TIME Asia

Have You Ever Wondered Why East Asians Spontaneously Make V-Signs in Photos?

Studio shot of male hand showing peace sign
SuperStock/SuperStock RM/Getty Images

It's all to do with an American figure skater, sports manga and a commercial for Konica cameras

Spend a few minutes browsing social media, or watch groups of travelers posing in front of a popular tourist attraction, and you’re bound to come across it: attractive young Asians flashing smiles and making the V-for-Victory sign (or peace sign). The raised index and middle fingers, with palm facing outward, are as much a part of Asian portraiture as saying cheese is to English speakers. But why?

To non-Asians, the gesture seems so intrinsically woven into the popular culture of Beijing, Osaka or Taipei as to make it seem that it was forever thus — but, in fact, its earliest origins date back no further than the late 1960s, and the gesture didn’t really find widespread acceptance until the late 1980s.

Some say it began with Janet Lynn. The American figure skater was favored to take home gold in the 1972 Olympics in Japan. But the 18-year-old’s dream came crashing down when she fell during her performance. The gold medal was gone. She knew it, and Japan knew it.

But instead of grimacing, the shaggy-haired blonde simply smiled. Lynn’s behavior ran charmingly counter to the Japanese norm of saving face, and in doing so earned her legions of Japanese fans.

“They could not understand how I could smile knowing that I could not win anything,” said Lynn, who eventually went home with a bronze, in a telephone interview. “I couldn’t go anywhere the next day without mobs of people. It was like I was a rock star, people giving me things, trying to shake my hands.”

Lynn became a media sensation in Japan and the recipient of thousands of fan letters. During media tours around Japan in the years following the Olympics, she habitually flashed the V-sign. A cultural phenomenon was born.

Or rather, it was consolidated — because the V-sign was already entering mainstream consciousness through manga. In the 1968 baseball comic Kyojin no Hoshi (Star of the Giants), a protagonist struggling with father issues, and the pressure of competition, gets his dad’s tacit approval when the elder throws him a “V” before a big game. The volleyball manga Sain wa V! (V Is the Sign) was created shortly after and was adapted into a television series with an infectious earworm of a theme that features the chant “V-I-C-T-O-R-Y!”

It was probably advertising that gave the gesture its biggest boost, however. Though Lynn had some influence on the widespread use of the V-sign in photos, Japanese media attribute the biggest role to Jun Inoue, singer with the popular band the Spiders. Inoue happened to be a celebrity spokesperson for Konica cameras, and supposedly flashed a spontaneous V-sign during the filming of a Konica commercial.

“In Japan, I have seen the Inoue Jun theory advanced most often as an explanation for the origin of this practice,” Jason Karlin, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo and an expert on Japanese media culture, tells TIME. “I think the practice is a testament to the power of the media, especially television, in postwar Japan for propagating new tastes and practices.”

With the mass production of cameras, and a sudden surge in women’s and girls’ magazines in the 1980s, the aesthetics of kawaii — a visual culture superficially based on cuteness — took off. Suddenly, more women were posing for more shots, and more shots of women were being shared. V-signs proliferated much like today’s “duck face” pouts on Instagram and Facebook.

“The V-sign was (and still is) often recommended as a technique to make girls’ faces appear smaller and cuter,” says Karlin.

Laura Miller, a professor of Japanese studies and anthropology at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, stresses the role played by women in popularizing the gesture in photos. She recalls hearing girls say piisu, or peace, while making the sign in the early 1970s. “Like so much else in Japanese culture, the creative agents in Japan are often young women, but they are rarely recognized for their cultural innovations,” she wrote in an email to TIME.

When Japanese pop culture began to spread around East Asia in the 1980s (prior to the emergence of K-pop in this century), the fashionable V-sign found itself exported to mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea (where it already enjoyed some recognition because of the decades-long presence of the U.S. military).

These days, the habit is everywhere that Asians are. However, most young Asians who make the gesture in photos do so without thinking and are baffled when asked why they do it. Some say they’re aping celebrities, while others say it’s a mannerism that alleviates awkwardness when posing. “I need something to do with my hands,” says Suhiyuh Seo, a young student from Busan, South Korea. Little children do it without even being taught.

“I don’t know why,” says 4-year-old Imma Liu of Hong Kong — but she says she feels “happy” when she does it. Perhaps that’s all that matters.

