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[Kim Myong-sik] New outlook on Korea-Japan relations in Reiwa era

Citizens in this republic were not quite impressed by the televised scenes of Japanese imperial abdication and enthronement last week that appeared more theatrical than real.

However, poet-essayist Lee Sunshine (Seung-shin) said of former Emperor Akihito, who passed the throne to his son Naruhito on April 30, “I feel sorry that there were or will be no other Japanese monarch who thinks so much well of Korea as Emperor Akihito, before or after him. But we could wish (for the) improvement of our relations with the Japanese from the lowest point now on this occasion when they begin a new era in their monarchical history.”

Lee said this in an online circular of articles contributed by artists, journalists, active and retired diplomats and scholars. The daughter of Sohn Ho-yeon, an expert in Japanese short fixed-style poems, Lee had accompanied her mother to the Japanese royal palace in 1998, when she was invited to a ceremony to hear the Japanese emperor and empress read “tanka” poems they had composed.

An episode a few years later made Lee more attached to Akihito. In December 2001, when Korea and Japan were preparing for the 2002 FIFA World Cup that they were to host jointly, Akihito made a surprising admission of his ancestors’ blood ties to Korea. The Japanese monarch told a press conference on his 68th birthday, “I, on my part, feel a certain kinship with Korea, given the fact that it is recorded in the Chronicles of Japan that the mother of Emperor Kammu was of the line of King Muryong of Paekche.”

Akihito had reportedly wanted to visit Korea during the games and thereafter but this did not materialize. Akihito used to say it was “fortunate” that Japan had Confucian and Buddhist cultures transmitted via Korea, along with skills for living. He occasionally showed personal affinity toward Korea, such as paying tribute to the Korean memorial monument in Saipan during a visit to the Pacific island in 2005.

The female poet’s regret over worsening relations between the two countries in the latter part of the Heisei era must be shared by many people across the Korea Strait. They may wonder how the change of the monarch in Japan -- given the limited role of being “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people“ by the 1947 constitution -- could push the leaders of the two countries to rethink bilateral relations.

The future calls for friendship and cooperation but the past keeps politicians and governments of the two countries from moving ahead. In 2001, Junichiro Koizumi visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, becoming the first Japanese prime minister to do so since Class-A war criminals were enshrined there in 1978. Korean media were splashed with this “act of provocation” against victims of Japanese imperialism and have since listed who from the Japanese cabinet visited the place on Aug. 15 anniversaries.

In August 2012, former President Lee Myung-bak caused a big shock to bilateral ties from the highest level of government when he made a helicopter trip to the East Sea island of Dokdo, the focus of a territorial dispute with Japan. No previous Korean head of state had ever set foot on the outcrops of rock that Japan occupied in 1905 ahead of the Russo-Japanese War but had been restored to Korean control upon independence.

A few days later, Lee fueled controversy by demanding that the Japanese monarch apologize to Korean independence fighters who had died “if he wants to visit Korea.” He later explained he was suggesting that settling disputes between the two countries once and for all would require action by the highest national authority of Japan. However, these series of presidential moves earned more criticism than support even in his own country.

The perennial issues of Japan’s wartime sexual enslavement of women, textbooks whitewashing historical crimes, and compensation of forced labor used by Japanese enterprises remain volatile while administrations in Seoul and Tokyo appear to have given up efforts for dialogue. A recent incident involving a Korean Navy destroyer and a Japanese Self-Defense Force patrol aircraft in the East Sea sparked claims of hostile actions from the two sides in a military alliance formed with the United States.

The late Kim Jong-pil -- one of the “three Kims” that had led Korean politics for nearly a quarter of a century -- once said Korea and Japan could not enter a genuine friendship “until after Korea has possibly conquered the Japanese Archipelago.” He was highlighting Koreans’ perception that they were the historical victims. However, as head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, he had negotiated with Japan to get $600 million in economic aid in reparation for colonial damage to Korea, paving the way for the 1965 rapprochement.

Koreans should realize it is now time to bury the past and make a new start in relations with Japan. The security situation in this part of the world is changing rapidly, as North Korea is trying to hold us hostage with nuclear bombs and rockets.

Korean and Japanese millennials visit each other’s countries by the millions each year, with the numbers growing. Yet Korean authorities do not know what to do with statues of Korean comfort woman and forced laborers forged by protesters, while the Japanese Foreign Ministry has indefinitely suspended the construction of its embassy building in Seoul.

The liberal Moon Jae-in government needs to take bold steps to achieve a breakthrough if it wants to differentiate itself from past conservative administrations.

Let us ask ourselves if an apology from a reluctant government is worth waiting for. What about congratulating the beginning of the Reiwa era in Japan and inviting former Emperor Akihito to Seoul, who in our memory had made the most earnest apology to Koreans? There certainly will be many people here to welcome him besides poet Lee. 

Kim Myong-sik

Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He served as head of the Korea Information Service in the 2000s. -- Ed.
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