Japan PM Abe demands apology for South Korean comments on Emperor Akihito

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on Tuesday (Feb 12) that South Korean National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang should retract his statements on the Japanese emperor.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on Tuesday (Feb 12) that South Korean National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang should retract his statements on the Japanese emperor.PHOTO: THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denounced a top South Korean lawmaker’s comments about the Japanese emperor as “extremely inappropriate,” ratcheting up already-high tensions between the two neighbours. 

Abe told parliament Tuesday (Feb 12) that Japan asked South Korea to apologise for National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang’s remarks last week describing Emperor Akihito as “the son of the main culprit of war crimes.”

“When I read these remarks, I was really surprised," Abe told lawmakers in Tokyo.

“Our country immediately conveyed to South Korea via the diplomatic route that Speaker Moon’s comments were extremely inappropriate and most regrettable. We protested strongly and called for an apology and a retraction.”

Moon made the statement in a Bloomberg interview Thursday in which he urged an imperial apology to resolve a dispute over the colonial-era trafficking of Korean women to work in Japanese military brothels. 

He said Japanese Emperor Akihito - as the "the son of the main culprit of war crimes" - should deliver the apology before his planned abdication in May.

"It only takes one word from the prime minister, who represents Japan - I wish the emperor would do it since he will step down soon," said Moon, South Korea's No. 2 elected official and a former presidential envoy to Japan.

"Isn't he the son of the main culprit of war crimes?

The two countries, who are each other’s third-largest trading partners, have been sparring over issues arising from Japan’s 1910-45 occupation of the Korean Peninsula. The friction between the two US allies raises new questions about Washington’s efforts to build tighter bonds between its regional partners to counter North Korea and a rising China. 

The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed Tuesday that it had received Japanese requests for an apology Sunday and Monday, but didn’t immediately respond to Abe’s latest remarks.

On Sunday, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono had cautioned Moon against making divisive remarks, without publicly demanding an apology. 

“We don’t yet know how South Korea will deal with this, but we expect a sincere response,” Kono told parliament Tuesday.  Most South Koreans believe Japan hasn’t sufficiently apologized for its actions during the 1910-45 occupation, while many Japanese argue past statements of regret should’ve been sufficient.

While Akihito has expressed remorse over Japan’s colonisation of Korea, his revered position makes any attempt to involve him in disputes unacceptable to many Japanese. 

The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Monday that Moon’s remarks were intended to emphasize the suffering of the victims and that the country was committed to “future-oriented” ties. “Japan needs to show sincerity for honor, dignity and to heal the emotional pain of the victims based on a victim-centered approach,” the ministry said. 

The debate has reemerged since Moon Jae-in was elected president in 2017 and moved to undo the comfort women pact his predecessor reached with Abe. After the death of comfort woman-turned-campaigner Kim Bok-dong last month, Moon vowed to do everything in his power to “correct the history” for the 23 surviving victims.

 
 
 
 

The speaker's comments underscore the widening divide between the neighbours, whose ties have sunk to one of their lowest points in more than half a century. The direct challenge to the emperor - a revered figure, whose father was once considered a living god - risked further angering Japan.

While Akihito offered his "deepest regret" in 1990 for Japan's colonisation of the peninsula, many Koreans argue the country has failed to properly atone for specific wrongdoings, especially forcing local women to serve as "comfort women" in military brothels.

Former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak outraged Japan in 2012 when he demanded a fuller apology as a condition for an imperial visit. The dispute reemerged after President Moon Jae-in was elected in 2017 and moved to undo the comfort women pact his predecessor reached with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

After the death of comfort woman-turned-campaigner Kim Bok-dong last month, Moon vowed to do everything in his power to "correct the history" for the 23 surviving victims.