TIME East Asia

North Korea to Send Cheerleaders, Athletes to South for Asian Games

Pyongyang's cheerleaders have previously been lauded by Seoul for their meticulous choreography and peaceful cheers, and Kim Jong Un even made one of the delegation his wife

North Korea announced on Monday that it will send a cheerleading squad and 150 athletes to the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, on Sept. 19, in a display of goodwill incongruous with several weeks of intermittent missile and rocket launches amid bellicose rhetoric.

The longtime adversaries remain at odds over a civil war from 1950 to ’53 that was never properly resolved. North Korea last week fired several short-range rockets into the sea ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the South Korean capital Seoul during which Pyongyang’s nuclear program was discussed.

The North’s cheerleaders, who have been lauded by the South in previous visits for their meticulous choreography and peaceful cheers, will ostensibly be dispatched to build tolerance between the neighbors, reports Reuters. “It is necessary to put an end to all kinds of calumnies and vituperation that foster misunderstanding and distrust among the fellow countrymen,” read a government statement, according to the North’s state KCNA news agency.

These overtures come just as young North Korean despot Kim Jong Un oversaw a mock military assault on a South Korean island on Saturday. Last week, North Korea also demanded that Seoul end its annual joint military drills with the U.S., although this was met with flat refusal.

Kim Eui-do, a spokesman for the South Korean government, said organizers would discuss the North’s proposal of sending a cheerleading squad and athletes to the event, reports the South China Morning Post. North Korea also sent cheerleaders to the Asian Athletic Games in Incheon in 2005. Leader Kim has since married one of the cheerleaders from the squad, Ri Sol Ju.

[Reuters]

TIME East Asia

The Chinese President’s Visit to Seoul Says Much About Shifting Alliances

SKOREA-CHINA-DIPLOMACY
China's President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan are welcomed upon arrival at Seoul Air Base on July 3, 2014 Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images

The two-day trip is the first time a Chinese leader has chosen to visit South Korea before calling on the North

South Korea is a good neighbor. North Korea, not so much. That’s the message China sent this week as President Xi Jinping stopped by Seoul for a two-day visit. It is the first time a Chinese leader chose to visit South Korea before meeting with the Kim clan first — a deliberate slight to North Korea and a sign of shifting alliances across Asia’s northeast.

South Korea and China are not natural allies. China backed the North in the 1950–53 war that split the Korean Peninsula. Since then, Beijing has been North Korea’s greatest ally, serving as patron and protector to Pyongyang — a closeness Mao Zedong once likened to “lips and teeth.”

But the bonds of authoritarian brotherhood have frayed of late. Beijing is rather tired of the North’s nuclear theatrics and increasing unwillingness to prop up its sluggish economy. The North’s bold young dictator, Kim Jong Un, has yet to meet with Beijing’s top brass. As news of Xi’s Seoul trip broke, he was busy lobbing rockets into the sea.

Shared frustration with the North has given democratic South Korea and authoritarian China some common ground. They have since discovered they share much else, including a thriving trading partnership and an old foe: Japan. Amid ongoing territorial disputes, the legacy of Japan’s 20th century imperial expansion and the country’s wartime record have become a focal point for East Asia, particularly Seoul and Beijing. They recently collaborated on a museum that pays tribute to Korean man who, in 1909, assassinated a Japanese colonial official.

Not wanting to be outmaneuvered, Tokyo has made a quiet overture to Pyongyang. Sitting within range of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, and an ally of the U.S., Japan is hardly a North Korea fan. But, on July 3 as Xi flew to Seoul, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that he would lift some economic sanctions on North Korea in return for its pledge to investigate the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. Japanese and North Korean diplomats have already met in Beijing.

TIME Asia

North Korea Holds Live-Fire Drill Near Disputed Maritime Border

Undated picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on April 26, 2014 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un inspecting a shelling drill of an artillery sub-unit under Korean People's Army Unit 681 at undisclosed place in North Korea.
Undated picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on April 26, 2014 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un inspecting a shelling drill of an artillery sub-unit under Korean People's Army Unit 681 at undisclosed place in North Korea. KNS/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea conducted live-fire exercises near its disputed maritime border with South Korea on Tuesday, five hours after notifying Seoul of its intention to do so and just weeks after a similar drill caused the exchange of hundreds of artillery shells between the adversaries

Updated: Tuesday, 7:13 a.m. ET

North Korea conducted live-fire exercises near its disputed maritime border with South Korea, launching rockets into the sea.

