Japan and South Korea are used to referring to each other as the “nearest but most distant country” due to past troubles in their relationship.

But these days they are reportedly increasingly becoming nearest and dearest with the rapid expansion of air links in the runup to the 2002 World Cup soccer finals they will cohost.

To meet surging demand, flights linking Narita airport in Chiba Prefecture and Kansai International Airport near Osaka with South Korean airports have steadily increased. Japanese airports with regular flights departing for Seoul now number 21.

Japanese tourists to South Korea, including those visiting for shopping and dining, have surged more than 10 percent annually in the last several years, hitting a record 2.4 million last year.

The number of South Korean visitors to Japan, which plummeted during the Asian financial crisis, has increased to register an all-time high of about 1.3 million last year.

Passenger levels on flights between Narita and Seoul have topped the 90 percent mark, making it sometimes difficult for travelers to secure air tickets.

Capacity restraints at Narita do not currently allow for more flights, but the number is expected to double next spring when a second runway is completed.

At Kansai airport, flights to Seoul have almost doubled in the last three years, and those to Pusan and the resort island of Cheju have also increased.

From Tokyo’s Haneda airport, once used mainly for domestic flights, international charter flights leaving at night started up in February, and studies are under way to operate shuttle flights between Haneda and Seoul for the World Cup.

Regional airports in Japan are also playing a role. Asiana Airlines of South Korea inaugurated flights to Seoul from Yonago, Tottori Prefecture, in March and from Miyazaki in April. Korean Air is also studying flights to Izumo, Shimane Prefecture, and Akita.

For South Korean airlines, planes on the Japan-South Korea route carrying Japanese — who pay higher fares — are cash cows. For local Japanese airports, these planes also represent the realization of their longtime dream of handling international flights.

South Korean airlines are thus advancing into cities in Japan where their Japanese counterparts cannot do so because of their high-cost structure, industry sources say.

Mutual penetration of the two countries’ popular cultures is also contributing to increased flights. In South Korea, Japanese entertainers and cartoons are becoming quite popular, while South Korean films are keeping box office’s busy in Japan.

“Anti-Japan feeling is fading, especially among South Korean youths,” said an official at the Korea National Tourism Organization, referring to negative public sentiment over Japan’s 1910-1945 rule of the Korean Peninsula. “Young people are now traveling to Japan without reserve. This flow of people is endless.”

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