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Japan’s dove calls for compromise

LDP secretary general says Tokyo should reach out to Seoul first
Sept 30,2019
A leading lawmaker of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suggested Tokyo yield compromises to Korea to settle the two countries’ ongoing diplomatic dispute, according to a Japanese newspaper.

According to the conservative-leaning newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, Toshihiro Nikai, the LDP’s secretary general and an eight-term lawmaker, said during a recording of a local news program on Friday that Japan should be the first to reach out to Korea to yield what compromises it can for an improvement in bilateral relations. “We [Japan] must be the bigger person by having the stomach to listen and respond to Korea’s argument,” he said.

At a time of heightened tensions between the two countries that have escalated from a historical dispute on wartime forced labor to a full-on row over trade and security ties, Nikai’s remarks are a rare sign of interest in reconciliation coming from a top official in Tokyo.

As its secretary general, Nikai is nominally the No. 2 figure in the LDP, just second to the party’s president, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He is known to have Abe’s confidence as his deputy in the party, even surviving a massive cabinet reshuffle on Sept. 11.

Nikai has also shown significant interest in bilateral diplomacy with Korea in the past, leading a workshop visit with his faction members in the LDP to Korea last year and even meeting with Korean lawmaker Rep. Park Jie-won in Osaka, Japan, last month. He has, however, kept silent on bilateral relations in recent months as hard-line positions took over the party’s stance on Korea.

Analysts attribute the motives behind this unusually conciliatory comment to the economic impact Korea’s response to the dispute has had on Japan. Tourism by Koreans to Japan has almost halved according to the Japan Tourism Agency’s own statistics from earlier this month, which said only 308,700 Koreans visited Japan in August, down nearly 48 percent compared to July.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga attempted to deflect concerns that fewer Korean tourists would hurt the country’s tourism industry, saying the number of Chinese and Western tourists had increased.

Yet Japanese newspapers like the Asahi Shimbun sounded alarm bells on the tourism numbers, saying diminishing visits by Koreans could impact the Japanese government’s plan to elevate the number of tourists visiting the country annually to over 40 million by 2020, when Tokyo will host the Summer Olympics.

For rural provinces in western Japan heavily dependent on Korean tourism, like Tsushima Island or Kyushu, the trend poses an almost existential crisis exacerbating the economic situation for localities already suffering from depopulation issues.

Koreans’ voluntary boycott of Japanese products has also had a major effect on certain industries. Exports of Japanese beer to Korea, in particular, have diminished by 92 percent this month compared to August.

According to one Japanese media executive with intimate knowledge of the Abe administration, top Japanese officials have been surprised at this unexpected response from Korea.

One source in Tokyo familiar with diplomacy with Korea said that while there have been few indications of a change in the Japanese government about the possibility of yielding on the forced labor issue or trade restrictions, there has been a growing concern among officials that this continued friction with Seoul may be unsustainable.

BY SEO SEUNG-WOOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]