In celebrating their 40th anniversary of formal diplomatic relations, South Korea and Japan are marking 2005 as the "Year of Friendship" to further boost mutual understanding and exchanges.
Reflecting expanding ties, the number of South Koreans visiting Japan increased from 17,068 in 1965 to 1.7 million in 2004, while the Japanese travelers here shot up from a meager 5,212 to 2.4 million over the past four decades.
Cultural exchanges between the two countries have been put on track only relatively recently, compared to long-standing political and economic fields.
After Korea's liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, Japanese culture was shunned by Koreans for a long time because of bitter memories of the past.
The significant turning point came in October 1998 when then-President Kim Dae-jung's government decided to open up the local market to Japanese cultural products on a gradual basis. By then, the two nations' cultural exchanges were limited to formal state-level events and Japanese pop cultural products were smuggled into the black market here. In June 2000, South Korea lifted restrictions on the import of Japanese films, home videos and games. It went further last year, eliminating nearly all restraints on Japanese culture and allowing Japanese music and television shows to flow into the homes of Korean viewers.
The successful co-hosting of the 2002 World Cup soccer finals and the succeeding spread of "Hallyu", the Korean Wave, accelerated bilateral travel and cultural exchanges.
Over recent years, South Korean pop culture has gained great popularity in Japan. Ignited by a couple of blockbuster movies such as "Swiri", the first Korean film to be exported to Japan, and "Joint Security Area", Hallyu has engulfed the whole of Japan, reaching its peak with the KBS-TV melodrama "Winter Sonata
South Korean actors like Bae Yong-joon
and Han Suk-kyu, who starred in "Winter Sonata
" and "Swiri", respectively, have gained the heart of many Japanese fans. Boa
, a teenage Korean pop singer, has been one of the top singers in Japan for the past three years with two chart-topping albums.
Despite the remarkable progress in recent years, cultural exchanges between the two countries are still limited in their scope, experts note.
"Except for pop culture, the degree of the two nations' cultural exchanges is still shallow", said Kang Sung-wook, director of the Korea-Japan Cultural Exchange Center, a nonprofit organization in Seoul. "The two sides should expand the span of their cultural exchanges to fill the gap stemming from the unhappy past", he said.
Experts also indicate the need not to focus only on one side of the cultural exchanges; for example, Korea's "cultural penetration" into Japan or Japanese "cultural imperialism". Such a myopic attitude results in prejudices and may also threaten to upset the base of cultural exchanges if entangled with political and historical disputes.
When the Korean market was first opened up to Japanese cultural products, many Koreans raised concerns that the measure would lift the gate against a "Japanese cultural invasion". The concerns were based on the assumption Korean cultural products were far less competitive than those of Japan.
But, as shown in the spread of Hallyu, Korean pop culture has attracted more fans in Japan and other Asian countries. Thus, Koreans should abandon the remnants of their inferiority complex and have more positive and balanced perspectives of cultural exchanges with Japan, experts say.
"An outmoded conception is no longer valid for the constructive evolution of Korea-Japan cultural exchanges", Kang said.
Cultural exchanges between Korea and Japan have been vulnerable to disputes over sensitive political and historical issues - for example, recent diplomatic confrontations over the Dokdo Islands and Koreans' anger over historical distortions in Japanese school textbooks. Many experts indicate political leaders in both nations have often abused or distorted cultural relationships for political expediency.
However, the ever-increasing exchanges in the private sector cast a bright light for the future of cultural ties between the two countries. When a stable framework for cultural exchanges is guaranteed by the initiatives of civil society, the cultural sphere can be independent of politics, finally becoming a citadel to deepen mutual understanding and trust between the two nations, experts say.
"When a cultural community is formed between the peoples of the two nations, the effects will spill over to political and economic fields", said Kang. "Then, Korea and Japan can fundamentally change their biased perceptions of each other, setting a foundation for stability and prosperity not only in the two countries but in the surrounding region".
By Jin Dae-woong