The Koreas

Did Japan Just Change Its Attitude Toward South Korea?

A change in Japan’s official diplomatic language is causing a furor in South Korea.

Did Japan Just Change Its Attitude Toward South Korea?
Credit: White House photo by Pete Souza

Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has changed how it describes South Korea, raising concerns among South Koreans that the the bilateral relationship is becoming more strained.

On the MOFA’s website, Japan used to describe South Korea as “an important neighboring country that shares basic values with Japan such as freedom, democracy, and a market economy.” However, as of March 4, the description had changed to simply call South Korea Japan’s “most important neighboring country.”

The ministry’s altered description matches Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent stance on South Korea. When Abe gave speeches in 2013 and 2014, he described South Korea exactly the MOFA’s website used to: as “our most important neighboring country with which we share fundamental values and interests.” Abe changed this formulation in his February speech to the Diet, saying simply that “the Republic of Korea (ROK) is our most important neighboring country.”

Meanwhile, South Korean President Park Geun-hye said in March 1 speech that Japan and South Korea, “both upholding values of liberal democracy and a market economy, are important neighbors that are endeavoring together to pursue peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia.” The different descriptions hint that top leaders have diverged in their view of the relationship.

The Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun reported on March 4 that the changed language underscores the persistent friction between the two nations.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

“We changed the description so that it matches the one that has often been used recently,” an unnamed MOFA official told Asahi Shimbun. Another unnamed government official told Asahi that the change was mainly brought about by South Korea’s October 2014 decision to indict a Japanese journalist, Sankei Shimbun’s former bureau chief in Seoul, on charges of defaming President Park.

South Korean media expressed a deeper concern over the change in language, using it as evidence that Japan’s rightward shift is accelerating. Media also speculated the change could be a sign that Japan will try to deny the Murayama Statement later this year at ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of  World War II’s end.

The Murayama Statement was released by then-Prime Minister of Japan Tomiichi Murayama in 1995. In the statement, he apologized for the “tremendous damage and suffering” Japan caused to its Asian neighbors. The statement is often quoted as the official position of the Japanese government on the issue of Japan’s wartime aggression in the early 20th century.

South Korean daily Munhwa Ilbo reported that the change in the MOFA’s description of South Korea could be read as Japan trying to deny past affairs by ignoring neighboring countries’ concern over Japan’s rightward shift. South Korea’s News1 said the shift could damage South Korea-Japan relations, which have deteriorated recently. Park and Abe have yet to have a formal bilateral meeting, although both have been in power for over two years.

The friction is also evident among ordinary people from both countries. In a poll by the Japanese government in October 2014, 66.4 percent of respondents said they do not have friendly feelings toward Korea. That was the highest figure since the data was first gathered in 1975. Meanwhile, in a survey by Mono Research last year, 83.6 percent of South Korean respondents agreed that the rightward shift of the Japanese government is worrisome for South Korea-Japan relations.

Yuki Asaba, associate professor of political science at the the Policy Research Center of the University of Niigata Prefecture, explained in an interview with Asahi that deteriorating South Korea-Japan relations mean “it is becoming difficult for politicians to call for sharing a sense of values.”  But, Asaba added, “it is a signal toward the improvement of relations that [Japan] maintained the expression ‘important neighboring country.'”