One click on a mouse turns the hankul characters on an Internet chat site into a Japanese message of welcome, delighting elderly Japanese participants in an online exchange with some of their South Korean counterparts.

Using the same software, the South Korean participants then strive to translate Japanese messages into their native language, but seem quite disappointed with the on-screen results.

“I like the idea of the software, but my Japanese is still more accurate than this,” said 75-year-old Kim Seong Kook, a member of KJ-Club, an Internet networking group comprised of South Korean citizens who speak Japanese.

“Fortunately — or unfortunately — many of our generation can speak quite good Japanese through the Japanese education imposed (on Korea) during Japan’s colonial rule (from 1910 to 1945).”

The above scenario arose during a recent test event for newly developed Korean-Japanese translation software. The event was held as part of a weeklong friendship visit to Japan by KJ-Club.

Having been invited by Mellow Club, a senior citizens’ network in Japan, some 50 members of KJ-Club visited Hiroshima, Kyoto and Tokyo in late March to indulge in some sightseeing. The members of both groups are generally in their 60s or 70s.

“I believe closer communication between the two countries’ senior citizens, represented by an event like this, will significantly help the two countries develop a better relationship in the future,” said Kim Dae Soo, 84, chairman of KJ-Club.

“As those who have actually experienced the tragic period of the Korea-Japan relationship, we can demonstrate our will to overcome the ill legacies of the history for younger generations.”

Kim’s remarks came after a farewell party held in Tokyo to mark the end of the tour.

Hidetaro Nakajima, 64, of Mellow Club, said he had mixed feelings when he saw members of KJ-Club speaking fluent Japanese.

“It is very nice to see they speak Japanese, but it is also the legacy of the past tragedy imposed upon them by my country,” he said.

“But it also surprised and relieved me that they did not seem hesitant to speak Japanese, and actually seemed to even enjoy speaking.”

Koreans who were elementary school pupils during the colonial period often exhibit considerable Japanese proficiency, having been schooled under a rigid Japanese education system.

The KJ-Club tour constitutes one of around 1,000 events in both the public and private arenas that have been organized to promote friendship between Japanese and South Koreans in 2002, the year that will see both nations cohost the World Cup soccer finals.

Hiroshi Omori, an official at the Japan Foundation, a government-run body that is organizing a wide range of events to promote bilateral friendship, said these events can play a key role in creating more intimate ties between the two countries.

He said such events can eradicate entrenched stereotypical views at the grassroots level.

The organization has provided 200 citizens’ events held since last year with a subsidy of 300,000 yen apiece. The events in question include the K-J Club tour.

“Many Koreans still seem to harbor hatred toward Japan as the result of Japan’s annexation of the peninsula, while Japanese tend to have antagonistic feelings toward Koreans, as they believe Koreans dislike them,” Omori said.

“Such stereotypes have prevented the two peoples from communicating with each other.”

Common ground sought

In February, a Japanese nonprofit group that organizes environmental projects invited 15 South Korean college students to a 10-day tree-planting event in the village of Nakatsue, Oita Prefecture.

In an effort to maintain the village’s scenery, 24 young volunteer workers planted Japanese cypress trees and shiitake, and worked to improve the local hiking course.

“Global issues such as environmental problems can easily be shared by people regardless of their nationality,” said Kazuhiko Kobayashi, chief secretary of Nice, a nonprofit organization in Tokyo.

“NPO tieups like ours, which share common concerns and objectives rather than merely exchanging culture, may represent a new era of the Japan-Korea relationship,” he said.

Kang Chae On, professor emeritus of modern Korean history at Hanazono University in Kyoto, said this willingness by Japanese to deepen their personal ties with South Koreans reflects a receding of the guilt traditionally associated with perceptions of the bilateral relationship.

“Since the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, South Korea has demonstrated its economic and cultural power to the Japanese public,” the Korea-born scholar said.

“South Korea, which for decades used to first remind Japanese of the most negative aspects of Japanese history, has become an ordinary country to Japanese for the first time.”

Reflecting this trend, the number of Japanese visitors to South Korea has jumped in recent years.

According to the latest available statistics, 2.38 million Japanese visited South Korea in 2000, marking an increase of more than 1 million over the corresponding figure a decade earlier.

This figure includes more than 40,000 junior high and high school students who visited on school trips.

Cultural exchange efforts over the Sea of Japan, however, are not immune to the historical controversy that continues to dog the Tokyo-Seoul relationship.

Last April, Tokyo authorized a junior high school history textbook that critics say glosses over atrocities committed by Japan against its Asian neighbors before and during World War II. In the wake of this move, more than 100 cultural exchange events, mostly involving public schools, were canceled.

The village of Mizobe, Kagoshima Prefecture, was planning to send 16 students representing its three local elementary schools to an elementary school in Pusan, South Korea, last August.

The planned five-day trip was meant to be the latest in a series of cultural exchange efforts between Mizobe and Pusan spanning 10 years.

The students were to visit a Pusan school for an exchange event, to stay at the homes of host families and to pay a sightseeing visit to Seoul.

The trip was eventually canceled by the South Korean side a month before the day of the students’ planned departure.

“Cultural exchanges are supposed to take place among people, but public programs, even by a small municipality like ours, are usually very vulnerable to politics,” village official Isamu Kukita said.

Kukita added that he was told by the South Korean recipient school that its local board of education had pressured the school into canceling the trip.

The two parties have agreed to conduct a similar program this summer.

Language of the world

Citizens’ grassroots activities can often transcend diplomatic turbulence, however.

More than a decade before the ban on performances of Japanese music was partly lifted by Seoul in September 1999, Mannergesangverein Tokyo Liedertafel 1925, a Tokyo-based amateur male chorus group, performed Japanese songs in South Korea in 1987, marking the first such occasion in postwar history.

It was also the first joint concert between the Tokyo group, which was comprised of some 80 members, and its South Korean counterpart, Korea Male Chorus 1958, to be held in South Korea.

“We were sort of anxious about audience reaction to Japanese songs, but were greeted by a standing ovation from 4,000 people, many of them crying after hearing Japanese songs for the first time in decades,” said Toru Igarashi, a 71-year-old member of the Tokyo chorus group.

Igarashi, who played a leading role in forging ties between the two groups while he lived in South Korea in the mid-1980s, said he believes the concert was permitted because it was a joint event of two private groups.

“Citizens’ friendship events like ours are important, as they can often precede diplomatic ties,” he said.

The two parties were scheduled to hold a joint concert in Seoul on Thursday, in which they were to jointly sing both Japanese and Korean traditional songs.

“I believe two countries, not just South Korea and Japan, can never be friends, because diplomatic relationships are always based on national interests and pride,” said Igarashi, a former corporate executive, prior to the concert.

“But individuals can deeply communicate with each other, move each other and become friends. Music, which is the common language of the world, is a good medium for such relationships.”

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