How gratitude can ease Japan-South Korea frictions

Seoul’s letter of appreciation for the peacemaking role of the departing Japanese emperor can help both sides soften their hard positions on issues from the past.

Japan's Emperor Akihito, center, leaves after the ceremony of his abdication with Crown Prince Naruhito, right, and Crown Princess Masako at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, April 30.

Despite two recent summits, ties between Washington and Pyongyang are at a low again. Yet they may not be as low as ties between two American allies also dealing with North Korea. Japan and South Korea are in a major dispute over their shared history, specifically whether Japan should compensate Korean laborers used during Japan’s colonial rule of the peninsula. Their diplomatic spat has the potential to hinder a solution to North Korea’s nuclear threat.

It is a welcome surprise, then, that South Korean President Moon Jae-in has sent a letter to Japanese Emperor Akihito, who retired from the throne April 30. He expressed gratitude for the outgoing emperor’s role in improving ties between Seoul and Tokyo. Mr. Moon also said his government might send a delegation for the coronation of the new emperor, Naruhito, in October.

The South Korean leader is right to be grateful. Akihito played a big role as a peacemaker, and not only with a country that his late father, Hirohito, once ruled with near-divine status. After he ascended the world’s oldest monarchy in 1989, Akihito traveled widely to repair relations with Japan’s adversaries during its wartime period from 1931 to 1945. He expressed remorse for the country’s mistakes and prayed for its victims.

His efforts at reconciliation have sometimes been at odds with Japan’s right-wing nationalists who often disregard or reject the country’s past cruelties against other Asian nations. Even though he served only as a symbol of the state and was barred under the Constitution from a political role, Akihito nonetheless helped soften Japan’s image by his gestures of contrition. Notably in 1990 he spoke of his “deepest regret” for the Japanese occupation of Korea.

His actions may be one reason the people of Japan and South Korea seem to get along much better than their politicians. The two nations share pop culture, and South Korean tourists often visit Japan. Mr. Moon’s letter may be an acknowledgment that it is time for the issue of compensation for Korean wartime workers to be settled.

In diplomacy, expressing gratitude for the good already achieved between two nations can be a lubricant to ease frictions. For anyone, an appreciation for past deeds suggests a humility and openness to reach a consensus, less by willpower and more by listening. British writer G. K. Chesterton called gratitude “the highest form of thought.”

With Mr. Moon soon to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the two countries can now start from a standpoint of gratitude. The departing emperor has paved the way.

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