This week, Japan and South Korea have been reopening old wounds. It started off on Sunday at a football match in Seoul, when fans unfurled a banner accusing Japan of being “oblivious to history”.
The next day, a Busan court ordered a Japanese company to pay up for forced-labour practices in the past. A day later, Glendale, a city in southern California, unveiled a memorial for Asian women and girls held as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers more than a half century ago.
Three days, three news stories with a common theme: Japan’s brutal invasion and occupation of Asia in the early 20th century. In Seoul and Tokyo, government officials initially showed restraint. For once it seemed the two sides wouldn't get drawn into their familiar tit-for-tat.
Too bad it didn’t last long. Soon Japan’s minister for education, culture, sports, science and technology, Hakubun Shimomura, was calling Sunday’s mix of politics and football “regrettable” and saying, “It calls into question the nature of the people in the country.” South Korea fired back, saying it was “deeply regrettable” that a senior Japanese official would insult South Koreans over a sporting event. The Korean Football Association accused Japanese supporters at the game of provoking action by waving a Rising Sun flag, which once fluttered above the decks of Japan’s wartime naval fleet. It remains a potent symbol for many South Koreans of Japanese militarism and 35 years of colonial rule.
History has a way of whipping up nationalist sentiments on both sides. Officials in Tokyo and Seoul can’t help but weigh in. The results are predictable – finger-pointing, hurt feelings. This has brought about a stalemate of sorts: South Korea demands Japan shows more contrition for a militaristic past and Japan defends itself by saying that past wrongs were settled decades ago.
Rarely do they deviate from the script. Tokyo’s fallback position is to invoke the 1965 treaty that established diplomatic relations with South Korea and settled old grievances and it also reminds Seoul of compensation provided to South Koreans through a private fund. Seoul views this as a way for the Japanese to shirk responsibility for their past. For South Koreans there are other signs of this, such as textbooks that gloss over Japan’s wartime atrocities, lawmakers who visit a Tokyo war shrine and bureaucrats who demand that Seoul hand over control of a group of islets in the Sea of Japan.
The most extreme views on both sides tend to taint the relationship. Pessimists say it’s only a matter of time before something aggravates things further. But what they forget is how economically dependent on each other these two countries have become. Japan is South Korea’s second-largest trading partner; South Korea ranks among the top five for Japan. Commerce between the two exceeds $100bn (€75.5bn). You'll find South Korean tourists loaded down with shopping bags at fashion retailers in Harajuku and gushing over Japanese anime and Japanese tourists tucking into bulgogi at restaurants in Hongdae and dancing to the latest K-pop tunes.
There's a strange disconnect between the tense diplomatic ties and commercial cosiness. It’s a love-hate relationship with so much emotional baggage that it defies a straightforward solution. For now expect the blame game to continue.
Kenji Hall is Asia editor at large for Monocle.