The Difficulty of Korean-Japanese Relations

In a July 25th article in the Sankei newspaper, Japanese-Korean relationships were again under scrutiny. The article, entitled Japan-Korea Relations Will Not Improve Unless they “Keep a Distance,” discussed a lecture given by Professor O Sonfa in which she blamed the poor relations on the fact that “Japan and Korea have fundamental differences in values.”

Professor O Sonfa is a professor at Takushoku University in Tokyo, and her position in her lecture was that the “fundamental differences in values” between the two countries is due to their different histories. Specifically, their values were highly influenced by their history of foreign invasions. The professor feels that since Korea was conquered by foreign ethnic groups such as the Japanese, Chinese, and Mongols, Koreans “only believe in absolute authority figures such as kings.” The absolute values Sonfa claims Korean people hold are directly influenced by the history and legends left by these authority figures.

Japan, on the other hand, has experienced little foreign invasions or occupations. The article makes it clear that Professor Sonfa attributes the diversity of the Japanese people and culture to this fact. Setting aside the matter of Japan’s long history of being ruled by emperors with absolute power, the professor believes the diverse values of the Japanese people makes the Koreans uncomfortable and thus aggressive. At the current time, she indicates that no amount of conversations can help the two countries come to more peaceful and agreeable diplomatic relations.

This article represents an interesting take on the diplomatic relations between the two countries, indicating the poor relations and controversies are, at their root, due to the countries’ differences in values. Whether she attributes all of the disputes between those two countries to their values is unclear, though to do so might take away from the undeniable impact of issues like the treatment of “comfort women” during World War II. While the countries’ histories of foreign invasions could have played a part in their national identity, whether it is fair to either country to attribute all of their disputes to one underlying difference might be an oversimplification of the problem.

The relationship between Japan and the Koreas has long been soured by various skirmishes, disagreements, and bad sentiment. At the current time, Japan does not consider North Korea to be a sovereign country, and there are no diplomatic relations between the two. Japan’s relationship with South Korea has fared slightly better, though there are ongoing disputes between the two countries. Some of the oldest disputes date back to Japanese annexation of the Koreas in the early 20th century, though the most impactful disputes are more modern. Two disputes that have been ongoing for many years are over the Liancourt Rocks and the Korean “comfort women” of World War II.

The Liancourt Rocks are a series of islets in the Sea of Japan (also referred to as the East Sea – another cause of dispute) lying in between the South Korean and Japanese coasts. Both countries lay claim to the Rocks and the waters around them, in part due to their value as good fishing grounds.


Comfort women” were taken by Japanese soldiers during World War II. These women, usually under the age of 18, were sent to Japanese military brothels where they were forced to have sexual relations with soldiers. Many of these women are in their 80s today, still living in North and South Korea. The citizens of South Korea have demanded compensation and an apology from Japan for many years. In 2007, the Prime Minister of Japan made an official apology and then founded a fund to make reparations to the survivors.

However, Japan still contests the facts as presented by South Korea. It is their position, and one which they have taken all the way to the U.N., that these women were not sex slaves, but well paid prostitutes who freely chose to work under contract. Japan is outraged that these events from 70+ years ago continue to influence foreign policy strategy. They feel it manipulates the Western media and serves only to stoke nationalist support for self-serving agendas.

Interestingly, while the political disputes between the two countries continue to sour diplomatic relations, the cultural exchange between them has been growing. In recent years, South Korean pop culture has become a fad in Japan, with Korean movies, dramas, and music becoming hugely popular. The unexpected growth in popularity is referred to as the Korean Wave. Conversely, Japanese culture in South Korea has not seen the same meteoric rise in popularity. In 2004, the South Korean government lifted the 70-year-old ban on Japanese music and film recordings. The streaming of Japanese music and television, on the other hand, is still illegal.

The two countries have shown themselves capable of cooperation outside the realm of pop culture. In 2002, they were selected to jointly host the FIFA World Cup and did so with great success. During that time, however, the citizens of both countries were less than enthusiastic about sharing the hosting honors, and the Liancourt Rocks controversy once again surfaced. Despite any positive signs, there are still many problems and controversies spoiling the diplomatic relationship between Japan and Korea. Only the future will tell if Professor O Sonfa’s prediction about the two countries will come true.