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[Editorial] Akihito’s visit?

Japanese Emperor Akihito’s reported willingness to visit South Korea and apologize for Japan’s colonial rule if needed, though far from being realized in the strained bilateral relationship, could be meaningful in helping more sensible voices in both countries prevail over inconsiderate moves to score domestic political points.

It might be the case that the 78-year-old has a deeper understanding of the fray between the neighbors and a far-sighted view of their inevitable partnership.

While briefed on regional situations by a senior Foreign Ministry official early this month, Akihito said he and Empress Michiko hope to visit South Korea “some day,” wishing that the two countries “maintain friendly ties in the days to come,” according to a recent report by a Japanese weekly. Citing an unidentified Japanese lawmaker, the report also said the emperor had said on another previous occasion that he “wouldn’t hesitate to offer an apology” during his visit to South Korea.

Tokyo’s Foreign Ministry has declined to confirm the report, leaving observers more convinced that Akihito actually made the remarks, which might have taken aback Japan’s diplomatic policymakers and politicians.

It is the first time the emperor’s thoughts have been known since President Lee Myung-bak called on him last month to apologize for Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula if he were to visit South Korea. Lee’s demand, which followed his unprecedented trip to South Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo also claimed by Japan, has amplified the row between the two sides.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and other Japanese politicians have competitively raised voices for getting tougher on Seoul in what is seen as an overreaction aimed at solidifying their stance ahead of the general elections this fall.

Lee’s visit to Dokdo also appears at least partially motivated to boost his lame-duck status in the final months of his presidency that ends in February. The move might be justified as an act to demonstrate South Korea’s territorial sovereignty over the islets. But his ensuing remarks downplaying Japan’s global influence and bringing the emperor into the fray can hardly be seen as carrying strategic wisdom and diplomatic sensibility.

It is the peoples of the two countries that have buttressed the bilateral relationship that their unpopular diminished leaders have worsened to its lowest ebb since Seoul and Tokyo set up formal ties in 1965. The tit-for-tats between their governments have had little impact on mutual business deals and exchange of travelers.

Some observers here interpret Akihito’s remarks as a response to Lee’s recent explanation that his demand for the emperor’s apology was reported exaggeratingly and a reflection of Japan’s need to mend ties with South Korea amid its escalating standoff with China over a disputed island chain.

But it could be more likely that the Japanese emperor expressed his heartfelt wish to contribute to building friendly relations between the neighboring nations. Akihito had pushed to visit Seoul in 1986 when he was crown prince but canceled the plan due to the then crown princess’ health problems. In 2001, he said he felt kinship with Koreans, referring to a historical record that the grandmother of his eighth-century imperial ancestor, Kanmu, was from a Korean kingdom. He also paid tribute to a memorial for victimized Korean laborers during his 2005 visit to the Pacific island of Saipan, the site of a fierce battle between Japanese and U.S. troops during World War II.

Though his symbolic constitutional status restrains his choice of acts ― an emperor’s visit to a foreign country is subject to a cabinet decision ― Akihito’s reported wish to visit and offer an apology here is certainly in the same context of the prevailing public sentiment in the two countries that they should chart a course for settling discords to become true partners.

In realistic terms, it can hardly be expected that the emperor’s visit is discussed between the two governments anytime soon especially so long as Lee and Noda stay in office.

Still, it might remain a strategic option for the next administration in Seoul to include the emperor’s role in a cordial and respectful way in resetting the relationship with Tokyo.