Kunitoshi Matsuki was stationed in Seoul in the early 1980s as a trading company employee, before striking out on his own and working in Japanese-South Korean trade. Today he strives to promote historical truths as the director of the Korean Modern History Research Institute. In this detailed discussion, Toshio Motoya spoke with Matsuki about the true modern history of Japan and Korea – a field in which mistaken knowledge and opinions are prevalent – including the comfort women, conscripted laborers, and Japanese annexation of Korea.
(Mo) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. You are an expert on Korean issues who was previously stationed in Seoul when you worked at a trading company. You’ve also given a talk at my Shoheijuku academy. I invited you here today so you can teach us about many things. Were you in Seoul before the Olympics?
(Ma) Yes, the Seoul Olympics were in 1988. I was there for just over four years from 1980 to 1984.
(Mo) When I went to Seoul right before the Olympics and during the Opening Ceremony, there was a very exciting atmosphere of uniting to make the games a success. South Korea was greatly changed by the Olympics.
(Ma) Yes, the city was beautified.
(Mo) Japanese companies contributed a great deal to that transformation. Japan also made major contributions to South Korea’s modernization when Japan annexed Korea in 1910. Despite this, South Korea ignores the terrible pre-annexation situation and criticizes the annexation.
(Ma) You are correct. Syngman Rhee, the first president of the Republic of Korea after World War II, attempted to legitimize his political power and strengthen unity by utterly distorting history. For instance, he said Japan carried out unjust colonial rule, and that Rhee himself founded the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai and helped liberate South Korea.
(Mo) He had to distort this history because it was not one that inspired pride. I think another example is how An Jung-geun, who assassinated Hirobumi Ito in 1909, is treated as a hero.
(Ma) An was not a hero, because Ito did not want to annex the Korean Empire. He thought this would place a heavy economic burden on Japan, and felt it was risky to bring other ethnic groups into the nation. His plan was to avoid an annexation if possible while helping modernize Korea as a protectorate for the immediate future. Despite this, he was assassinated by An.
(Mo) Also, the Korean side originally requested the annexation.
(Ma) Yi Yong-gu was chairman of the Iljinhoe, the largest political group in the Korean Empire at that time. He released a statement requesting the merger of Korea and Japan to all citizens in the names of the organization’s one million members. Directly after Ito was assassinated, Yi Yong-gu sent a written request for annexation to Emperor Sunjong, Resident-General of Korea Arasuke Sone, and Prime Minister Yi Wan-yong. Prime Minister Yi decided that merging with Japan was the only way to invigorate the country, and he actively carried out negotiations to that end. As a result, the Japan–Korea Annexation Treaty was concluded in 1910.
(Mo) Japan abolished the Korean Empire’s caste system after the annexation. There were previously around 100 elementary schools in Korea, but Japan ended up increasing that number to more than 4,000. Moreover, Hangul education drastically improved the Korean literacy rate. Of course, Japan also invested massive amounts of money in infrastructure building. But rather than being thankful for this, South Korea claims it experienced “seven losses.”
(Ma) Japan spent more than 60 trillion yen in today’s currency to assist the Korean Peninsula’s modernization. These “seven losses” refer to sovereignty, the king, human life, language, names, land, and resources. However, we should actually call these the “seven benefits.” The Korean Joseon Dynasty, which lasted for 500 years (of which the last 13 years were the Korean Empire), was strongly influenced by Sinocentrism, in which China is the central country. China’s neighbors, including the Korean Peninsula and Vietnam, had doctrines of “petit Sinocentrism.” In this view, civilized people lived in the petit Sinocentrism area, but the rest of the world was inhabited by savages that were no better than beasts. Koreans saw the Japanese as eastern barbarians.
(Mo) Perhaps the Korean Peninsula also felt some pride for having spread the continental culture to Japan.
(Ma) That may be true, but there were other direct routes from China to Japan, such as the Tang envoys. Japan took this imported culture and refined it into something unique and wonderful.
(Mo) Some aspects of the First Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars were to defend the Korean Peninsula.
(Ma) Yes. The ideal would have been for the Korean Empire to achieve modernization on its own, and for Japan and Korea to cooperate and protect East Asia against the white invaders. However, that didn’t happen, which is why Japan defended Korea.
(Mo) Japan made enormous investments in modernizing the Korean Peninsula as a way to ensure national security. Looking back at history, the Korean Peninsula has always been greatly impacted by powerful nations like China, Russia, and the United States.
(Ma) Yes, there is a Korean ideology called “serving the great” (sadaejuui).
