Japan is not known to play hardened international politics, especially after the atrocities of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
For most of this period, the Japanese have worked hard to elevate their country to the third largest economy in the world, just behind US and China.
But in 2019, new things happened. First, a new Emperor Naruhito took the throne. Then Tokyo sent its soldiers to a non-UN mission abroad, to the Multinational Force & Observers (MFO) which monitors Egypt-Israeli ceasefire.
It also hosted the G20 Summit back in June in which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called on the global community to defend free trade.
This month, however, the Japanese government introduced restrictions on trade with South Korea, requiring companies to seek special licenses before exporting chemicals used in making micro-chips.
The chemicals—fluorinated polyimide, photoresist and hydrogen fluoride—are produced, at least 90 per cent of them, in Japan.
The chemicals are also used in making display panels for smartphones and other electronic devices.
With the restrictions in place, firms may need at least 90 days between applying for licenses to delivering them to clients.
Officially, Japanese authorities argue that the restraints are routine and are meant to control possible spillage of the chemicals into the hands of criminals and rogue regimes.
As such, Japan also plans to struck Koreas off the “White List”, a list of countries with preferential trade treatment.
But Tokyo and Seoul are not just joined at the hip, they also produce and assemble most of the electronic gadgets used in many African countries.
Their trade relationship is worth about $80 billion, according to figures from the Korean Customs Service.
South Korea’s imports from Japan about $54 billion worth of industrial equipment, chemicals and vehicles. Both are essentially the centre of the global supply chain for electronic devices and motor vehicles.
However, here is a history to it.
In October last year, the South Korean Supreme Court allowed locals who had been forced to work in Japanese companies during the colonial period (1910-1945) to sue for reparations of forced labour.
Japan protested to South Korea, arguing it has already settled the matter in 1965 when it paid out $800 million in a bilateral arrangement, known as the Claims Settlement Agreement.
The problem is that settlement was government-to-government, and no individual was directly paid. Japan officially says there is no link between the court decision and the restrictions and accuses Korea of misleading the public.
“I think the first step to regain trust would be for South Korea to correct false statements and clarify remarks. In this area, Japan has nothing to do,” Japanese Trade Minister Hiroshige Seko was quoted as saying by the Japan Times.
Koreans, however, reject the charge.
Korean scholar Ki-Jung Kim—in a blog in the National Interest magazine—said it is Tokyo which has lied in the past.
“A character assassination of sorts has been attempted by Japan, framing Korea as an untrustworthy country who backtracked on an agreement. If we look back on history, however, then it was Japan who behaved deceitfully in many cases,” he wrote.
Deputy Trade Minister Kim Seung-ho said at the World Trade Organization (WTO) Council in Geneva this past week that Japan was citing security issues to retaliate on the court case.
“It’s not at all a trade measure, it’s not at all a security measure, it’s purely strategically planned to gain the upper hand in the diplomatic rows, I mean the forced labor issues,” Kim argued.
“At any rate, individual reparations were always treated as a separate matter outside of the 1965 agreement,” he added.
In the short colonial period, Japanese rulers were accused of engaging in forced labour, using Korean women as ‘comfort women’ as well as underpaying or refusing to compensate those injured in wars.
So who should pay for colonial atrocities? A proposal suggested by Korea was to set up a special fund, contributed to by Japanese companies who were present in Korea during the atrocities, and the money be paid to victims.
Japan, nonetheless, fears the court case could open a floodgate, even though only one victim had sued.
Historically, colonial governments have been forced to apologise and pay for their violence, long after they left the scene. This is partly because current governments of former colonial masters are aware of image issues that may linger if they deny roles, according to Tom Bentley, a fellow at the University of Aberdeen.
“It seems that political leaders of formerly colonising states are concerned about both the tricky task of facing the violent past in terms of their state’s current self-image and the potential opening of a Pandora’s box when it comes to reparations,” he wrote in the Conversation.
In 1988, then US President Ronald Reagan—using the Civil Liberties Act— announced compensation for more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent wrongfully detained camps during World War II, and a formal apology. Each surviving victim was paid out $20,000.
In 2013, for example, Britain is to paid out £19.9m (Ksh2.6 billion at the time) as compensation to 5,228 elderly Kenyans tortured during the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s. Then UK Foreign secretary, William Hague, also issued a ‘regret’ for the incidents he argued delayed independence.
This, nevertheless, did not stop further groups from suing. Shortly after the award, another group of Kenyans said to have been tortured started seeking compensation in UK courts although their case flopped.
In February 2017, Tanzanian lawmakers begun the process to demand compensation from Germany for atrocities committed during the Maji Maji war.
The Germans who initially colonised Tanganyika, as mainland Tanzania was then known, were said to have used starvation, arson and murder to suppress the rebellion.
It followed a 2016 acknowledgement by Germany that they had committed genocide in Namibia at the turn of the 20th century against the Herero and Nama people who filed a class action lawsuit against the German government.
The German government in 2013 also agreed to pay €772 million ($1 billion) for the homecare of some 56000 Holocaust survivors throughout the world, after a deal was reached with the Claims Conference, a Jewish fund for victims of the Nazi aggression regime. The money, which will be given in stages between 2014 and 2017, will provide some 56,000.