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A Japanese diplomat has called on Tokyo to promote practical cooperation with China and South Korea to benefit from such ties even though Japan is at odds with the two neighbors over historical and other issues.

In an interview, Hisashi Michigami, secretary-general of the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS), also stressed that Japan should actively use the three countries’ cooperation frameworks.

The TCS, which was established in 2011, works to facilitate cooperation among the three countries by offering support for ministerial talks, as well as business and cultural exchanges, among Japan, China and South Korea. The top TCS post of secretary-general has been rotated among the three countries.

The TCS has been increasingly able to make “substantive contributions” to trilateral cooperation in the last five years, said Michigami, who has served as minister at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing and then at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

The TCS is not well known in Japan, but there are as many as 21 ministerial forums among Japan, China and South Korea, with active interchanges being made to accelerate the three countries’ cooperation, he said.

The three nations have held several ministerial meetings, including between their health ministers, over the COVID-19 pandemic, Michigami noted.

Some in Japan are concerned that the trilateral cooperation is imbalanced, with Japan giving much to China and South Korea but receiving little from the two countries.

“Japan is ahead of China and South Korea in the fields of environmental protection, measures related to the graying of society and disaster management, and the two neighbors are keen to learn from Japan in these areas,” said Michigami.

“But China and South Korea are improving their administrative capabilities very quickly,” he noted.

South Korea, for example, has a system to comprehensively manage the medical data of all citizens, but there is no such system in Japan, Michigami explained, adding that the former also excels in some areas of digital administration and patent-related laws.

“Japan would end up suffering a loss if it turns its back on China and South Korea, both of which continue to make rapid progress,” he said. “Japan can reap practical benefits by learning from them as needed.”

For China and South Korea, Japan was a “mentor” in the area of movies 30 to 40 years ago, Michigami said. The two countries are now setting their eyes on markets around the world, including the United States, and have built connections with many in the industry and achieved results.

“Japan does not have an outward-looking approach,” he added, noting that Japanese experts are urging people in the nation’s movie industry to interact with their counterparts in China and South Korea and get inspiration from them, he said.

Japan, China and South Korea face diplomatic and security challenges, but at the same time, the three countries have common problems that need to be addressed quickly, such as the environment, graying populations and disaster management, Michigami said.

“There is a need for three-way cooperation on a number of public- and private-sector issues, so their frameworks of cooperation are useful,” he said.

On strained relations between Japan and South Korea, Michigami said that South Korea had been frustrated by Japan in the past.

But the situation has changed in the past 10 years, he said, noting that “Japan has been disappointed and angered by South Korea, but many South Koreans do not understand this.”

Michigami also said he strongly feels that Japan is keeping a distance from South Korea.

“Japan needs to say what it should to South Korea, and at the same time should keep a close watch on China-South Korea relations and comprehensively understand the situation,” he said.

“It would not be good for Japan to shun (South Korea) because it dislikes (the country),” Michigami said.

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