Reaching out

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 June, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 June, 2003, 12:00am

Last week, when Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi received South Korea's visiting President Roh Moo-hyun in Tokyo, the first post-war generation South Korean leader brought a breath of fresh air to Japanese-South Korean relations. And it was not only because he pledged to work closely with Japan in tackling North Korea's nuclear threat.

The Japanese were more impressed with the fact that Mr Roh made the visit amid mounting protests from his own people, a decision many Japanese took as evidence of his desire to pursue a truly future-oriented relationship.

Some Koreans criticised their president for meeting the Japanese emperor on June 6, which is when they observe a memorial day for victims of Japanese colonial rule and the Korean war. Mr Roh, nevertheless, began his speech to the Japanese parliament by saying: 'I am fully aware of the gravity of history, but I would like to speak today about issues that transcend all that - and about the future.'

This was a particularly impressive act to many Japanese, who were aware of the South Korean anger at a gaffe made by a conservative leader of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party a few days earlier. Taro Aso, a prospective candidate for the premiership one day, said Koreans had wanted to alter their Korean names to Japanese during the colonial period. Koreans themselves remember this compulsory edict as one of the most despicable acts of the Japanese colonial government.

Other Japanese, however, identify more with Mr Roh's forward-looking attitude. Emperor Akihito has already extended his own olive branch to the Korean people by publicly acknowledging a couple of years ago the fact that one of his early imperial family ancestors was an ancient Korean king - a statement which shocked and perplexed Japan's conservatives who still cling to their pre-war values.

In his banquet speech, the emperor pointed out to Mr Roh and his wife that their countries' co-hosting of last year's football world cup brought the two peoples closer together.

One housewife from Osaka, who was among the dozens of participants in the nationally televised 'town hall meeting' with Mr Roh in Tokyo said: 'After all, it is us, the citizens of the two nations, who will make us into better friends with each other.'

Perhaps it is about time to put more trust in ordinary people, particularly the younger generations of the two countries, to build better relations between these close East Asian neighbours. The old conservatives unawakened from their imperialist dreams can sleepwalk through history alone.