East Asian relations have long baffled Western observers, to disastrous effect. The Allies in World War II failed to understand Japanese involvement with the Axis powers as an alliance of convenience, inspiring unjust parallels to Nazi Germany. Likewise, Kennedy's "whiz kids" could not avert the Vietnam War because they so fundamentally misunderstood the Si-no-Vietnamese relationship. The story is very much the same today, only with different actors: Japan and South Korea have been at loggerheads for decades, confounding US policymaking in the region.
On the surface, tensions between the two countries may seem surprising, especially given their similarities and shared international goals. Both countries are threatened by Chinese aggression and expansion in the region as well as by North Korean nuclear aspirations. They rely heavily on one another economically due to their proximity, history, and advanced economies. They have strong bilateral relations with the United States from trade agreements to military exercises. How, then, is it that relations between Japan and South Korea have deteriorated so significantly?
Most of the resentment between the two countries stems not from their current situation, but from the aftermath of decades of Japanese colonialism in the early 20th century as well as Japan's involvement in World War II. The Japanese Empire ruled over Korea from 1910 to the end of World War II in 1915, when Allied forces liberated the peninsula. During Japanese rule, an estimated 5.1 million Koreans were shipped across the Japanese Empire as forced laborers. Many were forced to flee Korea as a result of discrimination, violence, and the seizing of assets by the Japanese Empire. Additionally, Koreans were subjected to gross human rights violations during the period, including the infamous forced sexual slavery of Korean women for Japanese soldiers, known as "comfort women." All of these acts are continued sources of tension between the two nations.
The nations brokered an official postwar reconciliation agreement in 1965, reestablishing relations. While many in the Japanese government and Japanese population viewed this deal as the final settlement, the Korean government saw and continues to see the deal as the starting point for future war reconciliations. This central disagreement frames most of the subsequent tension between Japan and South Korea.
Recently, various reparations conflicts have further soured relations. While (here have been minor diplomatic conflicts between the two countries since the 1960s, the frequency and intensity of such issues have increased exponentially in the past few years. Reparations for Korean...