The assassination of Abe brings to light a complex legacy in China and South Korea

SEOUL – A crowd has gathered outside the Japanese embassy in South Korea every Wednesday for three decades. In the sweltering heat and biting cold, they are urging Tokyo to acknowledge that Imperial Japan’s military forced Korean women into sexual slavery during World War II. The protesters, who sometimes include elderly survivors of repeated sexual assaults by Japanese troops, give emotional accounts of how they have served as “comfort women.”

The demonstrations offer a glimpse into the historic feud between Tokyo and its closest neighbors. Sympathy poured in from foreign leaders shortly after the shooting of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday, and some of Japan’s closest international partners have announced plans to fly national flags at half-mast in honor of the slain statesman. But in China and South Korea, which bore the brunt of militaristic Japan’s brutality in the first half of the 20th century, the response was more complicated.

When he was prime minister in 2015, the right-wing Abe signed a pact with South Korea in which Japan recognizes the “dignity and honor” of women “seriously injured in wars.” But during his tenure, Tokyo has occasionally denied forcibly recruiting the women and has long denied they were sex slaves. The controversy over Japan’s wartime atrocities, as well as Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine, where some World War II war criminals are honored, has long strained Japan’s relations with South Korea and China.

Beijing faces the delicate balancing act of maintaining diplomatic etiquette without alienating Chinese nationalists, whom President Xi Jinping has long backed. In the hours after Abe was shot dead by a gunman at a campaign rally near Osaka, Chinese social media users reacted with a flurry of glee and derision. This prompted prominent nationalist figures to demand respect; a hawk commentator shut down an online group and urged its followers to be “rationally patriotic.”

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On Saturday — hours after many of his international counterparts did so — Xi conveyed China’s condolences to incumbent Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, as well as his personal condolences to Abe’s family. Abe has “contributed positively” to improving bilateral ties, he said in a sober statement that was in stark contrast to the mockery that has since been muted on Chinese social media. A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry declined to comment on the online contempt.

President Biden called the July 8 assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “terrifying” and “shocking”. (Video: The Washington Post)

Abe left a “mixed legacy,” said Victor Gao, a Beijing-based political commentator who served as an interpreter for former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Gao praised Abe for making his first official foreign trip as prime minister to Beijing and trying to develop a foreign policy more independent from Washington. Despite historical tensions, the two economies are closely linked, and Japan is China’s third largest source of foreign investment.

But Abe’s efforts to give Japan’s military a more active role and change its pacifist constitution — widely seen as an attempt to stand up to an increasingly assertive Beijing — have damaged his image in China, Gao said. The former prime minister was also an architect of the Quad, a group of like-minded regional powers including the United States that counterbalances China.

“In his later years, particularly after he retired from the post of prime minister, he took positions that were widely considered to be very warmongering,” Gao said.

After leaving office in 2020, Abe became a particularly vocal critic of Beijing’s growing aggression in the Indo-Pacific region. He urged Washington to abandon its policy of strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan and to commit to defending the self-governing island, which Beijing claims as part of China, in the event of an attack. Abe also reportedly helped organize a transfer of coronavirus vaccine doses from Tokyo to Taipei at a time when Taiwan was facing a surge in infections.

Those efforts brought Abe together with Taiwanese political leaders, including President Tsai Ing-wen, who said Saturday the island was deeply grateful for his “lifelong contribution.” On Friday night, the Taipei 101 skyscraper lit up in honor of Abe, and messages of thanks were projected onto the landmark.

South Korea’s relationship with Abe is even more complex. The late leader downplayed the extent to which Japan used Koreans as slave labor during the war, and he had implied that decades of Japanese colonial rule helped modernize the Korean peninsula, drawing bitter accusations from both Seoul and Pyongyang . But Japan and South Korea are at odds over the security threat posed by Kim Jong Un’s nuclear-armed regime. Seoul too shares some of Tokyo’s wariness of Beijing.

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South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has promised to improve relations with Japan. On Friday, he offered his condolences to Abe’s family and sent flowers, although hours after many other Asian leaders. Seoul was also special affected over Abe’s death motivating potential hate crimes against Korean nationals in Japan.

“We didn’t always agree with him on political and diplomatic issues,” said the former South Korean prime minister Lee Nak-yon, whose tenure overlapped with Abe’s, in a statement late Friday. “But we have built a personal relationship of trust.”

Ethan Shin, a legal analyst with the Transitional Justice Working Group, a Seoul-based nonprofit that has criticized Japan’s reluctance to give proper credit to its imperial-era atrocities, called Abe’s killing a “brazen act of political terror.”

But Abe also distorted the scale of Japanese crimes in World War II, he said in a phone interview.

In March, Shin and other activists helped survivors petition the United Nations to have their claims reviewed by the International Court of Justice.

More than any other Japanese politician, Abe has reinforced the views of fringe revisionists and mainstreamed them, Shin said. “The surviving victims across Asia Pacific will view his sudden death and the legacy he leaves with mixed feelings.”

Vic Chiang and Pei Lin Wu in Taipei and Michelle Ye Hee Lee in Tokyo contributed to this report. The assassination of Abe brings to light a complex legacy in China and South Korea

Dustin Huang

Dustin Huang is a 24ssports U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Dustin Huang joined 24ssports in 2021 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing:

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