By Deauwand Myers




The making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged. ― From Webster’s English Dictionary.

Dr. Destiny Thomas, a preeminent scholar of the African American experience, wrote a powerful opinion piece entitled “Urbanism is Complicit in Infra-Structural Racism ― And Reparations Have a Place in the Built Environment” articulating the need for reparations for African Americans, the vast majority of which are descendants of enslaved Africans.

Dr. Thomas writes, “When we speak about ‘reparations,’ we situate the legacy of slavery in the recent past. We tend to suggest present-day trauma can be resolved by one-time interventions and blanket legislation. But… [there’s] evidence of widespread racist ideology that will continue to live in the hearts and minds of people in power and who maintain access to our communities long after policies shift and our cities make their first gestures of atonement.”

As I’ve written before, though they are unique, the Korean and African American historical experiences have some similarities. The many centuries of being enslaved, the casual brutality of compulsory sexual abuse, torture, forced pregnancies, summary executions, physical and cultural genocide, the denial of one’s interiority, and the Constitutional prohibition of American citizenry from the franchise of voting enslaved African Americans endured, is very much what Koreans in the early to near-mid 20th century experienced.

Of course, besides some American cities and universities offering reparations to descendants of enslaved Africans in their respective communities, the United States government has never federally initiated a nationwide reparation regime for the 40 million plus African Americans.

Reparations, though incomplete, have been given to the indigenous people of America, (the so called “Native Americans,” by the United States government.

Reparations, via the United States government, have been given to the Japanese Americans and their progeny for the unlawful, forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

In Germany, indeed, in perpetuity, the descendants of European Jewry receive a bevy of reparations, small comfort for the near total extermination of their religion and race. (There were eight million Jews before Nazi Germany’s perpetration of the Holocaust; afterward, only two million survived), but at least there is a firm recognition by Germany of the unspeakable injustices levied on the Jewish people.

The Japanese government, or better named, Imperial Japan, committed so many atrocities leading up to and during World War II, I cannot enumerate all of them in a column of eight hundred words.

Everything slave masters and those who shipped African bodies on that unsanitary, hellish, often deadly trek from West Africa to the Americas towards the kidnapped Africans, Imperial Japan did to Koreans during that nation’s forced occupation and annexation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 -1945, and indeed all the other East Asian nations Imperial Japan conquered during that period.

Now, to be sure, the peace treaty between a free Korea and a defeated Japan, (The Treaty on Basic Relations Between Japan and the Republic of Korea, signed on June 22, 1965) did provide a great deal of monetary compensation to Korea, particularly painful for Japan, itself ravaged by war and the ensuing years of poverty and malnutrition. In fact, adjusting for inflation, Japan gave Korea well over $5 billion.

The conservative Japanese government, for decades, has argued that the treaty satisfies all moral obligations insofar as reparations for the Korean people.

But does it? Unlike Germany, which has made a full-throated accounting of the many evils former Nazi Germany committed against the Jews, political dissidents, the handicapped and racial and sexual minorities throughout Europe, Japan has obfuscated and downplayed the true scope of the horror Imperial Japan levied on Koreans. Forced labor and sexual slavery are the two in particular the Japanese government routinely seeks to revise (lie) about.

Cruelly, the Japanese lexicon for sexual slavery, a particularly brutal practice many Korean women endured at the time, is littered with euphemisms like “comfort women.” Comfort for whom? Certainly not for the women involved.

American conservatives attempt to downplay the deep trauma and lasting harm slavery and Jim Crow have visited upon black Americans and the malice of such a rhetorical effort. Similarly, the Japanese government’s denial of the true cost of its occupation of Korea undoes the goodwill of Japan’s efforts to answer for its past transgressions, both the reparations and the spirit therein.

To show indifference or worse, hostility, to another’s lived pain is the definition of cruelty. James Baldwin writes, “There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain.” Until the Japanese government makes a sincere and consistent gesture, rhetorically and otherwise, of true remorse for its past sins towards the Korean people, Japan’s attempt at reparations rings hollow.

Deauwand Myers ( holds a master’s degree in English literature and literary theory, and is an English professor outside of Seoul.

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