Japanese, South Korean experts call for
closing gaps in mutual understanding
toward future-oriented relations

June 22, 2015

Japanese and South Korean opinion leaders agreed at a forum in Tokyo on the need for the two countries to make greater efforts to close gaps in their mutual understanding in order to overcome long-standing issues linked to their wartime history.


The Third Japan-Korea Future Dialogue took place in Tokyo on June 21, the day before the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea. A total of 14 Japanese and 13 South Korean noted opinion leaders attended the forum as panelists.

The one-day dialogue, organized by Japan's Genron NPO, a non-profit independent think tank, and the East Asia Institute of South Korea, was divided into two sessions, the first half focusing on discrepancies in people's basic understanding of each other's country, and the second devoted to discussing ways to improve and strengthen relations between the two countries.

Following opening addresses by Kazuo Ogoura, a former Japanese ambassador to South Korea, who headed the Japanese delegation, and Shin Kak-soo, a former South Korean ambassador to Japan, the forum proceeded to the first session.

150621_japan-korea_session1_kudo.jpg According to the results of a recent public opinion survey carried out in Japan and South Korea, about 60 percent of Japanese polled and about 80 percent of South Koreans polled acknowledged the importance to each other of relations between the two countries. But more than 60 percent of the respondents on both sides replied that their relations are in an undesirable condition or must be improved. The findings indicate that Japanese and South Koreans are equally concerned about the current relationship between the two countries, but that they have no clue how to make those relations better, Genron NPO President Yasushi Kudo said in his keynote remarks.

Taking the lead at the beginning of an annual private-sector dialogue between Japan and South Korea, Kudo asked participants to actively discuss problems regarding a significant discrepancy in Japanese and South Korean people's basic understanding of each other's country. In the opinion survey, 56.9 percent of South Korean respondents observed that Japan is a militarist country while 55.7 percent of Japanese respondents saw South Korea as a nationalist country.


Japan, South Korea as 'equal partners'

150621_japan-korea_session1_chung.jpg In keynote remarks for the South Korean side, University of Seoul Professor Chung Jae-jeong said that the gap in mutual understanding between the two countries' peoples is attributable to a "trauma" among South Koreans about Japan's colonial rule of Korea through the end of World War II in 1945. In the past 50 years since the normalization of relations between the two countries, South Korea has developed while trying to catch up with Japan's postwar prosperity, but the two countries should devote the coming 50 years to establishing a relationship as "twin-like nations" in which they influence each other as "equal partners," Chung said.

Of the Japanese panelists, Seiichi Kondo, former commissioner of the Agency for Cultural Affairs, said that threats to a country's independence and dignity are being felt more strongly than ever amid ongoing globalization and signs of instability in geopolitical terms, and that this has caused a tendency in which public opinion easily becomes emotional and begins to lean to the right. There should be a discussion about how to pull back from such a serious situation between Japan and South Korea, Kondo said. Noting that political leaders and media people are usually unable to be free from their principles, he said that citizens and intellectuals should discuss issues of mutual interest in a future-oriented manner because they can be more open and honest with each other.

Higher-level objectives for future relations

150621_japan-korea_session1_cho.jpg In keynote remarks at the start of the second session, Cho Sei-young, former director-general of the Northeast Asian Affairs Bureau of South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stressed the need for the two countries to define higher-level objectives for their future relations and strive to achieve them. One of these objectives should be a mutual effort to help stabilize the Korean Peninsula toward realizing a reunification of the two Koreas, he said. Cho admitted that Japan and South Korea have different views about China's increasing presence in the international arena, but he stressed that the two countries rather should share their "worries" in dealing with China to discuss issues of mutual concern.

150621_japan-korea_session2_soeya.jpg Yoshihide Soeya, a professor of Keio University, a major private university in Tokyo, said that Japan and South Korea are among the most advanced democracies in Asia. The two countries also resemble each other in many ways from a global point of view, he said. Because the two countries share post-modern challenges such as environmental issues, and a declining birthrate and a resulting aging of society, they can cooperate with each other in solving such new problems, Soeya said.

