Japan, South Korea move nervously toward celebration

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Despite announcing the launch of an extensive campaign of cultural, economic and social events to mark next year’s 40th anniversary of normalization, Japan and South Korea still seem to have cold feet when it comes to eliminating all the barriers between them.

An organizing committee for the Japan side of the Japan-Korea Friendship Year 2005 campaign has been set up, with Ikuo Hirayama, president of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, serving as its chairman.

“I would like to call on everyone, whether they are familiar with South Korea or not, to to take part in the events,” Hirayama told a news conference at the committee’s launch on Thursday.

Among other things, the yearlong campaign will showcase Kabuki, amateur singing contests organized by public broadcaster NHK and Japanese festivals in Seoul and other cities in South Korea.

Japanese officials take pride in how close the relationship between the two nations has become.

More than 3.3 million people travel between Japan and South Korea each year, and 23 Japanese cities have direct air links to South Korea.

But others say Japan’s past colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, which continued until the end of World War II, still casts a dark shadow over the two nations.

“At first, ‘Japan-Korea Fiesta’ was suggested as the name for the campaign,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said.

“But it was changed because the word ‘fiesta’ was considered inappropriate for the year 2005, which is also the 100th anniversary of the conclusion of the Japan-Korea Agreement” under which Korea became a protectorate of Japan, the official said.

The Japanese side has its reservations as well.

While the Foreign Ministry wants to allow South Korean tourists to enter Japan without visas throughout 2005, immigration and police authorities are reluctant to do so, noting that South Koreans comprised the largest group among illegal overstayers in Japan last year.

As a compromise, the government will likely offer visa exemptions for several months, the official said.

Oriza Hirata, a playwright and a member of the campaign committee, said he fears Japanese ignorance of historical issues could breed conflict once closer exchanges lead to deeper interaction.

Hirata noted that most young people in Japan do not understand the significance of March 1, 1919, the date on which 33 Koreans launched a campaign to protest Japan’s colonization, leading to a nationwide independence movement.

March 1 is now a national holiday.

“There are some things we need to keep in mind” so as not to hurt the feelings of South Koreans, Hirata said. “We should nurture friendship based on history.”