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14:04 19 June 2015

OPINION: Reflecting on 50 Years of normalized diplomatic relations between Japan and S. Korea

By Tetsuya Endo
TOKYO, June 19, Kyodo

The Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea as well as associated agreements were officially signed on June 22, 1965, and the instruments of ratification were exchanged on Dec. 18 of that year.

The 50 years since the normalization of relations have not been smooth. Relations between neighbors tend to be volatile and Japan-ROK relations are no exception, but recent relations have been exceedingly poor. Although the challenging circumstances in East Asia demand greater solidarity among Japan, the United States and South Korea, the atmosphere at the moment is not conducive to a bilateral summit meeting between Japan and South Korea.

Firstly, there are the differences between the two on historical issues. Mutual distrust can be traced as far back as the time of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who invaded Korea in the late 16th century, and also stems from Japan's colonial rule (1910-45). The deep resentment felt toward Japan is known in Korean as "han." For their part, the Japanese often exhibit little understanding and reflection on the realities of colonial rule, and can consequently be insensitive on occasion to anti-Japanese sentiment among Koreans. There is also a tendency to justify colonial rule as having been helpful to the Korean Peninsula in some ways, but this is merely a rationalization, and proponents of this view forget that colonial rule was imposed for Japan's benefit.

Reconciling historical viewpoints is extremely difficult, but it is possible to gain an understanding of each other's viewpoints and seek out as far as possible points of commonality.

Secondly, there is a tendency for trouble between Japan and South Korea to come to a head, and the ability to repair the ruptures caused when such problems surface has diminished significantly. Problems great and small are not uncommon between neighbors, and the democratization of South Korean society has given greater voice to its citizens and left the government with less effective control than it used to have. The power elite have also seen a generational turnover so, regardless of questions of right and wrong, reaching bilateral "political settlements" even through behind-the-scenes maneuvering has become quite challenging.

Thirdly, the Japan-ROK economic framework has changed. Japan formerly held considerable sway as South Korea's top trading partner, but it has been displaced by China, and South Korea now asserts itself vis-a-vis Japan without hesitation on matters that it might previously have endured in silence.

Japan-ROK relations have deteriorated notably in the political and diplomatic arenas but, at the grassroots level -- citizen-level exchanges, cultural and sports exchanges, tourism, trade and investment -- relations have fortunately remained smooth. The two countries cannot remain disconnected forever, of course, and, with South Korea having a political system featuring a powerful presidency, improved political and diplomatic relations are all the more desirable.

The 50th anniversary of normalization offers an ideal opportunity for looking dispassionately at the past and considering ways of rebuilding Japan-ROK relations. So what steps should Japan take?

First, the differing viewpoints on history need to be addressed head-on. The words of the late German president Richard von Weizsaecker -- "Those who close their eyes to the past will remain blind regarding the future" -- ring very true. At the very least, rash remarks and behavior likely to rub South Koreans the wrong way should absolutely be avoided, and hate speech and the like are out of the question. Urgency is required in resolving the "comfort women" issue that has become symbolic of the historical issues between Japan and South Korea. Frank discussions are needed on constructive measures that can be taken within the framework of the Japan-ROK Basic Relations Treaty and that would be deemed acceptable to the relevant parties on the South Korean side.

Second, there is the issue of remorse and apology. There are some quarters in Japan who feel that Japan has already apologized enough in the "Murayama Statement" (1995) and elsewhere. In light of the things that Japan did, however, there may be no avoiding further apologies. Most important would be heartfelt remorse/apologies and action, in particular at the citizen level.

Third, there is the rebuilding of lines of communication between Japan and South Korea, and it might be more practical to carry out this communication in English rather than continue relying on Japanese.

Finally, while ultimately one might hope for a prompt resumption of summit-level dialogue, we should for the time being continue pursuing greater exchanges in practical forms at the grassroots level.

(Tetsuya Endo is a former representative of Japan to the Japan-North Korea normalization talks)




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