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Major Korea-Japan cultural festival returns as bilateral ties warm

SEOUL – Featuring cosplay, pop music and dance performances, an event promoting friendship between South Korea and Japan will be physically held in Seoul for the first time in three years.

The Korea-Japan Festival, held online amid the Covid-19 pandemic and amid torn bilateral ties, aims to attract both Koreans and foreigners who wish to experience the two countries’ cultures on Sunday.

Mr. Kazuo Chujo, Director (Minister) of the Public Information and Culture Center of the Embassy of Japan in South Korea, which organizes the event, said this year’s theme is aptly named “Joy of Reunion” as it will finally enable Japanese and Korean participants interact face to face and enjoy each other’s culture.

“We hope that people in Korea who wanted to travel to Japan but couldn’t due to the pandemic will come to the festival to experience Japan and exchange Japan-Korea exchange programs,” he told the Straits Times.

The festival’s return is the latest in a series of signs pointing to a warming of bilateral ties, which have hit rock bottom over various disputes over their history.

An annual study released earlier this month showed that South Korea’s sympathy for the Japanese rose to 30.6 percent — up from 20.5 percent last year — while Japan’s sympathy for the Koreans last year rose from 25.4 to 30, 4 percent increased.

The poll, conducted jointly by the East Asia Institute in South Korea and Genron NPO in Japan, also showed an increase in the number of people in both countries who consider their bilateral ties important and who believe efforts are needed to improve ties.

Of the top three reasons given for having a positive opinion of the Japanese, South Korean respondents said it is “because Japanese are friendly and hardworking”, “it is a developed country with a high standard of living” and “it is also a liberal one Democracy”.

The most common reasons given by Japanese respondents were “I am interested in Korean pop culture”, “Attraction of Korean food culture and shopping” and “Interactions with Koreans”.

However, the two neighbors have been fighting for years to resolve a territorial dispute over an island, compensation and apologies for wartime forced labor and sexual slavery, a trade dispute and a stalled pact to share military intelligence.

Worst of all in 2019, protesters called for a boycott of anything Japanese.

Fast forward to 2022, once-shunned Japanese beer has returned to supermarket shelves while Japanese clothing giant Uniqlo, which has borne the brunt of the boycott, managed to recover its sales in South Korea over the past year.

The Japanese animated series Pokemon sparked a buzz in South Korea in March, when 4.7 million packs of a newly launched bread printed with Pokemon characters flew off the shelves in less than a month.

President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office in May, has been actively seeking reconciliation with Japan, taking the first step by holding a brief meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in New York earlier this week.

dr Lee Myon-woo of the Sejong Institute think tank said, “President Yoon seems to think he needs good relations with Japan, and I hope he can continue to champion efforts in that direction.”

However, he noted that the Japanese side is still cautious about reconciliation, waiting to see what concrete solutions Mr. Yoon and his government can find to address the forced labor compensation issue.

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