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In the mind of 13-year-old Lee Dah Hyun, Japan was a “bad and egoistic” country because of its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

“Yeah, it is true I heard Japan did a lot of terrible things to us during the colonial period,” said Lee, who is in the sixth grade.

So it was quite natural she didn’t feel like taking part in a four-day home-stay program in Japan in November.

“To be honest, I was very reluctant to accept the idea of visiting Japan and staying in a Japanese home. Anyway, I decided to join the program just out of pure curiosity,” Lee wrote in an account of her trip to Japan.

But her overwhelmingly negative views about Japan changed completely after she mingled with Japanese students, saw Japanese ways of living for herself and visited famous sights.

She recalls crying when she had to board a bus to Narita airport for her flight home.

“Saying goodbye to Japanese friends and their parents, who were very kind and warm to us, was really hard to do,” Lee said.

Aboard the plane home, she told herself she would visit Japan to see her new Japanese friends again very soon.

“I didn’t know I could feel close to Japanese friends so quickly, because I had a bad feeling about Japan before visiting the country,” she said.

She said the parents of Japanese students were kind and considerate to her. They were attentive to any problems and even paid attention to such minor matters as readjusting the ribbon in her hair.

Lee, from Kwanmun Elementary School in Kwachon on the outskirts of Seoul, was part of a group of 42 students who paid a four-day visit to Japan on Nov. 1.

The home-stay program resulted from a sister-school relationship Kwanmun set up with Komabayashi Elementary School in Yokohama in August 2001.

South Korean students in their traditional attire participated in festivals arranged by Japanese students, singing traditional folk songs and dancing together.

“It was a very useful and interesting program for our students, because they could get together with Japanese students and get a firsthand experience of Japan,” said Lee Jung Soon, a 43-year-old Kwanmun teacher who led the South Korean students on their trip.

Lee Jung Soon said she can never forget the “tearful parting” when her students and their Japanese counterparts were saying goodbye to each other.

The South Koreans also visited International Stadium Yokohama, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, and Landmark Tower, a 296-meter skyscraper in Yokohama.

“To see little children making innocent eye contact with Japanese children, bursting into laughter together and dancing in a circle hand in hand, I thought such small steps are far more important to foster a genuine friendship between (South) Korean and Japanese people, instead of big words politicians often use,” Lee said.

For Kim Woo Jae, a Kwanmun fifth-grader, his visit to a Japanese home made him realize there is a “truly warm feeling hidden” between Japanese and South Korean people.

“I saw the eyes of the mother of my Japanese friend filled with tears when I was boarding the bus to go to the airport. I thought she really cared about me just like her own child,” Kim said in his essay about his trip to Japan.

Kim also said Japanese students and people seemed to take great pride in Mount Fuji, which he and other South Korean friends saw on their way to International Stadium Yokohama.

For Lee Dah Hyun, it was a surprise to see many Japanese students lining the streets to welcome her and other South Korean students arriving at the Japanese school.

She said that even though she couldn’t speak Japanese, she could feel warmth and friendliness from her new Japanese friends by their body language and smiles.

She figures that even though Japan invaded the Korean Peninsula and committed “a lot of bad things,” Japan is now a “truly good country.”

“When the Earth is becoming a kind of global village, Japan should not remain to us geographically close but emotionally distant. Now, Japan has become my close friends’ country,” Lee said.

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