The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] Tighter ties key to curbing NK, China: Japan ex-lawmaker

Consensus on labor feud, Fukushima water needed for S. Korea-Japan thaw

By Choi Si-young

Published : May 7, 2023 - 15:35

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Yoichi Masuzoe, former chairperson of Japan’s House of Councillors foreign affairs and defense committee, former health, labor and welfare minister and former Tokyo governor. (Courtesy of Yoichi Masuzoe) Yoichi Masuzoe, former chairperson of Japan’s House of Councillors foreign affairs and defense committee, former health, labor and welfare minister and former Tokyo governor. (Courtesy of Yoichi Masuzoe)

South Korea, the US and Japan -- countries sharing the same values, such as freedom and democracy -- have to make current three-way ties stronger if they are to counter military threats from North Korea and China.

For that to take place, tighter Seoul-Tokyo ties are a priority, according to a former Japanese lawmaker.

Pushing for a closer-knit coalition, Washington, the biggest ally of both Seoul and Tokyo, had called on the two neighbors to settle their disputes involving Japan’s 1910-45 rule of the Korean Peninsula. At the March 16-17 summit, President Yoon and his Japanese counterparts declared the job done, agreeing to move past a feud over colonial rights abuses.

“The Japanese government should uphold the past governmental statements that expressed remorse and apology for Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula and the Japan-South Korea joint declaration,” Yoichi Masuzoe, the lawmaker, said during an interview with The Korea Herald ahead of the two leaders’ second summit this year, in Seoul on Sunday.

He served separately as director and then chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in parliament’s upper house from 2003-2006.

The lawmaker was referring to the March summit proposal, which offers amends to Koreans forced to work for Japanese companies during the colonial period without involving the Japanese companies held liable for such damages by a 2018 South Korean court ruling. The firms still dismiss the ruling.

In return, Seoul is expecting the Japanese leader to personally and openly reaffirm Tokyo’s “genuine reflection on its colonial past and sincere apology for it.” The statement, part of the 1998 Seoul-Tokyo declaration, a guidance for friendlier ties, has served as a reminder that Japan will not rewrite its colonial past and rights abuses involving Koreans.

South Korea wants Japan to express publicly its “genuine reflection and sincere apology” for the colonial rights abuses in particular.

“Opposition to the rapprochement will weaken if the two countries cooperate with each other in steadily implementing concrete measures,” Masuzoe stressed, referring to some voices in South Korea that demand the Japanese companies to formally apologize and compensate the victims.

The potential resistance to closure should not be the impediment forcing the two countries back to pre-March relations, according Masuzoe, who added that the two neighbors should launch a joint study “on historical issues” to peacefully manage other disputes.

Issues involving Japan’s sexual slavery during the colonial period and its claims to Dokdo, a group of islets controlled by South Korea, still prompt a regular flare-up in tension.

“Japan should offer apologies where they are due, while South Korea should restrain an excessive sense of victimhood,” he said of the role a joint inquiry would play, likening the two countries to France and Germany, the “twin pillars of the European Union.”

Fukushima water, nationalism

The Japanese government, Masuzoe added, should also bolster “efforts to convince the international community” that the water to be released from the destroyed Fukushima nuclear power plant is safe.

The discharge into the Pacific Ocean, a process Japan says will take place as early as this spring after filtering out radioactive elements, has upset neighbors affected by the disposal, because some including Seoul believe Tokyo is loosening rules to rush the process through.

On Thursday, the International Atomic Energy Agency, however, dismissed such suspicions, endorsing in its latest interim report the decision by Japanese authorities to reduce the number of nuclear elements subject to testing before the release. South Korea, part of an 11-member nuclear watchdog team reviewing the water safety, will this month launch a separate fact-finding mission run jointly with Japan to look into the matter.

Meanwhile, Masuzoe warned against nationalism, saying media outlets in both countries have also a role to play to avoid a return to pre-March relations.

“Japan and South Korea should work together to keep exclusionary nationalism in check,” he said, citing the Moon administration and the Abe government, its Japanese counterpart at the time. Nationalism then swept through both countries, plunging ties to a fresh low, Masuzoe noted. The two had exchanged a tit-for-tat spat over historical disputes including the colonial forced labor.

Media outlets “bear huge responsibilities” for resisting the urge to boost “TV viewership and newspaper readership by condemning the other country,” Masuzoe added, warning against exploiting either anti-South Korea or anti-Japan sentiment.

Thaw starting with tourism

Asked where the two countries could immediately start working together to build on momentum for improving ties, the Japanese lawmaker, who also later served as health, labor and welfare minister, referred to tourism.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic is about to be contained, Japan and South Korea should increase bilateral tourist traffic.” the former health minister said of the sector, which saw robust bilateral exchanges before their ties dipped to a new low over historical feuds.

On Friday, the World Health Organization declared an end to the COVID-19 emergency, meaning it now considers it a routine illness to live with as people around the world have built up immunity.

Starting with tourism is a “win-win” for both Seoul and Tokyo, Masuzoe said, describing the step as the initial work laying groundwork for deeper cooperation on semiconductors -- the key battleground for the intensifying US-China tech fight.

Chip 4, an informal name for a US-led alliance on chips that includes South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, will bolster resilience of global supply chains as Seoul and Tokyo forge a stronger partnership, according to Masuzoe.


Yoichi Masuzoe entered politics in 2001 as an Upper House councillor at Japan’s National Diet and served separately as director and then chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee from 2003 to 2006. Between 2007 and 2009, he served as health, labor and welfare minister. In February, 2014, he was elected as governor of Tokyo. He resigned from the post in June 2016. Masuzoe currently heads a private economic think tank that bears his name.

Yoichi Masuzoe is one of the speakers due to appear at Herald Corp.’s May 24 forum set to be held to celebrate The Korea Herald’s 70th anniversary. -- Ed.