Japan-Korea Relations

Japan-Korea Relations - where it all goes wrong

Historically, Japan and Korea have had close ties. It has been theorized that Japanese on the main island of Honshu originally came to Japan from Korea. Some scholars even believe that one of the early emperors of Japan was a Korean chief.

Regardless of whether these theories are true or not, however, today the relationship can be said to be less than amicable.

Japanese rulers attempted to invade the Korean province on at least two occasions before finally succeeding in annexing it in 1910. Under Japanese rule, Koreans were made Japanese citizens, forced to learn the Japanese language, even take Japanese names. During World War II, many Koreans were brought to Japan as a source of cheap labor in the mining, construction and shipbuilding industries.

Male Koreans were given the right to vote in Japan and to be elected to Japanese national and local legislatures. After the Second World War, however, they lost these rights. In 1947, one day before the promulgation of the new postwar Constitution, the Japanese government put into effect the Alien Registration Ordinance which classified Koreans as foreigners, and made them register as alien residents.

There is a large population of Koreans (now divided into North Korean and South Korean citizens) in Japan. In 1997, the number of Koreans living in Japan was estimated to be approximately 700,000 - mostly second- and third-generation Koreans who do not have Japanese citizenship, but whose native language is Japanese. Prejudice against Koreans still prevails today in Japanese government policies, as well as in the attitudes of many Japanese people. Koreans face difficulties in employment, obtaining passports, housing and marriage to Japanese.

Koreans are rarely employed by large companies and are not allowed to hold positions of management in the public sector, since the government regards these positions as positions of authority.

The result of this exclusion is that unemployment rates for Koreans are substantially higher than those of the general population. Koreans are also disproportionately represented in unskilled and semi-skilled jobs. There are other areas in which Koreans are discriminated against. Even though they pay taxes, they are not allowed to vote, nor are they allowed all the same welfare benefits as Japanese.

Until 1982 they received no state pensions. The Japanese government has offered neither pensions nor official compensation to Korean women who were made to work as "Comfort Women" (Korean women forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese Imperial Army).

Some Koreans in Japan, mainly those with South Korean nationality, have been able to acquire Japanese citizenship to overcome problems of employment, housing, and marriage. Other Koreans "pass" as Japanese, using Japanese names and endure a double life. It is rumored that a prominent member of the Japanese national soccer team as well as other famous celebrities have Korean roots. It is nearly impossible to discover the truth; however, as few are willing to come out.

In South Korea antagonism towards Japan also runs high. Until recently the sale of Japanese cars was banned along with the public broadcast of Japanese music and culture. Japan and Korea fought a bitter campaign to host World Cup 2002 with each nation accusing the other of bribery and underhand tactics. FIFA sought to heal these wounds by awarding the tournament jointly to both countries in 1996, a decision derided by both parties at the time.

At a grass-roots level, football supporters from both countries have made efforts to overcome decades of national enmity. In a series of recent friendlies between Korea and Japan, both sets of fans displayed signs of friendship and support. For example, Korean fans unfurled banners proclaiming Let's Go To the World Cup Together' in an effort to encourage Japan to qualify for its first World Cup in France 1998. A variety of citizen-level networks sprung up promoting cooperation between ordinary Japanese and Koreans. World Cup 2002 acted as a catalyst in improving Japanese-Korean relations and understanding but divisions are still in evidence.

by Lisa Rogers

Read more on Koreans in Japan

Problems in Japan-Korean Relations

Japan-Korea relations literally went up in flames over the issue of new controversial school textbooks authorized by the Japanese Ministry of Education in 2001. The two countries have had numerous problems since the announcement of the joint hosting of the World Cup in 1996.

The most pressing issue causing recurring friction between Japan and Korea goes back to the Japanese colonization of Korea from 1910 to 1945. Korea is extremely sensitive as to how this period has been portrayed in Japan and the new school texts are perceived as a distortion of history and an attempt to gloss over Japan's wartime atrocities.


