Japan-South Korea relations continue to deteriorate. It is said to be the worst many times, and there is no end in sight. By the way, “Japan-South Korea relations” are generally discussed only in terms of diplomatic relations and rarely in terms of public opinions, despite the fact that the two countries are close neighbors. Both countries are democracies. The larger the diplomatic issue, the more sensitive the public opinions.

Every year, the East Asia Institute (EAI) and the Genron NPO survey the people of Japan and South Korea to find out how favorable they feel about the other country. This year, the proportion of South Koreans who said they had a negative perception of Japan jumped by about 20%, from 49.9% last year to 71.6%. One of them said they had a positive perception of Japan dropped sharply to 12.3% from 31.7% last year. On the other hand, there was no significant change in the percentage of Japanese who said they had a negative perception of South Korea, falling only slightly from 49.9% last year to 46.3%. In addition, 49.8% of South Koreans said there is a possibility of a military conflict in the near or distant future on Dokdo (Takeshima), a disputed territory between the two countries. One in two South Koreans is concerned about the possibility of a Japanese invasion.

Then, are the Japan-South Korea relations no longer important to both peoples? When asked about the importance of the relations between the two countries, 82.0% of South Koreans answered that it is important, while the percentage of the Japanese was much lower at 48.1%. It is South Koreans who consider the Japan-South Korea relations to be more important. In this regard, the EAI analyzed that economic cooperation and private-sector exchanges are important for South Koreans, apart from the level of favorable perception toward Japan.

Japanese are also more backward-looking when asked about the prospects for improving relations in the future. According to a poll conducted in August this year by the Korea Press Foundation (KPF), 23% of South Koreans and 11% of Japanese answered that political relations between the two countries will improve in 10 years. In the area of economic relations, 29% of South Koreans and 9% of Japanese said the same, and in cultural relations, 35% of South Koreans and 14% of Japanese said the same. From this, it may be said that Japan is an “undesirable but important country” for South Koreans, but South Korea is one of “indifference” to the Japanese.

Besides, there is a strong opinion in South Korea that Japan is the main enemy.

According to the “2020 Korean Identity Survey,” North Korea was the top perceived enemy of neighboring countries in 2015, but in 2020, Japan becomes the top perceived enemy. (North Korea: 68.2% in 2015→65.5% in 2020) (Japan: 58.8% in 2015→71.9% in 2020) (The United States: 4.8% in 2015→10.2% in 2020) (China: 16.1% in 2015→40.1% in 2020)

Also, according to a survey released by the Korea Institute for National Unification on March 23 this month, 45% of respondents said that if North Korea and Japan went to war, South Korea would have to help North Korea. Only about 15% said they would have to side with Japan.

In addition, last December, the Korean newspaper, The Kukmin Daily, conducted a poll asking whether Japan and the United States are friendly nations toward South Korea. 28.2% said that both the U.S. and Japan are friends, 34.8% said that the U.S. is a friend but not Japan, 2.8% said that the U.S. is not a friend but Japan is a friend, 28.0% said that neither the U.S. nor Japan is a friend, and 6.2% said they did not know.

These are astonishing results. The Korean War is still in a ceasefire, North Korea has not given up on “liberating the South,” and there is a nuclear threat. On the other hand, Japan is an ally of the US and its colonial rule ended in 1945. Despite this, they think that Japan is a bigger threat to South Korea than North Korea.

Summarizing the above, in South Korea, in general, Japan is an unfavorable country and makes people feel uneasy that it might invade. It is also hostile enough to make them want to side with North Korea in the event of a war between the two countries. On the other hand, they feel that the relations with Japan is important due to economic ties, etc., and are more optimistic about the future than the Japanese.

However, it is not a good idea to leave the Japan-South Korea relationship as it is. In 2016, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said that the U.S.-ROK alliance cannot function properly if Japan-South Korea relations are not good.The Japan-South Korea relations are important for both the U.S.-Japan alliance and the U.S.-ROK alliance.

So, is it possible to improve the relationship? This may be difficult because of the cultural barriers that exist.

For example, in 2014, when Secretary of State John Kerry told President Park Geun-hye that the future of Japan-South Korea relations was more important than the past, the remark caused controversy in South Korea. In a poll on this, 33.1% said they agreed with his statement, 48.5% disagreed, and 18.4% were unsure. For them, the culture of future orientation is hard to accept.

In addition, another major South Korean media outlet, JoongAng Ilbo, once claimed that one of the reasons for the conflict was that the meaning of “promise” differs between the two countries. According to the report, making a promise in Korea involves the silent assumption that one can persuade the other party if there are more important circumstances than the promise, “unless there are other special circumstances.” In Japan, on the other hand, making a promise is based on the premise that “unless there is a natural calamity that is beyond human control,” the first priority is given to the promise. In other words, as Koreans, we make promises on the spot as something that can be changed later, but as Japanese, we feel as if the goalposts were moved later without our permission, which offends us.

The relationship between Japan and South Korea continues to deteriorate, but it may be important for the people of the two countries to first learn what the other side thinks of them as well. In September 2013, the JoongAng Ilbo published a critique titled “Korea knows Japan best,” while last July it published a column titled “Korea knows too little about Japan.” Over the past six years, the perceptions of major media have changed. It means that there is a momentum for mutual understanding.

The rift between the two sides is so deep that it is no longer possible to improve relations immediately. The best thing to do is to understand what is different between the two sides and what they have in common and to start with small steps.


All views expressed are of the writer and do not represent that of the sino-sphere.com

Meiling Li is a Kwansei University student in Japan majoring in humanities. She interested in Japan-South Korea diplomatic relations and have been reading and studying related news for over five years. Twitter account: @son_of_nippon