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Japan colonial presence felt 100 years on

Can Seoul and Tokyo finally put aside differences in the face of unpredictable North Korea?

South Korean student waves flag
South Korean students wearing traditional costume wave national flags during the 65th Independence Day ceremony on Aug. 15, 2010 in Seoul. Korea was liberated from Japan's 35-year colonial rule in 1945. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

TOKYO, Japan — You don’t need to look far beyond the current spirit of unity between Japan and South Korea before the cracks start to appear.

While leaders in Seoul and Tokyo put on show of unity in the face of an increasingly unpredictable North Korean regime, the scars of their shared history are never far away.

Sunday marked exactly 100 years since Japan began its 35-year colonial rule of the Korean peninsula. If the pertinent document, the 1910 Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty, sounds benign enough, what followed was anything but.

The colonialist’s legacy — as any student of the British Raj knows — is a Janus-faced creature. Many in Japan point to their country’s role in building a modern infrastructure and education system on the peninsula, and in improving agricultural and industrial output.

Decades after the last Japanese troops left, bilateral ties are in robust health. The countries have synchronized policy to limit the fallout from the global financial crisis and are in talks to establish a free trade agreement. The spectre of a nuclear North Korea has fostered unprecedented cooperation on security issues.

The stars of Korean TV dramas are household names in Japan, whose manga and anime films have built a mass following since the South Korean government lifted a ban on Japanese pop culture in 1998. And the ease with which it is possible to travel from one country to the other has given millions firsthand experience with their neighbor.

Yet few among those who observed Sunday’s anniversary in Seoul will have reflected on Japanese colonial rule with dewy-eyed sentimentality.

Citizens were forced to adopt Japanese names and speak their colonial master’s language, while schoolchildren were made to swear allegiance to the emperor in Tokyo. Tens of thousands of men and women were forcibly taken to Japan to perform dangerous jobs or to work as sex slaves for the Japanese army.

It is hardly surprising that the two countries cling to wildly diverging historical narratives. While just 20 percent of Japanese have a negative view of colonial rule, according to a recent survey in the Korea Times newspaper, 79 percent of Koreans thought it was unjust.

The trauma of the past has been soothed by the arrival last summer of a left-of-center government in Tokyo that has made improving relations with Asia a cornerstone of its foreign policy.

Last month, days before the 65th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War, the prime minister, Naoto Kan, voiced a “heartfelt apology” for the damage colonialism inflicted on the Korean peninsula.

In a statement that pointedly ignored North Korea, he said: “It is easy for the side that inflicted the pain to forget, while those who suffered that pain cannot easily forget. I express a renewed feeling of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology for the tremendous damage and suffering caused by colonial rule."