By Muhammad Alif Hidayat* 

First year English department student

When mentioning the countries that are in Eastern Asia, Japan and South Korea often come to mind as the two most prominent nations of that part of the world next to China. Being a pair of nations that have existed for thousands of years as neighbors, rich histories connect through the national’s identity of both Japan and South Korea. As to most other nations, there bound to be the good and the bad shaped within their histories; for the bad being mostly related to past wars incited by Japan and South Korea being their victim, and the good can be attributed to various economical, socio-cultural, and other globally beneficial linkage from the modern’s possibility of foreign relationship.

Everything that is good is what all modern nations strive for even when terrible things may have occurred in the past, because they know that those are the past and they need to think about the present then the future. In spite of that, many nations still rival each other deep down, such as the case for the colliding superpowers of the United States against China. It should be easier to understand why two global superpowers would contest each other. Yet, it incites curiosity that the nations of Japan and South Korea still prevails a bad relationship against each other while known to be a model nation in the current world. In this essay, the writer would discuss three aspects which have caused a bitter relationship to form between Japan and South Korea by connecting through two of their past issues and a current ongoing issue. The two past issues will be related to Japan and South Korea’s history, specifically about the ‘comfort women’ and the Yasukuni shrine’s visits, while the current ongoing issue will be related to Japan and South Korea foreign relationship with the United States and China.

Firstly, the issue of comfort women is one of the biggest causes of Japan and South Korea bitter relationship which is very strongly connected to their history. Out of all Japan’s very questionable war ethics, comfort women has been one of the most talked about and which bothered most historians and scholars. The term ‘comfort women’ refers to women who were forced to participate in forced prostitution by the Imperial Japanese military during World War II. As Min (2003), discussed, these comfort women were treated more akin to sexual slave than consensual sex worker. The treatments that they suffered were degrading and dehumanizing and left many to still suffer physically and mentally long after the wars were over. Additionally, South Koreans women were recorded to be the most amounts of women who went to become comfort women. The once unheard sufferings were brought up soon after the war had ended, and the revelation became a long back-and-forth discourse between Japan and South Korea. Japan themselves did not have the best record of handling the controversy of their comfort women.

Hayashi (2008) highlighted a controversial statement from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007 when he stated that the Japanese military was not responsible for comfort women, but private agents were to blame. While the Japanese mass media ignored Abe’s statement, researchers under the Center for Research and Documentations on Japan’s War Responsibility (JWRC) proved otherwise. Concluding that it was entirely under the military acknowledgement that they coerced comfort women throughout the wars. Although there have been accounts of Japan and South Korea’s attempts to settle the issue of comfort women, they are yet to reach a definite conclusion. Today, comfort women are a terrible mark in history for both Japan and South Korea; though one nation is still fighting to keep the history known and talked about by their current generations, the other perseveres in veiling ignorance for the sake of their future ones.

Secondly, the issue of the Yasukuni shrine’s visits by Japanese prime minister has contributed as the following history related issue which made Japan and South Korea relationship bitter. The Yasukuni shrine is one of Japan’s most important Shinto shrines. Founded by the Emperor Meiji in 1869, the shrine has been used as a commemorative ground for Japan’s fallen soldiers. From what used to be the soldiers of the Boshin War, turned to the soldiers of the Indochina World War II. The problem with commemorating the fallen soldiers of WWII was that South Korea – being one of the nations that Japan oppressed the most throughout the wars – disdained the Japanese’s government practice of putting very highly their sympathy toward their soldiers who have been known for being war criminals instead of their victims. Hundt and Bleiker (2007) discussed how the continuation of Japan’s initiative to visit the Yasukuni shrine had barred the effort of reconciliation for the dialogue of the past against Japan and South Korea. Today, the issue of the Yasukuni shrine’s visits had been resolved better than the issue of comfort women; yet it had lived to be another one of the biggest cause that made bitter Japan and South Korea relationship with their history being the background of it again.

The third cause to Japan and South Korea bitter relationship can be attributed to how the United States and China control their ongoing foreign relation’s influence within each nations. In the world of international relation, the relationship that a nation aligns themselves to a particular superpower can determines greatly how they stir the course of their national’s living state.  If broken down into a very basic understanding; Japan aligned themselves with the USA, while South Korea aligned themselves with China. The clear contradictory foreign relation’s appeasement between Japan and South Korea created tension that was not as clear cut related to history, like the comfort women and Yasukuni shrine, but still amplified the initial bitterness that stemmed from histories. Choi (2003) wrote years ago how even in the 90s, both Japan and China believed that there was palpable tension between the two which would grow to be a more dangerous threat as time passes. Going further down, when it is understood that Japan and China has grown a bitter relationship similar to Japan and South Korea relationship, it is understandable that the USA comes to their side and South Korea turns the other way until a fully resolved acceptance can blossom between Japan and South Korea. Global foreign relations are something that will never end anytime soon, and within the context of Japan and South Korea relationship against the supporting superpowers, it will only grow tension that separates the two nations apart.

In short, the causes for the bitter relationship between Japan and South Korea are a complicated issue. On its surface, the troublesome histories between the two nations would contribute as the main reasons for their ever-growing tension. Yet, only a handful of modern nations, aside from major superpowers, would build tension against each other as much as Japan and South Korea had been. There is no definite measure to determine if Japan and South Korea had really set aside all of the things which keep them returning to forms of hostility. Definite peace will likely be impossible to see, but definite war is not the true goal of their conflicts. It is as complicated as international relations should be.


Min, P. G. (2003). Korean “Comfort Women.” Gender & Society, 17(6), 938–957. doi:10.1177/0891243203257584

Hayashi, H. (2008). Disputes in Japan over the Japanese Military “Comfort Women” System and Its Perception in History. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 617, 123-132. doi:10.1177/0002716208314191

Hundt, D. & Bleiker, R. (2007). Reconciling Colonial Memories in Korea and Japan. Asian Perspective, 31(1), 61-91.

Choi, W. (2003). Persistence and Change in Japan-China Relationship. Journal of International and Area Studies, 10(1), 75-92.