An international naval fleet review to be held on Jeju Island next week has become the subject of dispute between Korea and Japan, as Tokyo spurned Seoul’s request that its naval vessel refrain from flying a flag that many Asians associate with Japan’s imperialist aggression.
It is not the first time that the use of the Rising Sun flag by a visiting Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel has become a bone of contention between the two countries. But the issue is aggravating another dispute that recently flared up over the Korean government’s move to revoke a 2015 agreement concerning Japanese military sex slavery during World War II.
The flag dispute emerged after President Moon Jae-in hinted during a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in New York that the Korean government may disband the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, which was set up with Japanese government money as part of a package deal on the Japanese army’s sexual enslavement of Korean women during World War II.
The Moon administration has consistently challenged the deal, arguing that the government of impeached President Park Geun-hye rushed the agreement, disregarding the views of survivors.
The flag issue was raised by the Korean Navy, the host of the Oct. 10-14 fleet review, which asked all 14 invited countries to fly only their national flags and the national flag of the host country. There is no doubt that the move was aimed at keeping the Japanese destroyer that is scheduled to participate in the event from using the Rising Sun ensign.
The move reflected the sentiment of Koreans -- and many more Asians, including Chinese and Southeast Asians who suffered as a result of Japanese imperialism -- who associate the Rising Sun flag used by the Japanese military with its past aggression and atrocities.
Some Koreans are reacting more sensitively than before because the international naval event is to be held on Jeju Island, where the Japanese military mobilized local residents to build an airstrip and underground bunkers during the war. Some have filed an online petition with the presidential office, asking the president to stop the Japanese destroyer from visiting the island. The Foreign Ministry also delivered the Korean position through diplomatic channels.
The Japanese government rejected the Korean request, insisting that its choice of naval ensign is a matter of sovereignty. Japanese officials also insisted that the flag, with 16 rays extending from a red sun against a white background, is used widely in Japanese society.
Granted, a nation and its military have the right to use the flags and ensigns of their choice. But the situation is very different when we are talking about a symbol of military expansionism and colonial ambitions that inflicted unbearable suffering on many innocent neighbors.
Moreover, the Japanese obsession with the Rising Sun flag reflects rightists’ ambitions of revising the country’s pacifist constitution to pursue military expansionism. Radical rightist groups also use the Rising Sun flag at anti-Korean, anti-foreign protests in Japan.
Compare that with how Germans treat symbols and other legacies of the Nazi era. Germany -- along with other countries like Austria, France, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Ukraine, Brazil and Israel -- bans Nazi symbols, including the Hakenkreuz or swastika.
The difference in the Japanese attitude toward the Rising Sun flag and the Germans’ attitude toward the Nazi swastika explains why the two countries, both perpetrators of war crimes, are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to commanding international respect over efforts to atone for their past wrongdoing.