[Viewpoint]Mindful neighborsThe Japanese leader Takamori Saigo advocated Japan’s conquest of the Korean Peninsula at the beginning of the Meiji Restoration era, late in the 19th century. His argument followed the same strategy Japan followed in the war against the Joseon Dynasty, from 1592 to 1598. Whenever there was internal political turmoil, Japanese leaders have tended to try to divert attention to the outside world, namely Korea.
The samurai class lost their jobs all of a sudden when the Tokugawa Bakuhu feudal government (1603-1867) collapsed. They resisted the Meiji Restoration and became a stumbling block to reform.
Among them, the strongest voices came from the Satsuma region. Saigo, who hailed from Satsuma, thought that in order to resolve the social disorder it was necessary to divert the attention of the samurai to the outside world, as his ancestors had done, by provoking a war against Korea.
Saigo is adored as the embodiment of patriotism in Japanese history, though he did not see his goals realized because of his failure to win the internal political struggle for control of the initiative to invade Korea. He committed suicide.
The political mainstream in Japan has regularly fanned conservatism by exploiting patriotic sentiment. They are of the opinion that there is nothing wrong in worshipping at the Yasukuni Shrine, which is dedicated to war heroes who sacrificed their lives for the fatherland. They do not care about the suffering imperial Japan inflicted on neighboring countries and the people there.
President Roh Moo-hyun failed in his diplomacy with Japan because of his ignorance about Japan’s complicated conservative political tradition. During his presidential campaign, President Roh boastfully said he had never been to the United States. As it turned out later, he was also ignorant about Japan. When such thorny issues as the Japanese prime minister’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine and Japan’s claim to territorial rights over the Dokdo Islets (which Japan calls Takeshima) arose, President Roh put the blame on Junichiro Koizumi for stabbing him in the back and stopped contacts with Japan. He suspended the shuttle diplomacy with Tokyo in June 2005.
The dialogue between the two governments was severed and uneasiness in their relations has remained ever since. Japanese conservatives who dominate public opinion one-sidedly put the blame for the diplomatic rupture on President Roh. They mockingly claimed Roh intended to unite Koreans by fanning anti-Japanese sentiment.
There is no knowing when and how Japanese conservative forces will try to instigate tension again with the Korean people. President-elect Lee Myung-bak should not be caught in their trap by becoming irritated, as Roh did. He should try to get along well with the Japanese. He should behave wisely, even when provoked. What he should do is simply provide conditions for friendly exchanges between the two countries.
It is fortunate that hallyu, the Korean Wave, is on the rise in Japan nowadays. Many Japanese are learning the Korean language, paying an hourly tuition fees of 2,000 to 3,000 yen ($18-27). They learn it to understand more about Korean culture. Interest in Korean food is also very high. The U.S. family restaurant chain Denny’s has introduced Korean-style tofu stew, sundubu, as an attraction. Restaurant ads about Korean-style stewed dishes are all over Japanese TV. The number of Korean restaurants is increasing rapidly; they are packed with Japanese patrons. Children in Japan even believe kimchi is their own traditional dish.
Korean people’s interest in Japan is also high. About 2.6 million Koreans visited Japan last year. Korean tourists are now indispensable for Japan’s tourism, shopping and leisure industries.
President-elect Lee and Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda agreed to revive the shuttle diplomacy following exchanges of special envoys. It is expected they will meet at least four to five times this year. The two leaders have a common interest in the stability and economic cooperation of Northeast Asia.
However, we should not be oblivious of the rightist tendencies of Japanese conservatives.
Lee has called himself a “president of the economy.” He should unfold a diplomacy which both Korea and Japan can win, while keenly watching the Japanese conservatives. We should constantly befriend ordinary Japanese who have common sense.
*The writer is the Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Dong-ho