South Koreans appreciate Japanese culture as bilateral ties remain strained

SEOUL–Tense bilateral relations between South Korea and Japan barely appeared during the country’s recent bitter presidential election, which saw former Attorney General Yoon Suk-yeol emerges victorious.

Yoon, of the main opposition People Power Party, never spoke of concrete solutions to the wartime, territorial and trade disputes between the two nations during the March 9 election campaign.

His defeated opponent, Lee Jae-myung, who ran on the slate of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, is known for his tough stance on Japan. However, the former governor of Gyeonggi Province rarely mentioned ties to Japan during his stump speeches.

Among young South Koreans, the troubled relationship between the two countries seems to have less influence on their consumption behavior.


Tomonoya, a Japanese-style ryokan, opened last March in Gyeongju, the former capital of the Silla Kingdom in southeastern South Korea. The hostel is popular with guests, especially women in their 20s and 30s and families with children.

Tomonoya has earned a reputation for allowing customers to immerse themselves in Japanese culture in an Instagram-friendly, photogenic environment at a time when overseas travel remains difficult due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Installed in each of the 22 rooms of the ryokan, a Japanese-style bathtub with a bathtub made of cypress wood is the pride of the establishment.

The hostel ran out of room one weekday in late January when three university students, in casual ‘yukata’ kimonos, were seen taking photos outside the ryokan’s entrance.

“I really like Japanese culture and cuisine,” said 19-year-old Jho Eun, one of the three.

Tomonoya operator Lee Jin-woo, 35, worked for a major fashion industry company for eight years after graduating from college. He then became an entrepreneur.

Lee spent about a year studying the ryokan and hotels of Japan after an acquaintance told him that he would find an enthusiastic market among the public if he were to build Japanese-style hotels, of which there are none. had not in South Korea.

He raised funds from individual investors and took out loans to open the first hostel in the Tomonoya chain on the island of Geoje in the southeast of the country in 2019. He opened two more last year. last, including that of Gyeongju.

Lee said his ryokan operates at almost 100% occupancy every day and the majority of their guests have visited Japan on trips.

“Japan was the most common destination for South Koreans traveling abroad before the pandemic took hold,” he said. “Issues of shared history don’t come into play when it comes to tourist appeal.”

A Japanese-style bath with a tub made of cypress wood is seen in a room at the Tomonoya ryokan in Gyeongju, South Korea, on January 24. (Takuya Suzuki)

Lee said he thought young people had little opportunity in their daily lives to reflect on the history of Japan’s colonial rule over Korea, which lasted from 1910 to 1945.

Lee, a fan of Japanese TV series, has visited Japan many times. He started operating the ryokan because he had a positive impression of Japan.

Lee said he believes Japan and South Korea should cooperate on security issues because the two countries are in similar positions on North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs and U.S. rivalry. -Chinese.

“We shouldn’t dwell on the past,” he said, lamenting strained bilateral relations.

But he also said he was skeptical of Tokyo’s position that issues of common history, including that of wartime Korean workers, have been “settled”.

Other young people of his generation seem to share a similar stance as Lee towards Japan. In fact, many young South Koreans participated in the boycott of Japanese goods in 2019 to protest Tokyo’s imposition of export restrictions.


At the same time, however, there is currently something of a boom in Japan, mostly among young people, as the pandemic drags on. Most weekends, queues form outside the famous tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet), ramen, and other Japanese-style restaurants in Seoul.

Nijimori Studio, a tourist establishment that opened last fall in Dongducheon, near Seoul, is another favorite in the same vein. The theme park, originally built as a drama film studio, is home to Japanese-style buildings and retro-style shops.

“The streets are clean in Japan, where there are also lots of good things to eat,” said a 31-year-old woman who rode around in a rented yukata at the theme park during a recent national holiday in late January. “I came here because I can’t go to Japan because of the pandemic.”

The woman, however, said that she had participated, for a time, in the boycott of Japanese products.

“It’s a different matter when it comes to issues of shared history and the territorial dispute,” she said. “Japan should admit (its responsibility) when and where it should.”

Visitors throng the Japanese-style Nijimori Studio theme park in Dongducheon, South Korea on January 31. (Takuya Suzuki)

Parties including Seoul National University’s Asian Center released the results of a survey in January in which respondents were asked to choose from six diplomatic issues which ones the new president’s new government should focus on.

About 70% said he should focus on strengthening the alliance with the United States.

The lowest proportion of respondents, at just under 30%, said the next government should focus on restoring ties with Japan. This is likely a sign of the growing public indifference to sour relationships, which have become the norm.

Meanwhile, legal proceedings are underway in South Korea to convert the assets of Japanese companies in the country into cash, by selling them, in order to pay compensation to Korean wartime workers who have won court cases in the country. If such forced reparations were to become a reality, it “could catastrophically worsen bilateral relations”, a Japanese government official said.

If the escalating feud were to make headlines, young South Koreans who value Japanese culture and generally pay little attention to matters of shared history could turn on Japan at any moment.

At the same time, young South Koreans are also reflecting on the new bilateral relations they will create in their time.

“It’s certainly never easy to sort out the bilateral issues of a shared history,” Lee said. “If there are more opportunities to learn about each other’s nation’s culture, however, it will gradually help to deepen mutual understanding.” And I hope to play a role in this process to the extent possible. »

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