(Mo) Perhaps that was a way to prolong the life of this fragile, peninsular nation.
(Ma) That’s why Korea yielded to Japan during the strong Empire of Japan era. The soshi-kaimei policy, which encouraged Koreans to adopt Japanese names, came about because the Koreans (who had become Japanese citizens) complained about not being able to take Japanese names. This also seems like sadaejuui. They were allowed to choose between Japanese or Korean names, and 20% retained their Korean names. These old names are still preserved in family registers. It is an utter falsehood to say this policy forced Koreans to switch to Japanese names.
(Mo) All of the actors wear gorgeous, colorful costumes in recent South Korean TV series. However, white would have been the only clothing color in Joseon Korea, meaning these shows are historically incorrect.
(Ma) I think this is a historical fabrication. Korea had few of its own dyes, and the people even referred to themselves as a “white-garbed ethnic group.”
(Mo) I’ve heard Joseon Korea had a strict caste system, including slaves.
(Ma) The caste system was quite rigid. The yangban class of aristocrats, directly underneath the king, were followed by the jung-in (lower bureaucrats) and sangmin (farmer class). Cheonmin (slaves) were at the very bottom. Roughly one third of the population were members of this class. The lowest were the baekjeong, or “untouchables.” Yangban spent their days fighting over their influence with the king. Sangmin farmers were exploited by the yangban, who got rich off this, paid bribes for official positions, and were appointed rural directors who became wealthier through further exploitation before setting off for their next posts. This was a repeated cycle.
(Mo) Japan expended money and labor to annex Korea and make it into a decent, modern nation.
(Ma) At the end of World War II, Japan’s private-sector assets left on the Korean Peninsula totaled 16 trillion yen in today’s currency. When Japan displayed a stance of having the right to demand payment for these assets, Rhee declared he would unilaterally establish his “Syngman Rhee Line” in 1952. Japanese fishing boats that intruded over the line were seized, and the fishermen were taken into custody as hostages. Japan had no choice but to give up its right to demand payment, and the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea was concluded in 1965, together with an agreement on demand rights and economic cooperation. These determined that Japan would provide a total of 800 million dollars to South Korea: 300 million dollars that did not need to be repaid, 200 million dollars in loans with low interest rates, and 300 million as non-governmental loans. Japan had foreign currency reserves under two billion dollars at that time, of which it devoted more than 40% to aid for South Korea. Besides the government, private-sector companies shared color TV, shipbuilding, automobile, and other production technologies with South Korean corporations. South Korea emulated Japan while using low labor costs to develop cheap products, stealing away Japan’s market share to grow its industry and increase export amounts.
(Mo) I could mostly read the newspapers when I visited South Korea in the past, because they contained a lot of kanji (Chinese characters). But today all publications are in Hangul, and I can no longer understand them. When was this alphabet developed?
(Ma) Sejong, the fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty who lived in the 15th century, ordered the creation of an alphabet that even uneducated people could read. However, it was temporarily banned in the era of Yeonsangun, the 10th king who regarded having own’s own alphabet as a type of mutiny against the suzerain state. Scholars believed kanji were superior, and did not use Hangul because they found it vulgar.
(Mo) Considering the Joseon Korea caste society, I assume they also thought limiting the difficult kanji to the ruling classes would be a way to oppress the lower classes.
(Ma) It’s true they believed the lower classes should be illiterate.
(Mo) The Korean language was a required subject after the Japanese annexation, and Hangul came into widespread use through this education.
(Ma) Yes. The languages that use kanji contain many homonyms. Just like the Japanese culture couldn’t be maintained solely through the hiragana script, Hangul was not sufficient by itself, so the use of kanji and Hangul together was promoted.
(Mo) However, only Hangul is utilized today. I can’t help but suspect this is a purposeful action to make people unable to read historical kanji/Hangul texts that describe how Japan modernized the Korean Peninsula, and hide the past.
(Ma) That’s possible. Young people today cannot read academic papers by South Korean scholars containing kanji from 30 years ago, let alone historical documents from the Joseon Dynasty or farther back. Many South Koreans feel an odd sort of pride and believe Hangul is a superior alphabet because it can be used to express pronunciations from around the world. However, there are many homonyms that are written the same way in Hangul. For example, the words for “arson” and “fire prevention” have the same pronunciation: “banghwa.” The use of these words in an equipment manual could lead to accidents.
(Mo) The comfort women issue is a major point of contention between Japan and South Korea, but I think these brothels were started by private-sector operators because they saw a need for them.
