An American Perspective on Korea/Japan Relations: Past and Present


At an event on Friday held at Lewis & Clark College for the Korean-American community and members from the consulate to honor the service of Peace Corps volunteers, Dr. Ken Ruoff, spoke about the contemporary and historical relations of Japan and the Republic of South Korea. Dr. Ruoff is a Professor of History and Director of the Center for Japanese Studies at Portland State University and winner of the prestigious Osaragi Jiro Prize for Commentary for the Japanese translation of his book The People’s Emperor: Democracy and the Japanese Monarchy, 1945-1995. Dr. Ruoff’s current project is an examination of museum in both Korea and Japan and their portrayal of their national history and the implications for collective memory and international politics.

In his opening remarks, Dr. Ruoff lamented the lack of ‘national humility ‘ once present in the relationship between Japan and the Republic of South Korea where they are increasingly portrayed as uncompromising antagonists. From the casual U.S perspective, Ruoff states, both Japan and Korea posses industrialized economies tied to the international economic order and cogent, liberal democracies which both perceive similar external security threats in China. Increasingly they also posses the same demographic crisis with a rapidly aging population. Finally he posits while the countries and societies possess many similar attributes, tensions still remain high due to the manipulation and framing of the two countries’ history.


The highly controversial issues of Japanese using Korean comfort women, past colonialist actions and even current issues such as visitation of war shrines by Japanese leadership still stoke the fire in Japan-Korean relations. Dr. Ruoff even cites the Japanese unilateral attempts at normalization of relations with North Korea during the late 1990s as drawing the ire of Seoul. An outsider, he says, must understand the exchange between Korea and Japan as operating on a set of values and information different from other states–founded on historical animosity, not strictly diplomatic rules. Yet for the most part, besides some sabre-rattling, the tense relationship between Japan and Korea has not materialized into anything post-WWII–high tensions has not yet culminated in violence despite historical affairs.

What is clear in their contemporary history Dr. Ruoff states, is the U.S’ role as allies and arbiter of both countries. Drawing on research by Victor Cha, Endowed Chair in Government and International Affairs, and Director of Georgetown’s National Resource Center for Asian Studies, Dr. Ruoff discuses the instances where U.S action compelled Japan and Korea to forgo their historical differences and adopt measures of regional cooperation. This moment, Ruoff says, comes in the cold war period, particularly during Vietnam war and later the Carter administration, where U.S strategic interests lay elsewhere in the world. The U.S as a partial response to the discord between Tokyo and Seoul, threatened to withdraw support from Northeast Asia thus putting pressure on both Korea and Japan to cooperate against their new rising neighbor, Communist China. This indeed compelled Japan to enact the landmark ‘Korea Clause‘ in which they declared the ‘security of the Republic of Korea is essential to the security of Japan.’ to alleviate U.S concerns of infighting between their two allies in the region and ensure cooperation. For all the historical grief that had accumulated between the two countries, this statement by Japan in the 1960s was a unbelievable affirmation of how important U.S support was to them.

While Dr. Ruoff conceded he could not address all the historical intricacies that affect Japan-Korea relations today, he did make time to point out some of his suggestions and take questions from the audience. He discussed how a deeper understanding of Japanese politics and culture could help illuminate how deeply democratic and pacifist values are imbued in society post-imperial Japan. These pervasive cultural aspects makes it hard for him to believe theories of lasting, aggressive action in which Japan throws off its vestiges of pacifism to intervene on the Asian mainland. He again suggests that while regular diplomacy between other states operates with the exchange of shared values, Korea and Japan diplomacy is dominated by condemnation and confrontations about their different interpretations of history. He questions whether the U.S has a role to play in alleviating tensions among its two allies, as it did in the cold war. One audience member even intriguingly pondered whether at any time in history a Korean-Japanese version of the Camp-David accords even possible.

Finally, Dr. Ruoff asked the predominantly Korean and American audience two questions: 1) What would it really take for Japan to be forgiven? 2) Can we envision different versions of nationalism in each country that doesn’t play off tensions between the two? Dr. Ruoff advances the argument that, while it is okay for Japan to apologize for the foreseeable future, there must be some efforts for both sides to move the history away from being just a political tool to win domestic short-term elections and symbolic victories between the two states. He says it is okay to ask, what would it take to really unify the divergent, malevolent histories of Japan’s and Korea’s conflict? From this platform, Dr. Ruoff says, it would be easier and more productive to reconcile relevant issues and frame current relations between the countries in a much different light.