The drill started five hours after Pyongyang sent a fax to Seoul on Tuesday announcing its intention to start firing, the Korea Herald reports. The exercises follow a similar drill in late March, which caused the exchange of hundreds of artillery shells between the two adversaries.

“The North notified us there would be live-fire drills today north of the [border] near Yeonpyeong and Baengnyeong islands,” a Defense Ministry spokesman told AFP. The South Korean military was “fully prepared” for the drill, he added.

South Koreans living on or fishing near the islands have been told to evacuate to safe areas until the exercises cease.

The drill begins days after South Korea warned that increased activity at a nuclear test site suggested Kim Jong Un’s regime may be preparing to conduct another nuclear test.

TIME East Asia

War-Shrine Visit by Japanese MPs May Cloud Obama’s Tokyo Visit

Japanese lawmakers follow a Shinto priest during a visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine to honor war dead during a spring festival in Tokyo on April 22, 2014 Yoshikazu Tsuno—AFP/Getty Images

Some 147 Japanese legislators visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors its fallen during World War II, including some convicted of appalling atrocities, a day before President Obama arrives in Tokyo to reaffirm security ties

A day before U.S. President Barack Obama is due to arrive in Tokyo, 147 Japanese legislators visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war dead, including top war criminals convicted of orchestrating imperial Japan’s appalling Asia campaigns. Japan’s polarizing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was not among the worshippers. Instead, he sent a traditional tree offering the day before.

Tuesday’s Yasukuni pilgrimage took place during a spring festival of the Shinto faith and included one Cabinet-level official. In December, when Abe became the first of Japan’s last seven leaders to worship at Yasukuni, the U.S. embassy in Tokyo expressed its disappointment. Reaction in China and South Korea, two nations most ravaged by imperial Japan’s excesses, was far angrier.

Since Abe took office in December 2012 — after a campaign in which he talked tough on China and called for a potential revision to a Japanese apology to wartime Asian sex slaves — Japan’s relations with Beijing have cooled. Territorial disputes in the East China Sea and historical grievances over Japan’s attitude toward its wartime past have even affected the two nations’ trade ties. (On April 21, more than 270 activists, including descendants of Japanese war dead, filed a suit at a Tokyo court, alleging that Abe’s December visit to Yasukuni Shrine contravened Japan’s postwar constitution, which was written by the Americans to ensure the country’s commitment to peace.)

Obama is to spend two nights in Tokyo, underscoring the long-standing security alliance between the two nations and pushing for a trade pact that is facing domestic opposition in both countries. As part of an Asia trip that was postponed last year because of the American government shutdown, the Commander in Chief will also visit South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. (He will not make a stop in China.) Obama will be arriving in a region noticeably tenser than when he last visited. Last year, after years of Chinese double-digit military-budget hikes, Japan upped its defense budget for the first time in more than a decade. Tokyo’s defense commitments also increased this year as well, and Abe has made clear his ambitions of normalizing a Japanese military that is precluded by the postwar constitution from many military maneuvers.

On April 19, Japan broke ground on a radar facility near islands that both Tokyo and Beijing claim; it is the first new deployment of Japanese armed forces in four decades. Since 2012, when Japan nationalized some of the disputed islands, China and Japan’s military movements in and above these contested waters have markedly increased, although they appear to have dropped over the past six months.

The same day as the ceremony for the future radar station on Japan’s Yonaguni Island, a maritime court in Shanghai seized a Japanese-owned ship docked at a nearby port in order to fulfill a 1930s-era contract. The ship was impounded as payment for two Chinese-owned ships leased long ago by a Japanese firm; those two carriers were commandeered by the imperial Japanese government during the Sino-Japanese war and were lost at sea.

On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said the court decision “has nothing to do with Chinese-Japanese war compensation.” But Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed “deep concern,” saying the impounding of the container ship — which is owned by Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, the company that is the successor to the original Japanese lessee — could have an “intimidating effect on Japanese companies doing business in China.” Was the timing of the Shanghai court’s decision, which derived from a 1988 lawsuit filed by descendants of the lost Chinese ships’ owners, a coincidence? Perhaps. But when it comes to relations between Asia’s two biggest powers, history has a way of forcing itself into the present.

