By Lim Eunjung
It is common for neighbors to have conflicts in any region. Last year, Russia invaded Ukraine. To Korea, neighboring Japan was the Russia of its past. Imperial Japan was once the invader who trampled on the freedom and spirit of the Korean people. This historical fact does not change over time.
However, the results of a recent poll have caught my attention. On Feb. 27, the Federation of Korean Industries surveyed 626 young people on their perceptions of Korea-Japan relations, and 71 percent of the respondents said that Korea needs to improve its bilateral relations with Japan. Of them, 73.1 percent in their 20s and 68.7 percent in their 30s answered so, indicating that the younger a Korean person is, the stronger that person’s demand for improving Korea-Japan relations.
As background, economic reasons were cited first. Of the respondents, 45.4 percent answered that the bilateral relationship needs to be improved because of “expanding mutual economic benefits through cooperation between the two countries.” Subsequently, 18.2 percent of respondents said that bilateral relations should be improved to “check China’s rise through cooperation.”
As for the younger generation’s impression of Japan, the positive perception was 2.4 times higher than negative; respondents with a positive impression of Japan accounted for 42.3 percent of the total poll, far exceeding negative impressions at 17.4 percent. Some may say that the results of this poll cannot be trusted. Those critics may disparage the result, saying that the poll has less than 1,000 respondents, which is not that big, and that the Federation of Korean Industries, an association of businesses and not some other organization, conducted the poll.
But those who say this need to see the whole picture. About 565,000 Korean tourists visited Japan during the month of January 2023 alone, which was an increase of 108,900 compared to the previous December, as well as a 72.5 percent recovery rate compared to the same month in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic. This rising trend is thanks to the Korean MZ generation who are in their 20s and 30s. Forty-eight percent of Korean tourists to Japan belong to this generation.
A similar phenomenon is also observed in Japan. According to the results of a Japan Tourism Agency survey of 400 Japanese men and women of Generation Z, 36.5 percent said South Korea was the number one destination Japanese young women wanted to visit this year. This figure surpassed France at 33.5 percent and Italy at 30.5 percent.
This recent poll data shows that young people in Korea and Japan no longer see each other as aggressors or weaklings as their older generation does. Policies related to the Korea-Japan relationship should start from this very point. President Yoon Suk Yeol’s address on the 104th March 1 Independence Movement Day has been causing political repercussions in Korea for more than a week. But perhaps more important changes than the unpopular leader’s words are already taking place in our daily lives.
So, what should we do for the future and our young people?
First, for the time being, Korea and Japan should continue to increase economic cooperation and exchanges based on mutual respect. The governments of both countries should remove obstacles that hinder the activities of businesses in both countries. The worse the relationship is, the more twisted the historical issues become. This is because concessions and compromises can be made on historical issues only when economic cooperation is strong and understanding and respect for each other deepen. This is by no means forgetting history or ignoring the seriousness of pending issues. Rather, I emphasize that it is necessary to first strengthen cooperation with an open attitude to solve those deep and complex problems.
Second, politicians and the media of the two countries should not aggravate the other side unnecessarily. The media also needs to make constructive suggestions for the true development of relations in a considerate manner. Vietnam and the United States, and France and Germany also fought each other in the past but now they are partners. It is an essence of international relations that there are no permanent enemies and no permanent friends.
Currently, countries are competing with each other in almost all fields, such as resources, energy, food, and future technologies, especially within the structure of U.S.-China-Russia tri-polarity. At a time like this, if Korea and Japan turn their backs on each other, not only is this strategically unwise, but it also goes against the wishes of the two countries’ future generations.
About the Author
Lim Eunjung (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor of the division of international studies at Kongju National University.
Disclaimer: The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members. APLN’s website is a source of authoritative research and analysis and serves as a platform for debate and discussion among our senior network members, experts, and practitioners, as well as the next generation of policymakers, analysts, and advocates. Comments and responses can be emailed to email@example.com.
Image: 2017 Asia Professional Baseball Championship at Tokyo Dome. Wikimedia Commons/Civitatis94.
This article was published in The Korea Times on 31 August 2022 as part of a dedicated, regular Korea Times column with analysis by APLN members on global issues. You can find the original post here.