Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga , who this week replaced Shinzo Abe , may want to take a leaf out of one of his predecessors’ playbooks by making his first overseas trip to South Korea. It could offer a glimmer of hope of the neighbours mending their fractured ties in a region where the past still casts a long shadow over the present. Japan’s new PM: how did Yoshihide Suga rise to the top job? Former leader Yasuhiro Nakasone made this move in 1983, when he broke the norm of first travelling to Washington in favour of visiting Seoul. Nakasone was critical of the way his predecessor, Zenko Suzuki, had allowed relations with South Korea to deteriorate over issues including the revision of history textbooks and the terms of an economic aid package. In July 1982, the Japanese Ministry of Education released stricter guidelines for screening history textbooks that contained descriptions of Japan’s pre-war actions in China and Korea . People in South Korea became infuriated over reports that the 1919 independence movement would be described as a “riot”, and the Koreans forcibly transported to work in Japan would be known as “volunteers”. In Korea, the movement is seen as a nationalistic resistance against Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, during which more than 670,000 Koreans became forced labourers. Historian Brian Bridges wrote that although it later became clear that the initial reports had misrepresented the extent of the revisions, the issue had already become a serious diplomatic issue. To placate the South Koreans, Nakasone not only expressed deep regret over Japan’s colonial past, but also agreed to give Seoul a US$4 billion loan over seven years. He acknowledged Korea’s cultural contributions to Japan and even sang a popular Korean song during one of the official parties with then-President Chun Doo-hwan. South Korean media reported then that when Nakasone spoke at a dinner reception in his honour, one-third of the speech was in Korean, adding that Nakasone was known for his efforts to study the Korean language. After the visit, both countries’ media spoke of a “new and vital stage’’ in Japan-South Korean relations, Bridges wrote. “While the visit did not quite live up to all that rhetoric, it did, nevertheless, mark a change of atmosphere, at least at the governmental level, and set the tone for the rest of the decade,” Bridges wrote in a book titled Japan and Korea in the 1990s: From Antagonism to Adjustment . Fast forward to the present, ties between Seoul and Tokyo have slumped to their worst in years. One major point of contention has been a string of South Korean court rulings that allow for the assets of Japanese companies to be seized and used to compensate wartime labourers. In July last year, Japan also imposed curbs on exports to South Korea of materials used to produce semiconductors and displays, threatening a pillar of the South Korean economy and the global supply chain of tech components. The move sparked an outpouring of national anger in South Korea and sweeping boycotts of Japanese products , as well as anti-Abe protests. Can post-Abe Japan leave China’s shadow to lead Asia? In considering whether to make the trip, it helps that an olive branch has already been extended by South Korean President Moon Jae-in , who sent a letter congratulating Suga on his election and expressing hope for improved relations. Nakasone’s 1983 visit vastly smoothed neighbourly ties and was said to be in line with American strategic interests, given that Seoul and Tokyo are Washington’s strongest allies in Asia . If Suga does the same today, he might likewise be able to convince the US that Japan is willing to shoulder greater responsibilities to ensure peace and security in the region. Japan warns Seoul against asset seizure in forced labour settlement case To be sure, Suga may not turn out to be a Nakasone, who was able to hobnob with then-US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The former Japanese leader, widely seen as a giant of post-war politics, died last year at the age of 101. As Abe’s former chief cabinet secretary and head government spokesman, Suga would also not be able to walk out of his ex-boss’ shadow and put his personal stamp on the prime ministership, having pledged to forge ahead with Abe’s key policies. However, any diplomatic overture to South Korea would be welcomed and appreciated, especially since, as Nakasone back then pointed out, “it is utterly wrong that two countries which are the closest geographical neighbours should be so far apart”. However, singing a Korean song is entirely optional.