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Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada visited South Korea on Thursday and met with his counterpart Yu Myung Hwan and with President Lee Myung Bak. His first visit to the country as foreign minister took place at a historically sensitive time.

One hundred years ago, Japan annexed Korea through a treaty that was forcibly imposed on Korea. The name of the Great Korean Empire disappeared from the map and Japan’s colonial rule over Korean Peninsula started. The Republic of Korea (South Korea) came into being in 1948. Not until 1965 were diplomatic ties between Japan and South Korea normalized.

At a joint news conference with Mr. Yu after their talks, Mr. Okada said: “What happened 100 years ago deprived Korean people of their country and hurt their national pride. I am proud of being a Japanese. So, I understand all the more the feelings of people who were deprived of their country and whose national pride was injured. We must never forget the feelings of the side that was annexed and of the victims who still feel the pains.” He then called for enhancing the future-oriented bilateral relationship while not forgetting what happened in the past 100 years.

His statement is appropriate in view of the historical context in which both Japan and South Korea have developed. It shows that he took great care to prevent emotional flareups in either South Korea or Japan during this sensitive year.

Earlier, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama had emphasized that his administration has the courage to look squarely at the history involving Japan and South Korea. He also had made it clear that he attaches great importance to Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s Aug. 15, 1995, statement, which expressed the Japanese government’s “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology” for the damage and suffering caused by Japan’s colonial rule and aggression. President Lee appreciates Mr. Hatoyama’s attitude.

It is unlikely that emotional reactions related to historical perceptions will die away soon. Japan and South Korea must handle bilateral relations carefully, step by step.

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