For more than a century, people on both sides of the Sea of Japan (or East Sea according to the Koreans) have described relations between the Japanese Archipelago and the Korean Peninsula as being “near and far”, geographically “near” but psychologically “far.”
Japan’s is History’s offender in the matter for it annexed Korea in 1910 and tried to deprive its people of their cultural identity during 35 years of occupation, exploiting the country’s resources and moving tens of thousands of Koreans to Japan as forced labourers.
After 1945, the emotional estrangement that separated the two went on for decades, aided by Japanese nationalist currents that watered down Japanese history textbooks and fuelled by stubborn visits by Liberal Democratic leaders to Yasukuni, the Shinto Shrine that symbolises Japanese militarism in the 1930s and 1940s.
Last Thursday, during a joint press conference Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak retired the old adage for closer ties.
The visit showed that a change in adage was not simply a diplomatic nicety. Two days before, Japan’s new foreign minister, Katsuya Okada, speaking to Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, said that it would be “ideal” if the three neighbouring nations (China, Japan and South Korea) published a common history book to clear up controversies over the interpretation of historical regional events.
This is the first time that a high Japanese government official raises the possibility of publishing a history textbook of that kind.
Reactions in Seoul were positive. “It is a good idea to make a textbook based on a common recognition of the past histories of the three East Asian countries,” a presidential spokesperson said. “However, it will be a long-term and painstaking project.”
Despite the difficulty of the enterprise as the last sentence indicates, support is strong.
Okada himself is conscious of the obstacles ahead, conscious that, “As a first step toward the publication of the textbook, the three countries” should “implement a joint study of history.”
Still the visit by the Japanese prime minister marks a rapprochement between the two nations, and this for three reasons.
First, Hatoyama’s visit to South Korea comes only three weeks after his election as prime minister (16 September). Second, the initiative came from the South Korean president who invited the Japanese prime minister to Seoul. Third, this is the first time that a Japanese head of government makes his first state visit abroad to Korea.
In Seoul, Hatoyama remained less than a day because the next day a three-way summit was scheduled in Beijing between him, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on the North Korean nuclear issue.
In this short span of time, two major issues were addressed, improving Japanese-South Korean relations and North Korea.
In the case of the first issue, Hatoyama stressed his adherence to a 1995 statement by then Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama (Socialist) made on the 50th anniversary of the Pacific War (Second World War). In it, the prime minister on behalf of the Japanese government acknowledged that Japan had caused damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations, “through its colonial rule and aggression”.
Citing his predecessor’s statement, Hatoyama said that the Japanese people must understand how important that is. “Our new government,” he said, “has the courage to face up to history.”
In the joint press conference, President Lee praised the Japanese leader, saying, “'I greatly appreciate Prime Minister Hatoyama looking squarely into the past, his truthfulness and open-mindedness to establish a future-oriented relationship.'”
No to salami tactics
On the issue of North Korea’s nuclear programme, Lee said, “We agreed on the need for a fundamental and comprehensive solution to the North Korean nuclear issue that will not lead to the negotiation tactics of the past. We agreed to work closely together on a way to resolve the issue in a single step.”
For more than ten years North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-il has used the ‘step-by-step’ approach to get as many benefits as possible making as few concessions as possible.
South Korea’s president proposed a single step strategy a month ago to end Pyongyang’s ‘salami tactics’, a throwback to Europe, 60 years ago, when Stalinist parties in Eastern Europe got rid of democratic parties one by one as they climbed the ladder of power.
Emperor Akihito’s visit to Korea
“Korea and Japan have had difficulty in improving relations due to the past,” Lee said in an interview with Japan's Kyodo News on 15 September. “The Emperor has travelled all around the world, but couldn't visit Korea. I am confident that Korea-Japan relations will improve rapidly if he visits Korea.'”
It is true that Emperor Akihito travelled to many nations, including China. However, a visit to Korea is not without difficulties. The South Korean president’s proposal for a visit next year, 2010, would correspond with the forced annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910
As expected, reporters asked Prime Minister Hatoyama about the visit. His answer was cautious. “There is a limit to how much the [Japanese] prime minister can intervene in the matter,” he said. “I cannot comment further, but I do appreciate that President Lee has made the suggestion.”
A tunnel under the Sea of Japan
A tunnel linking Japan and Korea has been discussed for 30 years. Now plans seem to be on the verge of realisation. A research group with members from both countries has decided to meet on 8 January to set up a building committee.
The course of the would-be tunnel has not been decided yet, but its starting point in Japan should be the city of Karatsu (Saga Prefecture) on the Sea of Japan.
If it were ever built, it would be the longest tunnel in the world, 209 kilometres, and would cost a staggering 300 trillion yen (about US$ 3,350 billion).
Speaking on 24 September before the General Assembly of the United Nations, Prime Minister Hatoyama said that the recent change in power in Japan would help his nation be a “bridge” to the world.
As a first step towards the unity of nations, he wants to build an East Asian Community on the model of the European Union.
Given such a context, the undersea tunnel joining two nations would become a symbol of such unity.