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Saturday, June 29, 2002

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT OFFICIALLY

Cup cohosts' ties thaw, at least on individual level


Staff writer

OSAKA — When the excitement over the World Cup finals subsides, many may wonder whether cohosting the event actually helped improve relations between Japan and South Korea.

"The answer is a qualified 'yes.' It is clear that, on a personal, private level, many ordinary Japanese have a stronger interest in all things Korean than ever before," said Chung Kwi Hwan, assistant director of the international division of the Osaka prefectural chapter of the Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan), representing about 400,000 South Koreans.

"However, when you get to the political level, or start talking about things like interpretations of history, things are not likely to change all that much," Chung said.

Many in the Korean community, Chung said, see the cohosting of the Cup as the next stage in the improvement of bilateral relations.

"The first stage to improving relations with Japan was, for many in South Korea, the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

"Following the Olympics, we saw a surge of interest in Korean culture by many younger Japanese. More flights from Japan to South Korea were added, and, today, South Korea is one of the most popular overseas tourist destinations for younger Japanese," Chung said.

Mindan and other Korean groups in Japan expect another surge of mutual interest between Japanese and South Koreans.

At the local level, the World Cup will, Chung hopes, bring more opportunities for Koreans and Japanese to cosponsor a variety of cultural and entertainment events.

Many Korean residents were also happy to see that, following Japan's loss to Turkey and South Korea's win over Italy on June 18, many Japanese, though disappointed at their team's loss, decided to cheer for South Korea.

"I was kind of wondering if, after Japan lost to Turkey, the Japanese media would just figure that the World Cup was basically over and ignore the games in South Korea. But that didn't appear to be the case. The fact that many ordinary Japanese, and the Japanese media, were offering their support to the South Korean team is a positive sign that the future will be better," said Oh Koo Sak, a human rights worker based in the Tsuruhashi district in Ikuno Ward, a historic and cultural home to many Korean residents in Japan.

About 60 percent of Japanese were cheering for the South Korean team after its historic breakthrough into the semifinals, according to a Kyodo News survey conducted Monday.

The poll found the World Cup has boosted South Korea's image, with some saying that times have changed since their parents' generation, which often held negative views of South Korea.

Talking about the survey, Susumu Kohari, a University of Shizuoka assistant professor well-versed in Korean affairs, said the World Cup has put a new perspective on bilateral ties, which can be taken to have matured.

Kim Hyun Soo, an official of the Osaka chapter of Mindan, said, "With the passing of the prewar generation of Japanese at about the same time, one result was that many younger Japanese don't have the same kinds of negative images of Korea as their parents and grandparents had."

But if the end of the World Cup brings with it hope that cultural exchanges will continue to progress at an individual level, there is less optimism about any improvement of relations on an official level.

"Exchanges between ordinary individuals is fine. But few senior Japanese politicians or so-called elite Japanese in government, business and the media have close ties with South Korea," Oh said.

"That makes dialogue on issues like interpretations of history in school textbooks or allowing Japanese popular culture into (South) Korea extremely difficult, whatever good feelings are expressed by both sides during the World Cup."

Oh and Chung agreed that there is much that local- and national-level leaders on both sides need to study once the final whistle has blown.

Osaka Prefecture, home to nearly 160,000 Koreans — about a quarter of the 660,000 nationwide — is well situated to help make sure Japan-South Korea relations continue to improve, Chung said.

"In addition to historical ties between the Kansai region and Korea, Kansai has a larger number of Koreans with permanent residency status than Tokyo. Thus, Koreans are economically, and politically, more powerful here than they are in Tokyo."



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