The Korean Foreign Ministry accused the authors of eight Japanese history textbooks of whitewashing Japan's invasion and subsequent colonization of Asian countries and briefly withdrew their ambassador at the onset of the crisis. As a result of the adoption and official acceptance of the textbooks by the Japanese Ministry of Education anti-Japanese sentiment has increased throughout South Korea. Tokyo has agreed to make only two amendments to the texts, instead of the 35 changes demanded by Seoul. Meanwhile, the books have become bestsellers in Japan.

Photo of Hide Nakata & Hong Myung Bo.

In response to the textbook issue, the chairman of South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff cancelled a visit to Japan planned for later in July. South Korea also refused to allow Japanese naval ships to dock in the port of Incheon in September and threatened to end all future military co-operation with its neighbor.

Seoul also decided to delay the further opening up of Korean markets to Japanese cultural items (which are incredibly popular among most young Koreans and readily available on a thriving black-market), including popular music, TV progammes, computer games such as Nintendo and Play Station, adult movies and animation films, agreed in 1998 when President Kim visited the then Japanese Prime Minister, Keizo Obuchi, and accepted an expression of "remorseful repentance" for Japan's war-time occupation of the Korean peninsula, heralding a major break- through in joint relations.

After the Japanese government announced that it would not comply with the Korean request to revise the textbooks, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung called off a meeting with a delegation of Japanese lawmakers carrying a letter appealing for future warm relations. Cultural exchanges between sister cities and school visits were also cancelled on a daily basis as tempers rise on the Korean side.

On Monday, July 10, dozens of demonstrators tried to storm the Japanese embassy in Seoul after the announcement was made. The angry mob burnt the Japanese flag and copies of the disputed textbook in protest. The South Korean response had many Japanese officials worried that thousands of Koreans would demonstrate at the World Cup games in both Korea and Japan. The worsening political climate also caused the cancellation of a proposed visit by the Japanese Emperor to the World Cup opening ceremony in Seoul.


Another issue of contention between Japan and Korea has been fisheries disputes. As recently as the end of June, Tokyo banned Korean fishing vessels from fishing in waters near four disputed islands off the northern coast of Hokkaido. Japan claims sovereignty over the islands, (occupied by Russia since the last days of World War II), saying they are within Japan's Economic Exclusion Zone.

Election poster for Junichiro Koizumi.

However, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi expressed his hopes that the 2002 World Cup would help prevent further deterioration of Japanese-Korean bilateral ties and help them build a solid base for future amicable relations. One activity planned to help improve links between the two countries was a friendship soccer match between Japanese and Korean lawmakers.

This did not quite turn out to be a grudge match, however, even though it was scheduled to be held after the Prime Minister's official visit to the Yasukuni Shrine where Japan's war dead, including war criminals, are enshrined.

One Japanese political analyst sees the present difficulties arising from both governments having too many problems on the domestic front, especially economically, so that they do not have time to improve relations with their neighbors! Being seen to be tough on the history issue' has always been a tactic for politicians to woo nationalist support at home, however.

The decision by FIFA to opt for the co-hosting of the 2002 World Cup was seen by most neutral observers as a positive step towards easing decades of mutual distrust between the two countries.

A winning bid by Japan would have left a heavy residue of bad feeling in the minds of Koreans, and co-hosting has led, up to now at least, to a gradual liberalization of the ban in South Korea on Japanese contemporary culture. There has also been a significant increase in the number of visitors between the two countries.

Efforts are being made to improve bilateral understanding through cultural exchanges and there were a series of joint classical and traditional concerts in both capitals leading up to the Finals. A South Korea-Japan cultural exchange center in Seoul has opened. The center was the idea of a third-generation Korean resident of Japan, Pak Yung I. Young Japanese and South Koreans come together to the center to meet, study each other's language, and watch Japanese movies.

Some schools and public organizations are teaching Japanese people the Korean language, Korean dance, music, and cooking, and an increasing number of Japanese are attended lectures and workshops on Korean culture, taking advantage of the opportunities presented in the preparation for the World Cup.

However, these worthy grassroots activities may fall victim to the worsening political climate and a difference of approach to North Korea, which is threatening the peace in North East Asia. Both sides have many outstanding issues still to settle regarding this issue.

Books on Japan

Goods From Japan to your home or business.