(Ma) This is absolutely true, yet people say 200,000 Korean woman were forcibly transported into prostitution.
(Mo) That would have caused a major outcry. What actually happened is that poor families sold their daughters to pimps. The daughters worked as prostitutes and were free to leave after they repaid their debts. This happened in Japan as well.
(Ma) That was mostly the case, but there were also some corrupt people who sold women into prostitution. They cajoled and deceived the parents by saying their daughters would find employment, then sold the women off. There were Korean-run organizations of these abductors on the Korean Peninsula, and the Japanese authorities cracked down on them. There is a record of an official saving women who were sold to Dalian. However, today people across the world believe the opposite tale, that the Japanese authorities abducted Korean women.
(Mo) The forced labor story is also entirely false.
(Ma) These workers looked up to Japan, wanting to live the “Japanese Dream” rather than spending their lives as poor peasants. However, it would have caused social instability if large numbers of laborers came to Japan from the Korean Peninsula, so Japan limited their numbers for many years. Roughly 20,000 stowaways from the Korean Peninsula traveled to Japan from 1939 to 1942, all of whom were sent back. If the Japanese government was abducting Koreans and forcing them to labor, I think it would have put these stowaways to work in coal mines rather than sending them home. Japan carried out its actions according to laws. However, South Korea is distorting this history and has brought this issue to the United Nations, trying to make the UN recommend that Japan pay reparations and apologize to the former conscripted workers. As a senior research fellow of the International Research Institute of Controversial Histories, last August I went to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva together with Michinori Sakamoto, a former resident of Gakuran Island, and Lee U-yeon, co-author of Anti-Japanese Tribalism (a best-seller in South Korea). We attended speeches and symposiums, and I was surprised to find that many of the UN council members are totally ignorant about Japan – they don’t even know the differences between Japan, South Korea, and China. That’s why South Korea’s total fabrications are accepted as truth. As you often say, we must do something on the level of establishing a “Ministry of Information” with a budget of 300 billion yen and a staff of 3,000.
(Mo) People in South Korea who speak the truth are persecuted, like Kim Wan-seop, who wrote Excuse for Pro-Japanese.
(Ma) When I held personal conversations with people in their 50s and older in Seoul during the early 1980s, everyone I spoke to was grateful to Japan for aiding South Korea’s development. They are pro-Japanese inside their hearts, but they had to act anti-Japanese in front of others due to the anti-Japanese policies from the time of Rhee. Political administrations over the years have unified the country by portraying Japan as an enemy.
(Mo) Creating an enemy to inspire solidarity is an old trick used everywhere across the world. The anti-Japanese Rhee chose Japan because there was no risk that Japan would retaliate due to Article 9 of the constitution. He declared the Syngman Rhee Line in January 1952, right before the Treaty of San Francisco came into effect, and incorporated Takeshima into South Korea’s territory.
(Ma) South Korea is doing whatever it wants, such as landing the Dokdo Volunteer Garrison on the island and firing on a Japan Coast Guard patrol boat. The director general of the Defense Agency at that time responded that Japan could not use military power to take Takeshima back because of Article 9.
(Mo) The same thing may happen with China at the Senkaku Islands. China has established its borders by fighting with all of its land neighbors, including Russia, India, and Vietnam. It willfully determined a strategy aimed at breaching the first and second island chains to expand into the ocean for further advancement. China is even building runways on reclaimed reefs in the South China Sea.
(Ma) In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in the Netherlands ruled against China’s claimed rights in the South China Sea. However, China has disregarded this.
(Mo) Moreover, top Chinese military authorities proposed to Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command Timothy J. Keating in 2007 that China and the U.S. divide and rule the Pacific Ocean.
(Ma) I think that is President Xi Jinping’s true aim.
(Mo) We must firmly resist this plan that would bring Japan under China’s authority. Peace across the world is maintained through a balance of power. Countries are invaded when balance crumbles and they are seen as weak.
(Ma) Yes, power vacuums bring about wars. Considering that, the Constitution of Japan is dangerous because it invites invasion. The Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) and Japan-U.S. Security Treaty just barely prevent invasions from taking place.
(Mo) The Maritime Self-Defense Forces’ deep-sea submarines and torpedoes are one reason the JSDF has halted China’s expansion. Nothing can compete with these submarines that can launch torpedoes from a depth of 900 meters, which is why Japan has maintained control of the Sea of Japan. However, Japan’s advantage would be lost if China developed submarines with similar capabilities. Japanese control of the air is threatened now that China has brought in fifth-generation jet fighters, and the same thing could happen to our command of the sea.
