Dreaming a joint concert
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
I believe it took place in January 2007 in a ballroom on the first underground floor of the ANA InterContinental Tokyo. An exclusive after-party was thrown following a friendship concert between Korea, China and Japan at a hall right next to the ballroom. Something extraordinary happened during the reception. Then-Crown Prince of Japan Naruhito, who just became the new emperor, suddenly came up to the stage to give an impromptu speech. It was the moment he broke the convention that members of Japan’s royal family never deliver speeches at unofficial events.
His unscripted move did not end there. Toward the end of the reception, he went up to the stage again, this time with his viola in one hand. He played a song for Korean maestro Chung Myung-whun, one of the attendees, to celebrate his birthday. After Naruhito’s performance, he and Chung hugged. The crowd was delightfully surprised, and Japan’s royal family was astonished. It was probably the first time that a future Japanese emperor had showed such intimacy to a Korean in front of 300 people.
I later learned that Naruhito and Chung had grown close to each other during a rehearsal for the friendship concert. One day, Naruhito told Chung he hoped to visit Korea someday.
Some Koreans say that Emperor Naruhito should visit Korea to help heal strained bilateral ties. That’s because the new emperor, unlike Abe, is keen to get along with neighboring countries. Yet it is nearly impossible for the new emperor to visit Korea right away.
A Japanese emperor is at an entirely different level from a crown prince. All aspects of his visit — such as invitation procedures, security and ripple effects of having the emperor visit Korea — should be 100 percent perfect beforehand. An emperor does not move to improve soured ties. Relations have to be improved before he even considers making a move.
Japan knows this all too well. In 1992, Emperor Akihito visited China to express his “sadness” about the “great suffering” his country inflicted on the people of China during World War II, but he was criticized back home for failing to bring any difference in bilateral ties. To make matters worse, there is an anti-Japanese sentiment among Koreans and an anti-Korean sentiment among the Japanese. Under such circumstances, should the emperor decides to come right away, Korea-Japan relations may actually dip.
Let’s take a look at Ireland and Britain. Their historical dispute nearly came to an end after Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Ireland in 2011. But her trip did not happen on short notice. The British and Irish governments signed a peace agreement in 1998 and abided by it throughout the following years. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair apologized for the Irish potato famine, as well as for Britain’s role in slavery.
Ireland did not remain tethered to the past. During economic crises, it cooperated with Britain on the government and private sectors and continued to pile up bricks of mutual trust.
By the time Queen Elizabeth II was about to visit Ireland, Ireland was ready to welcome her and she was prepared to “apologize” for past brutalities. So she went to Ireland, clad in an emerald green outfit. The visit was acclaimed around the world. Three years later, the president of Ireland made a reciprocal visit to Britain. Both Ireland and Britain stuck to the standard way.
Do Seoul and Tokyo have such a vision or strategy? Are we piling up bricks of trust or digging an underground basement of mistrust? The Korean government is talking about improving ties with Japan in the new Reiwa era, but it is not making any efforts. The Blue House keeps looking at the past and the Abe administration only insists on looking at the future. There’s no way the two countries can stop mistrusting each other. We must not give up the standard way. If the two governments cannot do it, then at least the private sectors should lay the bricks of trust. Then, one day, we may be able to see Emperor Naruhito and Chung perform their Schubert song together.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 8, page 30