More than a year has passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake struck northeastern Japan and mercilessly deprived many thousands of people of their lives.
I have witnessed the generous support extended by both the government and the citizens of South Korea during the past year. I feel that Japan-South Korea relations among the people of both nations have become much closer.
True, there are still difficult problems to solve between the two countries.
However, I did not expect South Koreans would be so profoundly affected by the disaster that befell Japan. The Japanese living in South Korea for a long time also shared my opinion.
On March 12, 2011, the day after the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan, South Korea’s first rescue mission--as well as search dogs--were sent to Japan.
“We would not see such a scene even on a movie set,” one member of the team said on how shocked he was at seeing the site. “After all, there is no movie set that shows an endless scene (of devastation).”
I saw banners with words of encouragement hanging in Myeondong, Namdaemun-sijang and elsewhere.
In Dongbu Ichondong, or “Little Tokyo,” which is situated to the north of the Hangan River, a banner saying, “Ganbatte” (Hang in there) in Japanese was on display. The area is home to many Japanese families.
Whenever I met people for my stories, they would ask, “Were you safe from the earthquake? How about your family?” after greeting me with, “Annyong hashimnika!”
Shortly after the quake, major South Korean media started a major campaign to seek relief funds for Japan.
Newspapers announced a fund drive on their front pages, while TV stations displayed the phone number in the corner of the screen through which contributions could be made.
The South Korean Red Cross said it had collected a record 43.2 billion won (about 3.13 billion yen, or $38.04 million) during the first two months after March 11, far exceeding the previous record of 19.3 billion won, raised to help Americans impacted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The influential Dong-a Ilbo daily attached the logo “Ganbare Nippon!” (Cheer up, Japan!) in Japanese to stories related to the earthquake in Japan.
Apparently, it was the first time a major South Korean paper had put a Japanese-language logo in the paper.
Sim Gyu-seon, managing editor of the Dong-a Ilbo, said it was the idea of younger reporters, who urged, “Let us appeal to the readers in Japanese in such a (difficult) time.”
Even though some of the veteran reporters had been worried that the move would trigger a backlash rather than sympathy, “there have been no complaints,” Sim said.
In late March last year, Japan’s education ministry announced the approval of textbooks to be used in junior high schools, with many supporting Japan's claim to the disputed Takeshima islets, called Dokdo in South Korea.
South Korean news media took up the dispute. Even though one newspaper editorialized that supporting Japan’s relief effort and a historical problem were two separate issues, it later carried an article that sounded as if, “Japan has thrown a bucket of cold water on South Korea’s generosity.”
Despite the media provocation, I feel that many South Koreans looked at the situation calmly.
Take the amount of relief money, for example.
According to the South Korean Red Cross, the amount kept increasing, if not sharply, even after the result of Japan’s textbook approval was reported.
The amount then began to decrease, an official said, adding it happens in other fund drives as well.
“It is common in many relief fund campaigns, including one for Hurricane Katrina, that the amount begins dropping after three weeks,” the official said. “So, we cannot tell if or to what extent the textbook issue affected them.”
What made me feel even more grateful is the fact that voluntary donations kept increasing even after the Red Cross suspended the campaign two months after the earthquake.
Individual donations had reached about 500 million won as of the end of February this year.
One of South Korea’s domestic problems is that the major media do not reflect public opinion but rather seem detached from it.
It can apply to the issue of Japan-South Korea relations. Reporting based on the standard criticism against Japan may no longer influence readers.
Prestigious Korea University held a major symposium on March 2 titled “Lessons from Japan’s catastrophe--complex dangers and risk management.”
At the symposium, held at Seoul’s National Press Center, Japanese and Korean researchers and specialists presented their studies as to why the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant occurred; if denuclearization is possible; and if (the main opposition) Liberal Democratic Party could have properly dealt with the accident.
One presentation was about the South Korean media’s treatment of the earthquake and of the Japanese screening of school textbooks.
It was impressive that the South Korean side emphasized that Japan’s education ministry authorized the textbooks according to the guidelines and didn't use the turmoil after the earthquake as an excuse. I felt it was not the stereotypical South Korea we have known.
The March 11, 2012, issue of The Asahi Shimbun carried an essay contributed by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. It is said to be the first time the president has submitted an article to the foreign media during the five years of his presidency.
Quoting the saying “A friend in need is a friend indeed,” Lee wrote, “I sincerely hope that South Korea and Japan will jointly nurture a mature partnership befitting the 21st century.”
It was indeed a note of warm cheer from a neighboring country.
Despite these thoughts from both countries’ citizens, the relationship between the two countries on the political level is not going well.
The issues of the “comfort women” and the disputed Takeshima islets have been bringing a bitter chill between both countries. The connection between the two governments has lessened.
The issue of wartime sexual slavery will become a great concern of both governments this year. The governments also may continue to fail to reach an agreement on the Takeshima problem.
I hope Seoul sees the delicate changes in public opinion.
The Japanese side is not without problems, either.
The status of Japan had been falling in South Korea before March 11, 2011.
Experts attribute the success of South Korea’s “chaobol” business conglomerates and the Japanese economic downturn as the main factors.
But is that all?
The stagnation of Japanese politics, the lack of diplomatic capability, especially the information-gathering ability to accurately gauge South Korea’s thinking, seemed to be hastening South Korea’s dislike of Japan.
A Japanese government official has said, “(South Korea’s) dislike of Japan is a good thing since it is proof that the country has become independent.”
But it sounds as if the Japanese side is abandoning its responsibility for improving relations as well.
On March 12 this year, newspapers in South Korean ran large photos of the disaster-stricken areas on their front pages and had renewed messages of encouragement for Japan.
The JoogAng Ilbo initially ran its front-page coverage of the March 11 earthquake under the headline “Sinking Japan,” which invited much criticism in the country.
In an unusual move, the paper published a revised version of the headline in its Dec. 27, 2011, morning edition. In the latest report on March 12, the paper carried pictures of children in the disaster areas under the headline, “Nurturing hope.”
Is there a way to improve Japan-South Korea relations in general while treasuring the support extended from South Korea toward the relief of the Great East Japan Earthquake?
This should be the big assignment given to both governments this year.
Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
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