New Japanese Emperor Naruhito formally ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne Wednesday a day after the abdication of his father Akihito. Japan bid the Heisi (achieving peace) era adieu and hailed the Reiwa (beautiful) era.
However, a new era has not dawned yet on South Korea-Japan ties. They are not free from the yoke of their history issues. Rather, they appear to be worse than ever. Japan has passed over South Korea and is focusing its diplomacy on the US and China. South Korea constantly raises issues with Japan’s colonial rule and refuses to keep company. Their relations have risen and fallen many times, but have rarely been as icy as they are now.
Their settlement of issues concerning former South Korean “comfort women,” who were taken by Japan as sex slaves for its troops during the World War II, were effectively invalidated. The South Korean government of President Moon Jae-in disbanded a foundation his previous government had set up with Japan to support former comfort women.
Tension escalated in a military spat over Tokyo’s claim that a South Korean warship locked its fire-control radar on its patrol aircraft.
Conflicts came to the fore when the Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to compensate South Koreans for their wartime forced labor.
Exchanges of business people of both countries have been abruptly postponed or canceled. The government in Tokyo considers taking retaliatory measures if South Korea-based assets of Japanese companies are seized and converted into cash to compensate South Koreans for forced labor. If Japan carries out retaliatory steps, the South Korea-Japan relations will get out of control.
Further, the current governments of both countries have done little to alleviate this situation. They even give an impression that they may be fostering anti-Korean or anti-Japanese sentiments intentionally in their countries for political gains.
President Moon Jae-in congratulated the new emperor on his accession. Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon mentioned amicable cooperative relations on Twitter. And yet their messages are a minimum formality.
The South Korean leader should shed his passive attitude and seek actively to communicate with his Japanese counterpart. If one leader does little but criticize the other while waiting for the other to change his attitude and reach out his hand first, their relations cannot be restored.
South Korea and Japan are in inseparable relations. They are intertwined in many aspects. To denuclearize North Korea and keep peace in Northeast Asia, their close cooperation is essential. Their chilly ties if left unattended will only keep hurting their interests.
The accession of the new Japanese emperor may open a path to disentangling their relations. Naruhito was born in 1960 and belongs to a post-war generation free of the sense of responsibility for the World War II. As crown prince, he stressed the importance of remembering Japan’s wartime history “correctly.” Japan has apologized several times, but its apology was not sincere. He and other Japanese leaders can talk the talk, but it is important to walk the walk.
The beginning of the Reiwa era should mean separation from the past. There are no reasons to oppose Japan’s vision of being a new, future-oriented country. If it believes history can be forgotten or repackaged to its liking, it is misguided. The way to move on to the future is to face history and accept it humbly as it is.
Japan must know its smooth relations with South Korea will serve its interests. If it wants to be a respectable power in the region, it should try to be on good terms with its neighbors.
South Korea and Japan share many issues, including economic cooperation and North Korean nuclear threats. Conflicts have deepened too much to be dealt with at the working level. A bilateral summit needs to be held as soon as possible.
Japan is scheduled to host the G20 summit in Osaka late next month. It is a good opportunity to mend fences with Japan. Smooth South Korea-Japan relations will do them good. Leaders of both countries must turn their eyes from the past to the future and pay heed to the restoration of their ties. If they dawdle, the loss will only increase.