Korea, Japan kick off closer ties

The old rivals cohosted the World Cup. This week, their leaders are trying to build on the goodwill.

It was a photo for the history books: South Korean President Kim Dae Jung sitting next to Japanese Emperor Akihito at the final soccer match Sunday of the first Asian World Cup, which was cohosted by the two nations.

Perhaps the only stronger image of mutual outreach, analysts say, would have been the Japanese emperor next to the Korean leader – in Korea. But such a move, given still unresolved tensions on both sides, might well have backfired and spoiled what has turned out to be a net gain toward better relations.

Indeed, as one of the globe's most avidly watched sports event ended, both Korea and Japan claimed a surge of good feeling, better communication, and comity in a relationship that has often been strained by history and Asian national competitiveness.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Korea for the opening kickoff. As enthusiasm built, both fans and officials gushed that the games were more successful than hoped. Viewers in Japan and Korea watched each other's cheering crowds and cultural features on TV for weeks.

"This is the first time the Japanese and Koreans have worked together to do something well," says Misako Kaji, deputy press secretary for Mr. Koizumi. "The benefits are more than we expected."

Japan and South Korea, whose tricky relations are sometimes compared to those of England and Ireland, have centuries of historical baggage.

Koreans still chafe at Tokyo's colonial rule of the peninsula from 1910 to 1945, and have continued to express great anger at what they take to be Japan's brushing off, or omitting in history textbooks, of Japanese crimes during World War II.

Talk to Japanese, and they hint that maybe Koreans are a bit raw, too aggressive. To Koreans, the stereotype Japanese is distant and superior.

Evidently trying to make hay while the sun shines, the two sides yesterday convened a Korea-Japan political summit in Tokyo. Picking up on the bonhomie, Koizumi and President Kim agreed to open talks on bilateral free trade. Today, Kim will attend a lunch hosted by Akihito at the emperor's residence.

However, how far the "good vibes" will take the two nations in overcoming history, regional alliance-building, or trade is not known. Nor is the central question of whether the shared games curbed growing nationalist or ethnic sentiments on both sides.

In the run-up to the Cup, it seemed that national competition could win the day. There was bickering over which side would place their nation's name first in advertising, and who would hold the final match. (The event took place under the official "Korea Japan Games," while the finals were held in Yokohama.)

Both sides did make efforts at mutuality: Visa requirements during the games were waived, Korean Air offered free flights for 300 Japanese during last week's final four, and after Japan lost to Turkey, Koizumi hinted he was rooting for Korea.

On the street, ambiguous feelings

Of course, official claims of greater harmony are not surprising. They are verifiable, however, among elites in the two capitals. Corporate and business leaders, planners and bureaucrats, and influential families interacted and moved closer.

National feelings among rank and file Koreans and Japanese are more ambiguous.

Down in the Okubo area of Tokyo, for example, the Korean section of town where the smell of garlic flows out of restaurants, Japanese braved rainy weather to cheer the Korean team in its final four match with Germany.

"I don't like soccer, but I came here because I've gotten interested in Korea," says Masato Eto, a young Japanese advertising salesmen who stood under a big screen in a parking lot rented by a Korean restaurant owner. "I realized part way through this Cup that I don't know anything about them."

At the same time, Mashi Seki, who works for an auto company in Tokyo, disagreed when his girlfriend said the games brought understanding. "This excitement is something temporary. When it dies down, so will the friendly feelings. I'm sorry to say that, but I think it is true. There is a lot of suspicion [between the sides.]"

But despite lots of petty national comparisons, such as which side built the better stadiums, and which side has the better players, a consensus exists for progress.

"We find a genuine basis now for improvement, despite the problems of history, and that Koreans sometimes seem to Japanese to be too emotional," says Takashi Inoguchi, a polling specialist at the University of Tokyo. "In the past month, polls show that Japanese feeling toward Koreans is improving. Koreans, to a lesser degree, feel better toward us."

"These are the two economic giants and political democracies of Asia, and they have hosted the first World Cup in Asia" says Shim Jae Hoon, a columnist in Seoul. "Yes, it made us both feel good. We saw the Japanese support our team when we made the final four. This will bring mellower relations between us."

Japan gets an eye-opener

Some analysts in Japan breathed a sigh of relief that their soccer team was eliminated first – thinking that had Japan outplayed Korea, many submerged feelings could have risen.

Some foreign observers in Tokyo also feel the games were an eye-opener for many Japanese.

While Japan has the world's second largest economy, a decade of economic decline, combined with a Korean resurgence, has brought some "soul searching," says one North American business executive.

"The Korean fans were definitely more excited, more raw, more 'into it,' than the Japanese," the executive points out. "I think Japan's longtime feeling of being undisputed No. 1 in Asia was dealt another blow, as the Koreans nearly upstaged them."

"What I saw here was a lot of envy and rivalry," says one Japanese scholar who requested anonymity. "We are a people very proud of ourselves. But we saw Korea on TV with so many Internet cafes, so many cellphones. We are forced to see that they are catching up with us."

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