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Sunday, Dec. 11, 2005

It has been a year of anniversaries for Japan and Korea -- but for the most part celebrations are on hold

Discordant history mars neighbors' friendship overtures

Special to The Japan Times

Japanese actress Yoshino Kimura was the lone main guest at the Chuo Kokaido Hall in Osaka in October. She appeared without her Korean counterpart in the opening ceremony to celebrate this year's 40th anniversary of the 1965 Japan-South Korean Treaty that normalized Tokyo-Seoul relations.

Although Kimura was in the spotlight there as Japan's official "goodwill ambassador," promoting friendship between the two nations, South Korean starlet Choi Ji Woo -- newly famed for her role in the megahit Korean TV drama "Winter Sonata" -- was notable by her absence in what should have been a role complementing Kimura's.

That was the second time in a row that Choi skipped "friendship" events at which Japan had requested her attendance. In July, she called in sick just before an official reception for the anniversary in Tokyo.

Choi's cancellations have fueled speculation that she intentionally avoided Japanese government-led events, coming as they have during what is said to be the worst level of postwar diplomatic relations between the two countries.

In Japan, however, no outright resentment was apparent, with the media merely reporting her excuse that she was "unable to attend due to a shooting session for a film."

All this has been par for the course, since while the Korean media and political leaders do not hesitate to express blunt and emotional criticism of Japan, Japan always tones it down when it comes to South Korea, opting only for oblique comments.

Another case in point was when young Japanese cartoonist Sharin Yamamoto's "Hating the Korean Wave" comics scorning Koreans became best sellers, with more than 300,000 copies sold. Hardly any media touched upon the topic. Out of mere curiosity it may seem, only the foreign press -- such as the New York Times -- featured the "Japanese fad" on its front page last month.

From the Korean viewpoint, on the other hand, bashing Japan is no headline-making event. On the contrary, degrading what the nation considers "the rival" and "the archenemy" is routine throughout society -- while making positive comments about Japan is strictly taboo.

South Korea's popular singer and painter Cho Yong Nam shocked his compatriots last year when he published his book titled "Pro-Japan Proclamation at the Risk of Being Beaten to Death." Unlike the sensational title, the work is actually nothing radical, but just a travelogue based on his trips to Japan, including an episode during the 2002 FIFA World Cup in which he was moved by Japanese soccer fans who supported the South Korea team.

But the Korean media and public did not let the turncoat go. Under heavy pressure and even threats to his life, Cho had little choice but to apologize to the Korean public and retract his proclamation.

These traits of the two nations have become their trademarks since South Korea's democratization in the last two decades, and with its growing economic confidence. But their root, no doubt, stems from events in modern history -- events for which Japan has long felt it has a debt to pay, whether or not that feeling derives from masochistic views prevalent among the Japanese public.

Putting aside the current 40th anniversary of the two countries' normalized relations, rows over historical issues are especially focused this year, since it is also the 60th anniversary of the war's end -- and the centenary of the Japanese-Korean Convention of 1905. Also known as the Protectorate Treaty, that was the vehicle which led to Japan's annexation of the Korean Peninsula.

The treaty followed the Russo-Japanese War, which raged from February 1904 until September 1905 after the failure of repeated talks in a tug-of-war over control of the Korean Peninsula and Manchuria in northeastern China. With the Anglo-Japanese Alliance signed in 1902, Japan was able to take a hardline stance against Russia without fear of intervention from European powers. The alliance resulted from Russia's rejection of the "Manchuria-Korea exchange," a Japanese proposal to allow Russia a free hand in Manchuria and Japan sway over the peninsula.

Why did Japan insist on controlling the peninsula?

After the Meiji government took over from the 265-year-long Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868 and began opening Japan's doors to the West, the island nation in the Far East was thrown into the arena of international power games. Japan felt itself to be under threat from Russia's southbound expansion, and its leaders in Tokyo considered it was strategically essential for Japan to control the Korean Peninsula as a geopolitical buffer to keep Russians from invading the home islands.

With Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese War, former Prime Minister Hirobumi Ito presented the Korean Cabinet with a treaty to turn the peninsula into a Japanese protectorate, with Japan assuming responsibility for Korea's foreign policy. That treaty was signed on Nov. 18, 1905, with Japanese soldiers occupying the Korean royal palace.

Although Korea was Japan's only diplomatic partner during the Tokugawa Period, Korea's Yi Dynasty had broken off diplomatic relations when the Western-oriented Meiji government came into being. With the signing of the treaty, Ito assumed the post of "first residency general" of Japan's advisory administration on the peninsula in 1906. The following year, the treaty was renewed to enable Japan to intervene in Korea's internal affairs as well. That move came after King Kojong of Korea was forced to abdicate following the failure of a secret mission he sent to the Hague Conference on World Peace earlier that year to contest the treaty.

Japan's annexation of the peninsula was triggered in 1909 when -- at Harbin Station in Manchuria on Oct. 29, 1909 -- An Chung Gun, a Korean nationalist, assassinated Ito, who was regarded by many Koreans as the mastermind of the Japanese invasion. The following year, the peninsula came under Japan's complete rule, as it was to remain until Japan's defeat in World War II. Throughout that period, Koreans were deprived of their own culture. Their language was replaced by Japanese in schools and public, Shinto was forced on the people and the reading of their names was changed to the Japanese style.

To this day, perceptions of that period -- especially from the 1905 treaty to the 1965 normalization agreement -- have been marked by huge gaps between Tokyo and Seoul, as evidenced in the debate on recent Japanese school history textbooks and "comfort women."

Although a joint project by experts from both sides to review perceptional gaps in history was launched following a 2001 summit agreement between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and then South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, its full report released in June failed to close the gaps. Indeed, it declared it was "impossible" to map out a collective view.

For example, the Japanese side argued that Japan may have pressured Korea into signing the 1905 agreement, but it did not threaten force over the signing. Meanwhile, the experts' Korean counterparts claimed that Japanese forces surrounded the Korean royal palace, confined opposing government officials and threatened them with force. Under international law, a treaty is invalid if a nation's leader is threatened by force to sign.

As a result, the report merely presents the views of both sides. Tokyo and Seoul hope to begin a second round of the joint project by the end of the year, but many observers say they do not expect a better outcome, because the two countries' positions were completely opposite: one who invaded and the other which was invaded.

Whatever the outcome of the official project, at grassroots level the "Korean Wave" of TV dramas and films is still grabbing the hearts of many Japanese. Meanwhile, the long-standing ban on Japanese entertainment has been lifted in South Korea, where Japanese pop culture had already been popular despite being illegal.

Nonetheless, it may still be a long time before friendliness toward Japan becomes the Korean social norm -- an ambivalence that in Japan is often seen as reflecting a national inferiority complex.

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