Japan To South Korea: Lay Off The Emperor

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Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko bow during a national memorial service for victims in Tokyo March 11, 2012, to mark the first anniversary of an earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands and set off a nuclear crisis.

TOKYO –It’s not clear if South Korean President Lee Myung-bak intended to infuriate Japan, worsen a couple of territorial disputes and complicate U.S. security plans in Asia by picking on a kindly, 78-year-old emperor. But he managed to do it anyway. And that’s not good for anyone.

Japan and South Korea were in a renewed dispute over ownership of a small group of islands in the Sea of Japan last week when Lee declared that if Emperor Akihito wanted to visit South Korea, he would have to agree to apologize “from the bottom of his heart” for excesses during Japan’s colonial rule, which ended in 1945.

The thing is, Akihito had no plans to visit South Korea, and Lee’s remarks were widely perceived in Japan as insulting to the emperor. Akihito is a well-liked and deeply respected figure whose unprecedented television address helped calm the nation in the days following the March 11, 2011, disaster.

Lee’s comments triggered an uncharacteristically strong response from the Japanese.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda declared that since the emperor had nothing to do with the islands dispute, Lee’s demand “flies in the face of common sense.” He demanded that Lee retract the statement and apologize to Japan. (By the way, that might have been a diplomatic first: a demand for an apology, for a demand for an apology).

Noda upped the rhetoric by calling on South Korea to end its “illegal occupation” of the tiny islets and hinted at economic reprisals. The islands are called Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea.

The issue spilled over to another territorial dispute. Lee’s remarks came on the same day (August 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II) that a group of Chinese protesters landed on the Senkaku islands, known as Diaoyu in China. Those protesters were quickly arrested and sent home, but Noda promised to increase patrols and surveillance around the islands, and issued stern new warnings against Chinese encroachment. It was a stronger reaction than he might otherwise have made if not for the ongoing controversy over the emperor and Takeshima/Dokdo ownership, and brought its own strong rebuke from China.

The Japanese Diet, meanwhile, passed a resolution condemning South Korea’s actions, and another resolution condemning China for encouraging the Senkaku/Diaoyu protesters. Japan controls the Senkaku islands but both Japan and China claim them as sovereign territory.

Sean King, an Asian security analyst with Park Strategies, said it’s unlikely that Lee understood the reaction that his remarks would generate in Japan. More likely, he said, they were directed at voters who will elect a new president this fall.  Lee is limited to just one term and his party’s candidate is behind in the polls; anti-Japanese rhetoric is not an uncommon theme in South Korean elections.

“I just think Lee thought it was a throwaway remark, an easy two points at home.  South Korea doesn’t have anything like the emperor, so I don’t think he could really relate to how Japanese would take it,” said King, who splits his time between New York and Asia and is a frequent visitor to South Korea.

While a strong diplomatic reaction might have been expected, Japan’s usually reserved public seemed to weigh in strongly, as well.

More than 1,000 protesters assembled outside Noda’s office on Friday, including many who appeared to be unattached to right-wing groups that typically protest anything related to China or Korea. The protesters seemed at least as unhappy with Lee’s remarks about the emperor as his visit to Takeshima/Dokdo a few days earlier. Lee was the first South Korean president to visit the islands while in office; South Korea has maintained a police garrison there since the 1950s.

Elsewhere, more than a few foreign journalists found themselves buttonholed in supermarkets and street corners by Japanese housewives and businessmen eager to express their unhappiness with the South Korean leader.

The controversy comes at a delicate time for U.S. security policy in Asia. The U.S. is shifting 60 percent of its Navy warships and other military forces to the Asia-Pacific region in response to China’s growing military power and aggressive territorial claims. Washington has separate defense treaties with Japan and South Korea, but wants the two countries to increase their security cooperation, particularly in surveillance and missile defense. But in May, a plan to sign two mid-level defense agreements was abruptly called off after opposition leaders accused Lee of being too close to Japan. Lee was born in Osaka and is particularly vulnerable to such accusations.

While Japanese leaders, including emperors Hirohito and Akihito, have made more than 30 statements of apology or expressions of regret for issues related to the war and colonialization over the years, many Asians have doubts about Japan’s sincerity or willingness to honestly face up to past transgressions.

The role and standing of the emperor has changed vastly since the war.

Hirohito was viewed as a direct descendent of the gods and was rarely seen or heard by the public. The first time that ordinary Japanese heard his voice was when he announced Japan’s surrender in 1945, via radio (most couldn’t understand his ornate court language, but they got the message).

Under the post-war constitution, the emperor has little role in governing, but serves as the “the symbol of the state and the unity of the people.”

It’s a pretty strong symbol. Akihito is the 125th emperor in a line that dates back 2,600 years. His birthday, December 23, is a national holiday.

Akihito was 11 when the war ended, and he acceded to the throne in January 1989 after the death of his father, Emperor Hirohito. While he rarely speaks to the press and his public appearances are meticulously stage-managed, he and Empress Michiko – the first commoner to marry into the royal family — are closely followed by much of the Japanese public. Akihito’s television address on March 15, 2011, the first by a Japanese monarch, and the subsequent visit of the royal couple to the disaster zone in northeast Japan, did much to calm public reaction to the triple disaster and raised their standing further.

Lee made his remarks about the emperor to a group of South Korean schoolteachers a few days after visiting Dokdo/Takeshima on August 10.  Lee said the emperor would have to go beyond a previous expression of “deepest regrets” for Japan’s 35-year occupation of Korea.

That’s not going to happen. But perhaps a look at an earlier statement by Akihito might ease tensions all around. During a birthday meeting with Japanese reporters in December 2001, Akihito said he felt “a certain kinship with Korea.” Why? Because, Akihito said, the mother of an 8th Century Japanese emperor was herself of Korean ancestry.