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In a bid to put Japan’s often stormy relations with China and South Korea on a more stable footing over the long term, the government is embarking on a multimillion-yen program to promote friendship and mutual understanding among the three Asian neighbors.

Foreign Ministry sources said Monday that the ministry will seek about 17 million yen in its fiscal 2002 budget request to promote exchanges between private-sector intellectuals from the three counties in a wide range of areas, possibly including history education.

The budgetary request for a “joint intellectual work” program among the three nations — the first program of its kind to be sought by the Foreign Ministry — will be submitted to the Finance Ministry at the end of the month, the sources said.

If the funding is approved, the trilateral exchange program will be implemented through the Japan Foundation, a government-affiliated body in charge of promoting cultural and other various exchanges between Japan and other countries, the sources said.

The request comes at a time when Japan’s relations with China and South Korea have plunged to one of the lowest points since Tokyo established diplomatic ties with Beijing and Seoul, in 1972 and 1965, respectively, over political and economic issues.

The two common political issues that have seriously strained ties are Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s controversial visit to Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 13 and Japanese education authorities’ approval in April of a history textbook written by a group of nationalist authors.

The Shinto shrine in Tokyo honors some 2.5 million Japanese war dead and 14 Class-A war criminals, including former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo. Japan’s Asian neighbors, especially China and South Korea, as well as domestic critics, have harshly condemned Koizumi’s visit to the shrine, which they regard as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.

China, South Korea and domestic critics have also fiercely criticized the disputed history textbook for junior high schools for whitewashing Japan’s wartime atrocities.

In addition, Japan is locked in a festering economic row with both China and South Korea.

Japan’s imposition of emergency import restrictions on some Chinese agricultural products in April escalated into a tit-for-tat trade war in June, when China retaliated by slapping 100 percent punitive tariffs on some Japanese industrial goods, including automobiles.

As for South Korea, Japan is angry that Seoul has begun saury-fishing operations — with Russia’s permission, rather than Japan’s — in waters around islands off northeastern Hokkaido held by Russia but claimed by Japan.

Koizumi has expressed a strong desire to hold talks with Chinese and South Korean leaders at an early date to repair the soured ties. Any such meetings have yet to be set officially.

A few years ago, Japan agreed separately with China and South Korea at the top level to designate 2002 as a bilateral “year of the peoples’ exchanges.”

Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Japan and China. Japan and South Korea will jointly host soccer’s World Cup finals next summer.

While meeting in Singapore last November, then Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, Chinese President Jiang Zemin and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung also agreed to designate 2002 as a trilateral “year of the peoples’ exchanges.” The three leaders were holding talks during the annual meeting with their counterparts from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

The Foreign Ministry sources said that the 17 million yen request for fiscal 2002 for a “joint intellectual work” program among the three Northeast Asian neighbors is partly aimed at preparing for the 2002 trilateral exchange project.

But with Japan’s ties with China and South Korea continuing to deteriorate sharply since spring, no progress has been made in preparations for launching the project. There is even concern within the Japanese government that the project itself may be doomed.

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