Bosphorus Center for Asian Studies


Japan and Korea: Looking at the Future Through the Prism of a New Thinking

One hundred years ago, in 1919, Japan was sat in Versailles next to the victorious powers of the First World War, being recognized there as one of the Five Great Powers of the world.

It was a period of full expansionist boom under a clearly ultra-nationalist military government. Thereby, after being part of the winning side of the Great World War, a chapter of its history marked by an unprecedented warmongering would open up,  on which it would deploy all its power to storm the Far East in order to dominate it as the Empire of the Rising Sun.

More than a quarter of a century later, that empire would be ashes, leaving behind a steaming trail of destruction in the countries where it laid its feet (Philippines, China, Korea, among others).

Thus, after the Japanese defeat and surrender in World War II, a period of mutual understanding and rapprochement with its Asian neighbours began. A period characterized by a relative calm in relations coinciding with a Japanese foreign policy clearly oriented towards good diplomatic relations.

This policy was expressed in particular with respect to Korea, which had faced the humiliation of the Japanese occupation for decades.

However, in recent weeks there have been new tensions and a growing escalation of rivalry between the two nations of the Far East, which are seeing with concern by the international community, given the enormous weight  these two countries have, not only at regional but also at global level.

The icy wind of the past

What is the origin of these new tensions between Japan and Korea?

Last year, a Korean court ruled in favor of surviving victims of the occupation, deciding that the Japanese companies that had used them for forced labor should compensate them financially.

This decision caused huge discomfort in Japan, who said in response that «all matters concerning allegations of forced labor were settled under agreements that established diplomatic ties with South Korea in 1965» (The New York Times, 2018).

Then, on last July Japan announced coercive measures against Korea, restricting the export of chemicals that are essential for the manufacture of Korean electronic components. Moreover, in August redoubled the bet by announcing that had decided to remove Korea from its list of preferential business partners for reasons of national security, arguing that a part of its exports could reach North Korea as its final destination.

In the meanwhile, Korea announced its determination not to revive the current security pact with Japan, which was signed in 2016 and remains in force until the end of November. Also, at the end of August, Korea «conducted scaled-up military exercises around Dokdo, disputed islets which South Korea controls but Japan claims as its own (calling them Takeshima)» (The Economist, 2019).

As a corollary of this escalation of tensions, a growing boycott in Korea is already beginning to be noticed in the purchase of Japanese products (Muji, Uniqlo) while on the Japanese side, the right-wing ultra-nationalist supporters begin to rekindle anti-Korean feelings .

It can be said that these recent events are late manifestations of an unresolved past of coflicts that sink their roots far away in time, it is as if the icy wind of the past blows again, rekindling old wounds that do not heal.

But if we tried to search in the past to identify a precise historical origin of the rivalry between the two countries we should go back more than four hundred years in time.

It was precisely in 1592, when General Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who ruled Japan at that time, decided to undertake his plan of conquest over Korea (with the ultimate goal of dominating China). That first attack and occupation of the Korean lands was carried out with great cruelty, and it was not until 1597 when the Koreans, thanks to the help of China, were able to expel the Japanese invader.

That is the first historical background but unfortunately not the last or the most painful for Korea. By 1910 the Korean peninsula was annexed as part of the Japanese Empire and suffered an occupation that would last until 1945, a period in which all kinds of hardships and atrocities took place: the forced labor of thousands of Korean men practically reduced to slavery, the use of thousands of Korean women as prostitutes of the Japanese army and even the attempt to wipe out the Korean language are counted as part of an indescribable suffering that is still alive today in the memory of the survivors of those horrors.

All these events as a whole can be identified as deep causes of the tensions that currently appear on the horizon inflaming nationalist feelings in both countries.

Strengthen democratic governance

How to overcome these tensions and leave the past behind?

There is no doubt that in the face of a history of rivalry and abuse, it is very difficult to find the way to overcome grudges and mutual distrust.

Moreover, we are witnesses of a growing nationalism along with protectionist trade practices that damage the flow of world trade.

