Major Korea-Japan cultural festival to return as bilateral ties improve

Held online during the pandemic, it will be held physically this year in Seoul on Sunday

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

The Korea-Japan Festival, held online during the Covid-19 pandemic and amid frayed bilateral ties, is slated to draw both Koreans and foreigners keen to experience the two countries' cultures.

Mr Kazuo Chujo, director (Minister) of Public Information and Cultural Centre at the Embassy of Japan in South Korea, which is organising the event, said this year's theme is aptly named "Joy of Reunion" as it will allow Japanese and Koreans to interact face-to-face and enjoy each other's culture.

"We hope that people in Korea who wanted to travel to Japan but could not due to the pandemic will come to the festival to experience Japan and inter-exchange programmes between Japan and Korea," he told The Straits Times.

The festival's return is the latest in a series of signs that indicate a warming of bilateral relations that had sunk to rock bottom due to various disputes over their history.

An annual study released earlier this month showed that South Korean favourability towards the Japanese has increased to 30.6 per cent - up from 20.5 per cent last year - while Japanese favourability towards the Koreans rose from 25.4 to 30.4 per cent in the past year.

Jointly conducted by the East Asia Institute in South Korea and Genron NPO in Japan, the survey showed an increase in numbers for people in both countries who think that their bilateral ties are important and who think that efforts are needed to improve ties.

Of the top three reasons given for a favourable view of the Japanese, South Koreans said it is "because Japanese people are kind and hardworking", that Japan "is a developed country with a high standard of living" and "it is also a liberal democracy".

The most common reasons cited by Japanese respondents were "I am interested in Korean pop culture", "appeal of Korea's food culture and shopping" and "exchange with Korean people".

However, the two neighbours have for years struggled to resolve a territorial dispute over an island, compensation and apology for wartime forced labour and sexual slavery of South Korean women, a trade spat, and a stalled military intelligence-sharing pact.

At its worst, in 2019, South Korean protesters urged a boycott of anything Japanese.

Fast forward to 2022, once shunned Japanese beer has returned to supermarket shelves, while Japanese clothing giant Uniqlo, which bore the brunt of the boycott, managed to rebound in sales in South Korea last year.

In March, 4.7 million packets of a newly-launched bread printed with the Japanese animation Pokemon characters flew off the shelves in South Korea in less than a month.

President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office in May, has actively sought reconciliation with Japan and made the first step in having a short meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in New York in September.

Dr Lee Myon-woo of the Sejong Institute think-tank said: "President Yoon seems to think he needs to have good relations with Japan and I hope he can continue to push for efforts in that direction."

He noted, however, that the Japanese side is still cautious about reconciliation and is waiting to see what tangible solutions Mr Yoon and his administration can come up with to address the forced labour compensation issue.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 24, 2022, with the headline Major Korea-Japan cultural festival to return as bilateral ties improve. Subscribe