Politics aren’t everything

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Politics aren’t everything

We had a pleasant visitor from Japan last week. The person was Sen Genshitsu, the 15th-generation head of the Urasenke school of the Japanese tea ceremony, who handed down his traditional duties to his son in 2002 and is now referred to by the title Daisosho, or Grand Master. He is 90, a living figurehead of the Japanese tea ritual and tradition.

The tea master has honors from various institutions, including a Ph.D. from Korea’s Chung-Ang University. He made international news by conducting a tea ceremony at the Vatican in an audience with Pope John Paul II in 1984. He was invited to the Blue House by former President Kim Dae-jung in 1998. In April, he demonstrated the tea ritual at the U.S. Congress. He is a goodwill ambassador for Japanese tradition and culture.

I had the honor of attending a luncheon for the tea master. Other guests included Kim Yong-woon, former executive of the Korea-Japan Cultural Exchange Council; former Korean Foreign Minister Gong Ro-myung; Chung Ku-chong, head of Dongseo University’s Japan Center; and Japanese Ambassador to Seoul Koro Bessho.

They were all experts in North Asian issues and were surely concerned about the strained ties between South Korea and Japan. Yet none of the contentious issues - political, diplomatic or military - came up in the conversation.

Instead, the talk centered on the issue of tea and the ancient histories of the two countries. The guests talked about how royal families and a large number of Koreans from the Baekje Kingdom during the Three Kingdoms era moved to Japan. The famous story by Emperor Akihito - who told Japanese reporters during his birthday meeting in 2001 that he felt a certain kinship to Korea because the mother of an eighth-century Japanese emperor was of Korean ancestry - was also repeated.

We also talked about the rumor that the founder of the Urasenke school, Sen no Rikyu, tea master and close confidant of ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was ordered to commit suicide for advising against an invasion of Joseon.

Rikyu, ancestor of the Urasenke clan, committed ritual suicide at the order of Hideyoshi in 1591. The exact reason is unknown. Some say Rikyu, a poet and advocate of peace, opposed Hideyoshi’s military aggression. Others say he profited from selling expensive tea sets or that he refused to give his daughter to Hideyoshi.

His descendent, Sen Genshitsu, said one thing was for sure: His forefather respected and appreciated Joseon tea porcelain and hoped for peace. His love and respect for Joseon and its art is described well in the novel about the creator of the Japanese tea ritual “Rikyu ni Tazuneyo,” which won the Naoki Prize, a Japanese literature award.

Sen Genshitsu and his entourage attended the Korea-China-Japan Harmony Tea Ceremony, a symposium on East Asian tea culture and a debate on East Asia culture and peace. They received scant attention from the local media. Few would pay attention to an elderly tea master and Japanese tradition at a time when our relationship with Japan is so icy.

Unsurprisingly, a vice-ministerial meeting among South Korea, China and Japan in Seoul last week was convened in an awkward and chilly atmosphere. A high-level Korea-Japan economic council meeting also took place in Tokyo out of formality. Vice defense ministers of Korea and Japan also met in Seoul this week - the first such meeting in two years - yet they are hardly likely to make any progress in bilateral issues, such as exchanging confidential information, or even on any disagreements over Japan’s plan to exercise its right of collective self-defense.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly irked his neighbors with his unapologetic tone about past aggressions, and one of his aides recently blamed Seoul for the fact that the Japanese and Korean leaders have yet to meet. During her European tour, President Park Geun-hye bluntly said that summit talks with Japan now would be “pointless” given Tokyo’s hard-line stance against apologizing for its past misdeeds.

The history between the two countries dates back thousands of years. Political, military and diplomatic affairs are not the only representative topics in a bilateral relationship. The role of “software,” or culture, was often more important than “hardware,” like weapons.

The Korean ceramic skills that Sen Genshitsu’s ancestor admired so much was one culture exchange going west to east. Korea owes much to Japan in terms of its modernization, industries and technology. It is a shame that the things we have going in our bilateral relationship are eclipsed by one government’s nationalistic drum-beating.

Politics and foreign policy should not completely dominate bilateral relations. Economic and cultural exchanges are at a mature stage. Koreans and Japanese are deeply engaged in civilian exchanges.

The political bottleneck should not preclude or upset other reciprocal exchanges. Worsening ties may not be entirely bad. The two countries may finally come to an awareness of how to compromise and come together in a better way.

What is certain is that seeing bilateral relations entirely from a political perspective won’t benefit either country. The two countries’ relations are in a restructuring phase. Times like these call for more active cultural and civilian-level communication. There is no hurry for a summit.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Noh Jae-hyun
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