(Ma) People say we should talk these things over to resolve them, but no conversations or negotiations can take place unless they are backed by military strength.
(Mo) Yes. The JSDF is fulfilling its role, but North Korea has nuclear weapons today and Japan must also possess nuclear deterrence. That’s why I advocate for Japan to enter into a nuclear sharing agreement with the U.S. like its arrangement that allows four North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries to “rent” nuclear weapons during emergencies. To that end we must abolish the stipulation of “not introducing nuclear weapons into Japan” in the Three Non-Nuclear Principles, which are a National Diet resolution. North Korea is steadily continuing its nuclear program. It has already completed ballistic missiles and is working on developing multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRVs) with miniaturized nuclear warheads. We must be able to stand up to this.
(Ma) South Korea will hold a general election on April 15. The ruling Democratic Party of Korea, led by President Moon Jae-in, seems likely to win a crushing victory. This would probably cause a leftward shift all at once throughout South Korea, and step up the sentiment of wanting to integrate with North Korea. Another possible scenario is that the U.S. and China could conspire to destroy the Kim Jong Un administration in North Korea, then set up a Chinese puppet administration led by Kim Pyong Il, Kim Jong Un’s uncle, or Kim Han Sol, the son of Kim Jong Nam (who was assassinated in Malaysia). If China pushed North Korea to integrate with South Korea under Moon, the resulting federation would be an anti-Japanese nuclear state with a population of 70 million people. It would then demand reparations for Japan’s colonial rule against the backdrop of these nuclear weapons. Japan’s very independence might be at stake if we do not have the power to oppose nuclear weapons. And despite the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, it’s unlikely the U.S. would wage a nuclear counterattack for Japan’s sake if North Korea had intercontinental ballistic missiles.
(Mo) That’s exactly why deterrence through a nuclear sharing arrangement is essential. We must maintain peace via a balance of power against the nuclear weapons of China and North Korea. But the anti-Japanese media doesn’t understand this, and the politicians who do comprehend it say nothing because they want to win elections. Many Japanese people are brainwashed by the newspapers and don’t know what is true. If they did, they would all become conservatives and patriots. The media and educational system teach people that Japan was an invader. But the opposite is true – Japan liberated countries that had been invaded.
(Ma) Education is an extremely vital issue. However, thankfully we can say that Japanese people would feel pride in their country if only they studied what really happened in history.
(Mo) That’s right. If Japan hadn’t fought in World War II, I think more of the world would belong to the white, Christian powers of Western Europe, and many countries would still be under colonial rule. Japan lost World War II, but it won the many fights it waged to free other nations from colonialism. Leaders of these newly independent countries unanimously thanked the Japanese representatives at the First Asian-African Conference (Bandung Conference) in 1955. However, as a masochistic sentiment spread in Japan afterwards, the atmosphere in Asia has changed to one of trying to extract money from Japan by criticizing it.
(Ma) Koreans and Japanese fought together to achieve the great cause of the Greater East Asian War, and 21,000 Koreans are enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine. South Korea today regards them as traitors who sold their lives to Japan. However, the truth is that they were heroes who helped liberate Asian countries. I wish South Koreans would be reminded of this by visiting Yasukuni.
(Mo) I agree entirely. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(Ma) First, I hope they will feel confidence in the blood from their ancestors that runs in their veins. With an awareness of this heritage, they can overcome any hardships they experience in their future lives. Next, I hope they will learn about historical truths.
(Mo) Thank you very much for joining me today.
Date of dialogue: April 3, 2020
Born in 1950 in Yatsushiro City, Kumamoto Prefecture. Graduated from the Department of Political Science, Faculty of Law, Keio University in 1973, and started working at Toyota Tsusho Corporation that year. Was stationed at Toyota Tsusho’s Seoul Office from 1980 to 1984. After serving as deputy manager of the Secretarial Office and deputy manager of the Machinery Department, he left Toyota Tsusho in 2000. He established Matsuki Shoji Co., Ltd. in 2004 and became its president. He is currently director of the Korean Modern History Research Institute.
Matsuki’s many published works include The Japanese Annexation Actually Saved South Korea and South Korea is a Country That Repays Kindness With Spite (WAC Publishing), as well as South Korea Actually has a Wonderful History (Heart Shuppan). He has been the supervising editor for books including Let’s Apologize to South Korea Today (by Naoki Hyakuta, Asuka Shinsha)