TIME East Asia

South Korean Ferry Investigation Broadens as Death Toll Tops 150

More than 100 people remain missing after the Sewol sank off South Korea last week, prompting the arrest of at least seven crew members

Updated: April 22, 2014, 6:45 p.m. E.T.

A series of funerals were held on Tuesday morning for victims of the ill-fated ferry that sank off South Korea’s coast six days earlier, as the death toll surpassed 150.

The number of deaths from the Sewol has rapidly increased since divers found additional paths to enter the submerged vessel and took advantage of the neap tide, with dozens of bodies recovered on Tuesday and 28 the day before. The majority of the 376 passengers on board were high school students going on a field trip to the resort island of Jeju. Over a hundred passengers remain missing.

“The conditions are so bad, my heart aches,” rescue diver Bard Yoon told CNN. “We’re going in thinking there may be survivors. When we have to come back with nothing, we can’t even face the families.”

The incident is the worst maritime disaster in the country since 1993 and has stirred outrage among relatives, who have lashed out against the government for not managing to rescue more than 174 people.

South Korean authorities broadened their investigation on Monday as they arrested four additional crew members and barred the family who owns the ferry’s operating company from leaving the country.

“The measure is to question them and hold them responsible for the poor management of the vessel,” a prosecution official told the nation’s Yonhap News Agency.

An extra deck was added to the 20-year-old ferry after the company acquired it in 2012, raising questions about how well balanced the modifications made it.

The ferry’s captain and two crew members have already been charged with negligence of duty and violating maritime law after abandoning the ship without efficiently helping passengers, an act labeled “unforgivable” and “murderous” by President Park Geun-hye on Monday.

According to the Korea Herald, the captain is likely to face a life sentence in prison. On Monday a chief engineer on board attempted suicide but is reportedly in stable condition and will soon be summoned for further questioning.

Not all crew members are accused of wrongdoing, though. Some reportedly gave their life jackets to passengers, and one woman refused to leave before helping students off the ship. She was later found dead, becoming one of at least seven crew members who lost their lives or are still missing.

TIME East Asia

Hagel, Chinese Defense Chief Lock Horns Over Territorial Disputes

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) and Chinese Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan (R) shake hands at the end of a joint news conference at the Chinese Defense Ministry headquarters April 8, 2014 in Beijing, China Alex Wong—Getty Images

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sounds off in Beijing on China’s decision last year to create an air defense zone over several islands disputed with Japan, arguing the move could endanger regional stability and antagonize relations with neighboring countries

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warned China’s Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan against unilateral moves that could escalate tension in the Asia Pacific, amid an ongoing dispute between Beijing and Japan over a group of uninhibited islands that both countries claim.

After touring China’s first aircraft carrier in the eastern city of Qingdao, Hagel arrived in Beijing on Tuesday and quickly took aim at China’s move late last year to establish an air defense zone that included skies over uninhabited isles known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.

“Every nation has a right to establish an air defense zone, but not a right to do it unilaterally with no collaboration, no consultation. That adds to tensions, misunderstandings, and could eventually add to, and eventually get to dangerous conflict,” said Hagel, according to the AP.

Hagel had already voiced the U.S. government’s continued support of Japan’s claims to the disputed territory during a press conference in Tokyo on Sunday.

“I restated the principles that govern longstanding U.S. policy on the Senkaku Islands and other islands,” said Hagel. “We affirmed that since [the Senkaku Islands] are under Japan’s administrative control, they fall under Article 5 of our Mutual Security Treaty.”

However, China’s defense chief stuck to the party line and refused to budge over issues of Chinese sovereignty.

“We will make no compromise, no concession, no trading, not even a tiny … violation is allowed,” said Chang on Tuesday, according to AP.

Despite the surfacing of adversarial statements between the two parties at times, the defense bosses also confirmed that cooperation between Beijing and Washington was vital.

“The China-U.S. relationship is essential to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region in the 21st century,” said Hagel.

But as Hagel and Chang traded a bittersweet mix of barbs along with a strong helping of diplomatic platitudes in Beijing, the U.S. and Vietnamese navies kicked off the second of six days of planned drills between the former adversaries’ marine forces.

China has ongoing territorial disputes with the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, and much to Beijing’s chagrin, the U.S. has upped naval and economic cooperation with regional powers in a move that Chinese officials view as an effort to bridle the Asian superpower.

TIME East Asia

Hagel to China: Respect Your Neighbors

From right: U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel shakes hands with his Japanese counterpart Itsunori Onodera at the end of their joint news conference at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo on April 6, 2014.
From right: U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel shakes hands with his Japanese counterpart Itsunori Onodera at the end of their joint news conference at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo on April 6, 2014. Issei Kato—Reuters

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel says it's wrong for major powers to "go around the world and redefine boundaries and violate territorial integrity," as he begins a visit to China, and calls on Beijing to embrace responsibility alongside military might

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel confirmed America’s commitment to defend Japan and demanded that Beijing respects the territorial claims of other Asia nations before landing in China on Monday.

After arriving in Qingdao, an eastern Chinese city of more than 5 million people, he was scheduled to visit a local naval base and tour China’s first aircraft carrier. The refitted Soviet-era craft has been viewed as potent symbol of China’s burgeoning naval ambitions amid increasing geopolitical tensions in the region.

Hagel didn’t pull any punches during a press conference in Tokyo on Sunday, ahead of his first trip to China as America’s defense chief. He urged Beijing to embrace the responsibility that comes with being a global power and rejected attempts by powerful nations to bully their smaller neighbors.

“With this power comes new and wider responsibilities as to how you use that power, how you employ that military power,” said Hagel, as he stood side by side with Japanese Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera.

“I want to talk with the Chinese about all of that,” Hagel said, “particularly transparency — a key dimension of relationships. Transparency, intentions, what governments are doing, why.”

The top U.S. defense official also took time to criticize Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, and warned Beijing against embracing similar tactics.

“You cannot go around the world and redefine boundaries and violate territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations by force, coercion and intimidation, whether it’s in small islands in the Pacific or large nations in Europe,” said Hagel.

“Nations must be clear on this and speak plainly. It takes courage from leaders.”

China and Japan have been deadlocked in a bitter dispute over a smattering of uninhabited outcroppings known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China. Beijing is also engaged in territorial disputes with the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.

China’s massive modernization of its naval forces, together with ambitious claims over contested territory in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, has sparked a wave of anti-Chinese feeling in the region.

TIME East Asia

North Korea Ups Sexist Attacks on South Korea’s President Park

President of South Korea Park Geun-hye listens to questions during a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the chancellery in Germany in Berlin, March 26, 2014.
President of South Korea Park Geun-hye listens to questions during a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the chancellery in Germany in Berlin, March 26, 2014. Markus Schreiber—AP

Misogynistic name-calling from Pyongyang seems to be in response to South Korea President Park Geun-hye's recent trip to a speech she made in Dresden, which was once part of East Germany, extolling the merits of reunification on the Korean peninsula

North Korea’s propagandists have no love for South Korean presidents. State media scribes often likened former President Lee Myung-bak to a rat, labeling grotesque caricatures of him with descriptors like “the dirty hairy body of rat-like Myung-bak is being stabbed with bayonets.”

Recent attacks on Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s female president, have combined this long-standing love of vitriol with a deep and abiding sexism. The strategy seems to be to portray her as a feeble-minded female, someone inherently unsuited to the office. In the last two weeks alone they have called her a “babbling peasant woman,” and a “childish girl,” a “pumpkin” and a “witch.”

It gets worse. Rodong Sinmun, a state newspaper, on Thursday published a series of articles titled “We accuse the bitch” parts (1), (2), and (2) [sic]. The pieces blasted Park for not being married or having children. “It is really ridiculous that such a cold-blooded animal talked about human affairs, feigning to be concerned about our women and children,” one North Korean allegedly told the paper. “It would make even a cat laugh.”

The name-calling seems to be a response to President Park’s recent trip to Europe, specifically a speech she made in Dresden, which was once part of East Germany. Addressing a crowd of students, Park called the reunification of the Korean peninsula inevitable and outlined a new plan to build trust between North and South. She also promised humanitarian aid to the North — an heinous move, it would seem.

Although the sexism is not new — North Korea welcomed Park’s presidency by referencing the “venomous swish” of her skirt — it seems to be intensifying as tensions ratchet up. South Korea has not responded to the Rodong Sinmun series, but earlier this week asked the North to “act discreetly.” Clearly, that call went unheeded.

TIME China

104 Years Later, a Chinese Train Station Platform is Still the Site of Anti-Japanese Rancor

This picture taken on Jan. 19, 2014 shows part of the memorial in Harbin, dedicated to Ahn Jung-Geun, who shot and killed Hirobumi Ito in 1909 STR / AFP / Getty Images

A memorial to a man that Tokyo calls a terrorist, but Beijing and Seoul regard as a hero, reflects East Asia's War over history

It is the morning of Oct. 26, 1909. Japan is tightening its grip on the Korean peninsula, and the Japanese governor of Korea, Hirobumi Ito, is due to arrive, by train, at the railway station in Harbin. Hiding on the platform is a Korean veteran of the anti-Japanese struggle, Ahn Jung-geun. He tucks himself into a line of soldiers, stashing his pistol in a lunch box. When Ito emerges, Ahn steps forward and shoots him dead. For this, Ahn is later executed by the Japanese.

This sanguineous story is the subject of a new museum in the city of Harbin, in northeast China. A joint South Korean-Chinese effort, the Ahn Jung-geun Memorial Hall stands in the V.I.P section of the city’s train station, not far from where Ito died. Since its opening on Jan. 19, the project has been given fulsome praise from South Korea and China — and has been roundly denounced by the Japanese.

East Asia is at war over history. Amid ongoing territorial disputes and rising nationalist sentiment, Japan’s imperial expansion and wartime record have become a focal point for the region. In late December, Japan’s hawkish prime minister, Shinzo Abe, rankled neighbors by visiting Yasukuni shrine, the resting place of 2.5 million war dead, including convicted war criminals. It was the first Prime Ministerial visit to the site since 2006.

Predictably, the move was unpopular. A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry called the visit an attempt to “whitewash” a history of “aggression and colonial rule by militarist Japan.” The U.S. expressed “disappointment,” urging Japan to find “constructive” ways to deal with sensitive issues. South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye blasted Abe for “by digging up the wounds of the past.”

The memorial hall has brought a fresh set of controversies. To Japan, Ahn is a criminal. Hirobumi Ito is a proud figure in Japanese history, an architect of the reformist Meiji constitution who served several times as Prime Minister. “We recognise Ahn Jung-Geun as a terrorist who was sentenced to death for killing our country’s first prime minister,” said Yoshihide Suga, a government spokesman.

Of course, this is exactly why he is revered in South Korea, which has an Ahn Memorial Hall of its own. The China project was first suggested by South Korean President Park Geun-hye at a meeting with President Xi Jinping last summer. Park’s father, former strongman Park Chung-hee served as a lieutenant in the Japanese army and studied in Japan. When he came to power in a 1961 coup, he normalized diplomatic relations with Tokyo, which provoked demonstrations. His critics considered him too close to the Japanese.

Honoring Ahn is an easy way for Park to bolster her nationalist credentials. Though Japan and South Korea are tied by trade, tourism, and an alliance with the United States, they remain very much at odds over history, particularly the fact that South Korean women were forced to work as sex slaves in Japanese military brothels. Many South Koreans don’t think Japan has adequately apologized.

It also gave Park a chance to engage with Beijing. China is a long-time ally of North Korea, but has warmed to the South under President Park. And it is not hard to muster anti-Japanese sentiment in China, particularly in Harbin. During the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army set up a base in Harbin to conduct germ-warfare experiments and medical testing. The site is now a museum where the Unit’s brutality is brought to life by videos, dioramas and modeling clay.

This helps explain why China is so keen to honor Ahn. “Ahn Jung-geun is, in history, an upholder of justice who fought against Japan’s aggression,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang at a press conference. He dismissed Japan’s protest that the hall honored a terrorist. “If Ahn Jung-geun were a terrorist, what about the 14 Class-A war criminals of WWII honored in the Yasukuni Shrine?”

The rhetoric has a cooled a bit for now. A week after the grand opening, the hall saw a small but steady stream of visitors, though the number of foreign journalists easily matched the number of people simply stopping by to take a look. The small, two room space boasts a commemorative bust, some photographs, and samples of Ahn’s calligraphy. A plaque marks the spot where Ito fell.

Outside, on the hall’s rebuilt facade, the clock is stuck at 9:30 a.m., the moment Ito was killed.

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