Closer economic cooperation between Japan and South Korea

150621_japan-korea_session1_lees.jpg Lee Sook-jong, president of the East Asia Institute, emphasized the need for closer economic cooperation between Japan and South Korea as a factor that must be considered in improving relations between the two countries. South Korea is striving to change its industrial structure in order to avoid an excessive dependence on the Chinese economy for its future growth, Lee said. The restructuring efforts will lead to stronger economic cooperation between Japan and South Korea in the years to come, she said. Lee also stressed the need for Japan and South Korea to cooperate closely in security affairs, particularly the handling of North Korea.

She warned that there is a lot of misunderstanding in South Korea about Japan's policy of enabling itself to exercise the right to collective self-defense. While linking the misunderstanding to media reports in South Korea, she also called on the Japanese government to explain its new defense initiative more fully to countries concerned.

150621_japan-korea_session1_nishino.jpgJunya Nishino, an associate professor of Keio University, said that the discrepancies in mutual understanding between the two countries' peoples also reflect recent changes in their social situation. South Korea has grown as a democracy and its economic strength has increased, and as a result, various voices largely unheard before have come to the fore, Nishino said. Meanwhile, some people say that Japan has rightist leanings, but there are actually various views on that in Japan, he said.

Nishino also noted that Japan's society is undergoing major changes, as instanced by rehabilitation efforts for regions damaged by earthquake-triggered tsunami killer waves in the northeast of the country in 2011. The two countries' peoples should be aware of these changes in each other's society, he said.

150621_japan-korea_session1_lee.jpg Lee Won-jae, president of the Hope Institute, a not-for-profit independent think tank in South Korea, recalled that when he visited the tsunami-hit areas in northeast Japan, he met many people who had started new businesses there. Many young entrepreneurs in South Korea are also actively operating in developing countries and elsewhere, he said. Initiatives by these socially active young people in Japan and South Korea will help establish common values for the two countries, Lee said.

Promotion of people-to-people interchange

According to the opinion survey, more than 70 percent of the respondents on both sides had no experience of visiting each other's country. In a panel discussion during the first session, Yeom Jae-ho, president of Korea University, said that this finding indicates that the public image about each other's country tends to be formed only with information provided by the government or the media, and therefore, people-to-people interchange between the two countries should be increased further,

150621_japan-korea_session1_asao.jpg Keiichiro Asao, a member of Japan's House of Representatives and an executive of the Japan-South Korea Parliamentarians' League, agreed on the importance of mutual exchange between the two countries' peoples. He proposed improving an environment for direct interchange so that more Korean people can stay longer in Japan. He also suggested introducing a system to facilitate active exchange between Japanese and South Korean students in third countries, such as the United States and China.

South Korean people's view that Japan is a militarist country may be linked to their traumatic feelings about Japan's past colonial rule, but it also should be compared to Japanese people's suspicion that Japan's postwar identity, notably its continued efforts to pursue peace by denying its wartime militarism, is under attack, said Yasuyo Sakata, a professor of Kanda University of International Studies of Tokyo.

Education to foster 'global citizens'

Kim Se-yeon, a Saenuri party member of the National Assembly of South Korea, noted that younger South Koreans are less concerned about negative factors in relations between the two countries. Education for young people should be not just for the conventional nationalist purposes but also for a long-term objective to foster people who can identify themselves as "global citizens," he said.

150621_japan-korea_session1_komatsu.jpg Hiroshi Komatsu, chief editorial writer of the Mainichi Shimbun, a major Japanese vernacular daily, pointed out that there are concerns over signs that Japan's economic supremacy is declining in Asia. This is apparently causing friction in people's feelings toward each other, he said. Komatsu called attention to China's Sinocentrism and Korean people's traditional sense of cultural superiority over Japan. He stressed that people in the media should keep away from these ranking-based ways of thinking, calmly talking to a "quiet majority" who are interested in the course of Japan-South Korea relations.

In response, Sonu Jong, chief international news editor of the Chosun Ilbo national daily, disclosed that South Korean mainstream media have recently begun to exercise restraint in news-reporting of an "anti-Japanese tone" from a broader perspective of "preventing the legacies of the past from negatively affecting present security matters." "Such a change in the attitude of the media is apparently being echoed in the stance toward Japan of the South Korean government of President Park Geun-hye," he said.

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