Within this context and as we mentioned earlier, Japan and Korea now seem to reissue the old national rivalry of the past and start a power dispute to see who can push back the other, thus opening a pandora’s box of unpredictable consequences.

We would like to point out here that it is time to adopt a perspective that allows addressing this kind of issues within a broader institutional framework, in this case at the regional level.

In this regard, we wish to remind that there are already mechanisms of dialogue and coooperation  that have been set under the format of well-known institutions integrated by countries of the Asian community, this is the case for example with the so-called Expanded ASEAN Group, which includes ASEAN member countries plus Japan, Korea and China (ASEAN + 3).

Of course, there are particular issues that may be of the exclusive interest of certain States, but we should aware that this is an epoch where all of we live more interconnected and where issues that at first can be seen  as affecting one particular place, may derive in effects that involve an entire region or even the entire world. The truth is that the enormous concern raised by these tensions between Japan and Korea has had an impact on international trade, in the field of international politics and also in the sphere of international security.

Governance institutions undoubtely respond to this reality and the ASEAN + 3 Group contemplates the possibility of gathering together to discuss issues that have to do with security, trade, finance, migration or cultural exchanges, within a range of issues and interests that matter in common to all member countries.

Be that as it may, the achievement of a lasting peace in the Far East and throughout Asia will require concrete efforts on the part of governments to establish strong mechanisms for dialogue and mutual understanding and for this it will be increasingly necessary and imperative to expand and strengthen the role of regional organizations such as ASEAN + 3 to resolve differences and promote democratic governance for the benefit of all parties and for the benefit of the peoples of Asia.

We are currently experiencing a stage of profound changes where international society is facing an unprecedented process of cosmopolitization. Within this process, the mutual interests of citizens, corporations, States and other relevant actors in the international arena are intertwined to form intimately connected global networks.

If our desire is to ensure that this process moves towards a more peaceful and just world order, we should adopt an approach that transcends the exclusive local or national scope and accept that we are not alone in this world and that in this new era we must adopt the dialogue as a means to resolve our differences and learn to live together, for the benefit of all.

In this regard, the Japanese philosopher and peace leader Daisaku Ikeda expressed: «Our times are calling for a new way of thinking based on a global vision. Attention should be paid to these new signs of change, in addition to economic and other factors, which are underlying an emerging emphasis on dialogue in the world» (Urbain, 2014: 58)

The Asia-Pacific region will be the center of the world earlier than later, and the role it can play as the axis of a new era will be of the greatest relevance for the future of peace and humanity.

Japan and Korea, two world-class leaders, have a key role to play in all this. It would be auspicious to be able to see soon their mutual willingness to dialogue to quickly settle their disputes and old hardships, as well as a joint action focused on strengthening regional governance institutions, for the good of all the peoples and citizens of Asia.

In August 2014, an international conference organized by the Toda Institute for Peace and Policy Research was held in Istanbul, Turkey. During that symposium «there was an important focus on the rehumanization of politics making its prime motivation the alleviation of the suffering of individuals» (Ikeda, 2015: 2).

We believe that the rehumanization of politics, the practice of dialogue and the strengthening of democratic governance are necessary components of the prism we should take to look at the future, all of them components of a new thought that our political leaders and policy makers should adopt, if we wish not only that this dispute between brother peoples be overcome quickly, but also that the Asia-Pacific region fulfills its destiny of being a source of peace and harmony for a new world order.

We shall observe the progress of events and continue writing about all this.



Ikeda, Daisaku (2014): «Toward a new globalism», in Urbain, Olivier (ed.): A forum for peace, Daisaku Ikeda´s proposals to the UN, New York, I. B. Tauris, 56-60

——————- (2015):  A shared pledge for a more human future: to eliminate misery from the Earth, in

The Economist (2019): «An old grudge between Japan and Korea is getting out of hand»,

The New York Times (2018): «How a World War II–Era Reparations Case is roiling Asia»,

BAAM Senior Researcher