In a rational world, South Korea and Japan ought to be the best of friends. Their cultures and languages are closely linked. Their economies are deeply entangled. And as the only liberal democracies in East Asia (along with Taiwan), they have to contend with the threat of North Korean belligerence and Chinese domination.
But the world is not so rational, and so the two American allies have recently become engaged in a flaming economic row, ostensibly sparked by historical wrongs. Late last year, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled that Japanese companies should compensate Koreans who were forced to work in Japanese factories and mines during World War II. Assets of major Japanese companies, such as Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, have been seized in South Korea, and they could soon be sold. The Japanese government protested that this matter had already been resolved in 1965, when the two countries reached an agreement claiming to settle “completely and finally” all colonial-era claims in exchange for financial aid and loans from Japan worth $500 million.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan retaliated last month by slapping controls on vital exports to South Korea. He cited reasons of national security, but few believe that. Demonstrators in Seoul then protested against a Japanese “economic invasion,” and the South Korean government threatened to stop sharing military intelligence with Japan.
This latest spat follows many others to do with history: the alleged lack of sincerity in official Japanese apologies for having subjected Korea to brutal colonial rule between 1910 and 1945; fights over revisions to school textbooks that downplay Japan’s wartime aggression; the refusal of conservative Japanese governments to admit that Korean women were systematically recruited to serve as sex slaves of the Japanese Imperial Army.
But of course, the history between Japan and the Korean Peninsula goes back much farther than 1910 — at least as far back as the fourth century, when some Koreans began to move to Japan, bringing valuable skills. Both nations have distinct cultures that developed at the periphery of Chinese civilization. This sometimes produced an odd kind of rivalry, with each trying to prove that it was closer to the Chinese centers of power than the other. There were also times of extreme violence. Japan invaded Korea in the last years of the 16th century and laid much of the country to waste.
Relations were not always hostile, however. Much Chinese culture — including pottery, music and religion, notably Buddhism — reached Japan via the various Korean kingdoms. Akihito, the emperor of Japan from 1989 until just a few months ago, when he abdicated, startled many Japanese by declaring that his family had Korean roots.
Since Japan is farther away from China than South Korea is and separated from it by a sea, the Japanese could afford to stay relatively aloof for long stretches of their history. Periods of cultural borrowing and paying a certain degree of tribute to the Chinese Empire gave way to many years of relative isolation.
The Koreans, despite their reputation for living in a “hermit kingdom,” couldn’t afford to ignore the Chinese. They had to pay more tribute to keep their far more powerful neighbor at bay. Korean kingdoms were formally independent but only so long as they recognized China as the superior civilization and the dominant political force.
Having to stave off greater and potentially belligerent powers bred a fierce nationalism among Koreans. But it also did something more insidious: Korean elites became very adept at collaborating with foreign nations, sometimes out of necessity, sometimes to fight off domestic political rivals.
In the early 20th century, some Koreans were close to the Chinese, some to the Russians and some to the Japanese. After the Japanese empire annexed the Korean Peninsula in 1910, Koreans faced a choice between almost hopeless resistance and collaboration. Much of the Korean elite chose the latter, not always for disreputable reasons. Cooperating with the Japanese was one way to modernize the country. Universities and newspapers were founded, railways built, industries established and so on.
But Koreans remained second-class subjects of the Japanese emperor and in the latter stages of colonialism were made to relinquish their culture and language and to conform to the Japanese. The humiliation of being forced into subservience to a nation often seen as a rival and never a master ran deep, and it still poisons relations between the two countries.
The same tangled history of submission and collaboration continues to have a toxic effect on domestic politics in South Korea. Park Chung-hee, the authoritarian leader who signed the 1965 agreement to let bygones be bygones, had been an arch-collaborator. He had served as an officer in the Japanese Imperial Army; right-wing Japanese politicians considered him a friend. One of them was Nobusuke Kishi, who became prime minister after having spent some time in jail as an indicted war criminal. (He was never tried.) Mr. Abe, one of the most nationalistic politicians since World War II, is his grandson.
Koreans on the left have never forgiven the conservative South Korean elite for its record of collaboration. They pride themselves on resistance against both the Japanese and right-wing authoritarians like Mr. Park. Most former collaborators and their offspring were members of conservative parties. The disgraced former president Park Geun-hye is Mr. Park’s daughter. She was driven from power and into prison because of corruption scandals, but the animus against her from the left also had much to do with her family background. Family is very important in Korean, as well as Japanese, politics.
Moon Jae-in, the current president of South Korea, is a man of the left, which is why it makes sense for him to break with the 1965 agreement with Japan. The reason is not simply a legacy of anti-Japanese resentment, made worse perhaps by the fact that Japan is now led by the grandson of a leader accused of war crimes, including the use of Chinese and Korean slave labor. More important is the bitterness against the political class in Korea that is still tainted by those crimes.
Mr. Abe, for his part, has his own political fish to fry. His grandfather tried to revise the postwar Constitution, written by the Americans in 1946, which bans the Japanese from using military force. Most Japanese then, happy with the country’s official pacifism, opposed Mr. Kishi’s attempt. Mr. Abe would dearly like to fulfill his grandfather’s wishes. A majority, if smaller now, of Japanese would probably still oppose such a move.
Lest one assume that Mr. Abe’s goal is only inspired by chauvinism, it’s worth considering that one of the first people to question the wisdom of Japanese pacifism was Richard Nixon in 1953, when he was vice president of the United States. Mr. Nixon believed that a revision to Japan’s pacifist Constitution would serve to turn the country into a more formidable ally against communism.
In a way, the Cold War never ended in East Asia. The big threat to East Asian democracies is China, as well as those North Korean missiles. Both Japan and South Korea formally are allies of the United States, with many American troops on their soil. But here again, history counts. Used to making necessary accommodations to superior force, the South Koreans have been drawing closer to China. Some Koreans appear to be more worried about Japanese remilitarization than they are about China.
Japan, on the other hand, still clings to the protection of the United States. That was the payoff for its having a pacifist Constitution: America would shield it from any aggression by its neighbors. The Japanese are unlikely to give this up easily.
So far, the Cold War order in East Asia — with Japan and South Korea serving as prickly allies of America against the Communist powers — has been relatively stable. This could change soon, however, not only because China is growing ever more intimidating, but also because President Trump has disparaged the United States’ security treaty with Japan as a bad deal. Until recently, America’s trade policies with its Asian allies were designed to keep military security tight. Now that Mr. Trump levies trade to make friends and allies conform to his whims, the East Asian order does not look so stable anymore.
In a purely rational world, Japan would lead a democratic alliance with South Korea, Taiwan and much of Southeast Asia to balance the might of China. In a world fueled by historical passions, America’s retreat will almost certainly drive South Korea even closer to China, while Japan, possibly with a revised Constitution — and perhaps even, down the road, its own nuclear arms — might pull back behind its sea walls, hoping to be left alone by untrustworthy alien powers. Such a move might ensure peace for some time. It has in the past. But only a fool would bet on it.
Ian Buruma, a professor at Bard College, is the author of Inventing Japan: 1853-1964 and The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan.