ROUND-TABLE DEBATE:Fresh Moves Seen Within S. Korean Public,
Media Said Likely to Help Reconfirm Japan-S. Korea Relations

July 24, 2014

Video: Japanese Only

Kazuo OgouraKazuo Ogoura,Chairman of Japanese Delegates of Japan Korea Future Dialogue, Former Japanese Ambassador to South Korea and France

Junya NishinoJunya Nishino,Deputy Director of the Center for Contemporary Korea Studies, the Keio Institute of East Asian Studies

Tadashi IdeishiTadashi Ideishi, Executive Commentator, the Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK)

Yasushi KudoYasushi Kudo, President of The Genron NPO

Some fresh, unconventional moves among South Korean people and media reports may contribute to reconfirming the mutual importance of relations between Japan and South Korea, according to noted Japanese experts. Japanese and South Korean people's sentiments remain generally poor toward each other's country, but more than half of both countries' peoples believe that the situation is undesirable or should be improved, according to the results of a recent public opinion survey carried out in the two countries.

Their adverse feelings toward each other's country can be attributable in large part to the two countries' political leaders -- Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, said Junya Nishino, deputy director of the Center for Contemporary Korea Studies of the Keio Institute of East Asian Studies.

The remarks and behavior of the two leaders have had a strong influence on the formation of people's feelings toward each other's country, said Nishino, who was one of three guest speakers at a debate program aired by the Japanese non-profit think tank The Genron NPO on the Internet. Specifically, the prime minister's strong leadership is taken by South Koreans as an indication that Japan is a militarist power while President Park's critical remarks about Japan's wartime acts on various occasions have adversely affected Japanese people's feelings toward South Korea, he said.

The public opinion survey, organized by The Genron NPO and its South Korean partner, the East Asia Institute, showed South Korean people give relatively positive answers, such as "diligent" and "kind," when asked about the characteristics of Japanese people, noted former Japanese Ambassador to South Korea Kazuo Ogoura. Meanwhile, the greater part of Japanese polled were neither positive nor negative with regard to the characters of South Koreans.

South Korea often criticizes Japan for various reasons, but the survey results show that South Koreans actually have a better understanding of the Japanese, than vice versa, said Ogoura, who is currently adviser to The Japan Foundation. News reports and other materials from South Korea's three biggest newspapers can be read by any Japanese as their Japanese-language versions are available free of charge on the Internet, according to Tadashi Ideishi, executive commentator of the Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK). The availability of a massive variety of news reports from South Korea works adversely, rather than positively, on relations between the two countries, Ideishi said.

Very radical, sometimes arbitrary, wording tends to be used in South Korea's media reports, and this helps fan ill feelings toward South Korea among Japanese people, he said. "It is not that there is no mutual understanding between the two countries for lack of information." South Korea's media reports are becoming rather critical of the South Korean government's diplomatic policy, Nishino said. There must be some voices among South Korea's public opinion, including the media, calling for something to be done to repair relations between the two countries, "but unfortunately, these voices fall short of moving the Blue House, the South Korean presidential office," he said.

"At present, there is almost no mutual trust between the two countries' political leaders, nor are there any effective diplomatic channels," Ideishi said. Japan's ambassador to South Korea is unable to meet with the foreign minister of South Korea, when necessary. "This is just abnormal," he said.

The survey asked whether the two countries need to realize a leaders' meeting. The results show that 70 percent of the Japanese and 80 percent of the South Koreans replied, "I think so," according to Genron NPO President Yasushi Kudo, who served as the moderator at the debate program. But 70 percent of South Korean respondents and 40 percent of Japanese respondents replied there is no need to rush this.

Ogoura said that the policy areas that can be addressed by governments are limited in today's world. As a result, citizens' power is becoming more important than ever, he said. Governments are unlikely to be able to deal with the situation unless citizens participate in problem-solving efforts in diplomatic and other areas in various styles and in a calm manner, he said.

