The Japanese people’s sense of Japan-South Korea friendship has heightened following the World Cup soccer tournament cohosted last month by the two countries. After South Korea advanced to the semifinals, many Japanese cheered the team on to an extent that puzzled some South Koreans.

At a recent news conference held in Tokyo by Tottori Gov. Yoshihiro Katayama, who is pro-South Korean, a South Korean correspondent noted the sudden change in the mood and wondered aloud what will happen now to bilateral relations.

In 1998, Japan and South Korea appeared to move to a new phase in bilateral relations when visiting South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and then-Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi issued a joint declaration on a new partnership for the 21st century. Afterward, Kim opened his country to Japanese pop culture, including movies and songs.

But Tokyo-Seoul relations soured last summer during controversies over the contents of history textbooks used in Japanese schools and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s abrupt visit to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Class-A war criminals among millions of Japanese war dead. Koizumi revisited the shrine April 21 to attend an annual festival, exacerbating South Korea’s distrust of Japan.

However, the surprisingly good World Cup performances by Japan and South Korea helped improve bilateral relations. I hope Koizumi will not do or say anything that could cause more friction with South Korea.

Despite the never-ending political friction between Tokyo and Seoul, Japanese educational authorities are stepping up efforts to promote understanding toward South Korea among Japanese. The National Center for University Entrance Examinations this year added Korean as the fifth elective subject for foreign-language tests after English, French, German and Chinese. The University of Tokyo established a special course on Korean culture in its graduate school.

But a wide gap still exists between Japanese interest in South Korea and South Korean interest in Japan. In Japanese college entrance examinations this year, only 99 students chose to take foreign-language tests in Korean. Meanwhile, about 500,000 South Korean high school students are studying Japanese as an elective course.

Of about 500 Japanese colleges and universities, only eight give specialized education in South Korean affairs. In South Korea, 95 of 200 colleges and universities offer courses on Japanese affairs. Japan should place more emphasis on the study of South Korean culture.

Clearly, both Japanese and South Koreans seek more exchanges, transcending the occasional political friction. In the mid-1960s, when Japan and South Korea established diplomatic relations, only about 10,000 Japanese and South Koreans visited each other’s country; nowadays, close to 4 million people do so. The success of World Cup soccer is likely to accelerate tourism between the two nations.

In 1996, South Korea joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which groups industrialized countries. As Japan and South Korea now play a leading role in Asia’s economy, it is all for the good that they improve their economic relations.

Last February, Koizumi traveled to South Korea, where the two countries signed an agreement on mutual investment. Japan ratified the pact in April and South Korea is gearing up to do so soon. The agreement, when it goes into effect, is expected to reduce the possibility of labor trouble for Japanese companies operating in South Korea and to help expand Japanese investments there.

Japan and South Korea are pushing efforts toward signing a bilateral free-trade agreement. In January, industry executives of the two countries held a meeting of FTA business forums in Tokyo and issued a joint declaration expressing hope that the Tokyo and Seoul governments would soon consult on concluding an FTA. The groups submitted copies of the declaration and reports on their discussions to their governments.

On July 9-10, a joint study group of Japanese and South Korean industrialists, bureaucrats and academics held its first meeting in Seoul to discuss the possibility of concluding an FTA. The group is expected to compile a report on its findings in two years. The Tokyo and Seoul governments will then start negotiations on a pact, with a view toward signing it in 2005.

In bilateral trade relations, Japan is concerned about pressure to abolish its tariffs on farm produce, while South Korea worries about a rising trade deficit.

The creation of a Japan-South Korea common market with a population of 170 million would greatly benefit both countries and help reinvigorate the long-slumping Japanese economy. The two countries should do everything possible to conclude an FTA and stabilize relations.

To try to resolve the controversy over the contents of school textbooks, historians of the two countries in May inaugurated a committee to review historical events and publish reports to promote mutual understanding.

After a textbook compiled by the Society for Rewriting History was adopted at only 1 percent of Japanese junior high schools, South Korea’s outrage over the issue subsided. Mitsuo Yoshida, a history committee member and a professor in the graduate school at the University of Tokyo, said it was agreed at the inaugural meeting agreed that Japanese and South Koreans have different perceptions about history. He felt, however, that South Korean views are changing significantly.

Regarding the prime minister’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine, an advisory body to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda is having trouble coordinating opinion on a proposal to establish a national memorial for the Japanese war dead to replace Yasukuni Shrine. It is uncertain whether the panel will reach a definite conclusion before yearend, as was expected earlier. I hope the panel will consider the issue from an international perspective so that it will not rekindle a dispute.

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