonization and refused to call comfort women as victims neither did he view Japan’s annexation of Korea as brutal.  Clearly, the Japan Times had refused to portray the horrifying Human Rights Violations that had occurred under the Meji regime in fear that it would be perceived as anti- Japanese by Shinzo Abe’s Government as it needed revenues from companies to survive and therefore had utilized the usage of such terminology. Although, Minzo had denied that his stance had altered due to external pressure, the fear of Abe’s Government ceasing the functioning of the paper could be viewed as one of the motives behind such an action. Indeed, the banner was, “All the news without fear or favor” has proved to be a farce as the truth has been denied. This has played a pivotal role in accentuating differences between the two countries. 

USA’s Role in South Korea-Japan Ties

The USA had perceived South Korea as its bulwark against Communism during the Cold War era. Yet, it cannot be denied that she built the foundation for democracy and it was the path that the Republic of Korea walked on. It was in 1953 that the Mutual Defense Treaty between the USA and the ROK was signed when Korean War had come to an end. The fervour to renew this alliance was pushed by George Bush’s Government during the 2000s. The USA, Japan and the Republic of Korea have been entangled in trilateral cooperation as North Korea’s advancement of nuclear missiles and China’s growing aggressiveness have led to the development of this alliance as these three countries share the standpoint of security. Nevertheless, this alliance has been embedded in the USA’s foreign policy. Nonetheless, an agreement between the Korean President, Park Geun- Hye and Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe was reached on 28th December 2015 which could not have been possible without the pivotal role played by Obama’s administration which focused on the policy of “Rebalance to Asia”.


It is imperative for the Trump administration to sustain the trilateral cooperation as the ties between The ROK and Japan experience significant shifts due to the disturbing colonial past and atrocities embedded in the history of South Korea. As China’s aggressiveness becomes a warning sign for the USA as the ever so globalized world witnesses a re-emerging dawning Cold War era, the alliance can become the foundation for resistance if the economic partnership is facilitated. However, it must be kept in mind that the relationship of the Republic of Korea with Japan has been defined by the history of colonialism and collective memory.

Samanneeta Chakraborty

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