South Korea's pop culture, notably famous TV dramas, caught on with Japanese in the first half of the 2000s. "I view the Korea boom rather coolly because I think Japanese fans' understanding of South Korea was very shallow and superficial," Ideishi said. But the boom also contributed to removing a sense of discrimination and prejudice against South Korea, he added. "One day, I asked a Japanese student 'Why are you studying the Korean language?' and the student's reply was 'because the Hankul (Korean alphabet) is just lovely,' " said Ideishi. "This kind of sentiment has been little seen among our generation," he said. The Japanese student episode can be taken to indicate the Korea boom helped remove "a kind of psychological barrier" in Japanese people's understanding of South Korea, Ideishi said.

The problem is that Japanese people have no clear awareness of the importance of relations between Japan and South Korea, and the need to make much of the relationship, Ideishi said. A clue to better relations between the two countries can be found from citizens' views cited in the latest opinion survey, according to Nishino.

"Of course, South Koreans mentioned their conventional idea that Japan's historical perceptions about its wartime acts should be corrected, but views increased among South Korean respondents that problems also exist on their side," he said. Specifically, South Korea's anti-Japanese education and descriptions about Japan in school textbooks were cited by 27.5 percent of South Koreans polled as history-related problems that must be resolved between the two countries, up from 7.5 percent in last year's survey. South Korean politicians' remarks about Japan were mentioned by 16.4 percent, up from 40 percent, while 16.0 percent of South Korean respondents referred to South Korea's excessive anti-Japanese actions over the historical problems with Japan, an increase from 3.6 percent.

"These findings are very encouraging and we, the Japanese, should properly recognize this kind of calm understanding" on the part of South Koreans, Nishino said. Deteriorations in Japan-South Korea relations and Japan-China relations no doubt reflect a shift in the balance of power in Northeast Asia, Ogoura said. The power shift is ascribable in part to the fact that the economic power of Japan, and that of the United States, has relatively declined, he said. In the meantime, China is becoming extremely powerful and South Korea's position is increasing in the global economic sphere, he said.

However, none of the countries concerned has a clear vision about which way the power shift is going and what form it has to take, Ogoura said. The peoples of Japan, China and South Korea should carefully consider what their countries should be like and how this part of the world should be in the new regional balance of power, and then, the peoples should bring together their respective visions and have dialogues with each other, he said.

Human rights, democracy and freedom are values that must be upheld not only domestically but also in the international community, Ogoura said. Japan should give more weight to this point in considering its South Korea policy, he said. Japan also has a history of human rights abuses and it must seriously reflect on its past acts, but at the same time, Japan should clearly convey to China and South Korea its resolve to protect human rights, Ogoura said.

"A diversified society is a good society, and Japan should emphasize this idea, too, to China and South Korea." Society must be diversified to increase its degree of tolerance, he said. Increases in anti-Japanese feelings in China and South Korea can be attributed partially to a lack of tolerance and diversity in society. It is important for Japan to stress its intention of making its society even more tolerant and diversified, and at the same time, urge other countries to make similar efforts, Ogoura said.

Doubts about whether Japan-South Korea relations are truly important to each other are growing in both countries, Nishino said. Because this rather indicates the two countries' peoples are beginning to think about whether their mutual relations are truly important, "we have to continue dialogue while thinking about each other more deeply," he said. Relations between Japan and South Korea have already been deepened fundamentally and as a result, their importance cannot be fully sensed physically by their peoples, he said. The two countries should ensure that their peoples can mutually feel the importance of the bilateral relationship, Nishino said.

Japan-South Korea relations can be described as "a kind of litmus test," Ideishi said. Japan is a democratic, free and economically rich country, but it is obviously becoming less tolerant to others, he said. "We should think about this more seriously," he said. Japan should have a sense of crisis more about its declining tolerance, rather than blaming the sour relations with South Korea on issues related to South Korea or its political leaders, he said.

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