Mending Historical Memory: Improving People-To-People Ties Between Japan And South Korea – Analysis


By Ryan Ashley and Joseph Su

(FPRI) — Japan-Korea relations, historically strained by disputes over historical memory, seem to be experiencing a cautious upswing. Despite the lingering effects of historical, political, and economic disagreements, the rapprochement best seen in 2023’s Camp David summit between the leaders of South Korea, Japan, and the United States points to a noticeable shift. Beyond geopolitics, observers of Japan and Korea have long noted an intriguing cultural exchange among the youth of both nations. In Japan, Korean music, television dramas, and cuisine are deeply popular, while in South Korea, Japanese anime, manga, and culinary delights are equally embraced.

However, this cultural affinity has not translated into a significant increase in regular people-to-people connections between the two countries, especially in the realms of political and security cooperation. Why does this disconnect exist, and what steps can be taken to bridge this gap? While the deeply rooted historical disputes that shadow Seoul-Tokyo relations are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, fostering stronger interpersonal connections through formal policies is essential for building a foundation that can support future dialogue and mutual understanding.


Japan and South Korea’s cultural disconnect is not a surprising one to those conscious of the extensive and contentious history between the two countries. Under Imperial Japanese rule, the Korean people were subject to brutality and atrocities. From 1910 to 1945, Tokyo enforced policies that included the forced conscription and labor of Korean men, compelling them to fight and work for their oppressors. During this period, Japan also established a “comfort women” system that subjected women to sexual slavery and implemented nationwide practices aimed at eradicating Korean culture, history, and languages.

In the wake of this history, a majority of Koreans feel that Japan has failed to properly atone for and recognize the scale of their historical actions. To many in Japan, in contrast, these disputes are best left in the past and have been adequately handled through diplomacy. An instructive example of the interplay of these forces can be seen in the 2015 deal surrounding comfort women announced by then Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Abe agreed to the pact, which included Japan’s official acknowledgement and apology for the comfort women issue and provided financial compensation to the victims, largely thanks to its inclusion of the statement: “The Government of Japan confirms that this issue is resolved finally and irreversibly with this announcement.” Despite this concession from Seoul, conservatives within Abe’s party hounded him for acceding to an unnecessary agreement, as they believed the dispute had already been settled. Alternatively, in South Korea, Park experienced broad public backlash thanks to accusations that the agreement was selling out the victims. This backlash, in turn, led to Abe making comments in the Japanese parliament which dismissed claims of the nature of the comfort women stating that, “There was no document found that the comfort women were forcibly taken away,” which only further angered Koreans. When the South Korean government once again asked Abe to apologize for his statement, he declined. Finally, in 2019 the Japanese-funded organization established to compensate the victims was shut down.

However, simultaneous with these tensions, both Japanese and South Korean culture have taken the world, and each other, by storm. Japanese “manga” (comic books) sales are sharing the market with their South Korean “manhwa” equivalents, while at the same time Japanese anime movies are taking first place in Korean box offices. Japan is now the leading consumer of the top-100 K-Pop groups, while Japanese restaurants in Korea have surged in the past years.

Yet, while a cross-sea cultural exchange has boomed, a multitude of reasons have kept their respective populations from making the trip. While by some standards tourism is surging, the pattern is somewhat one-sided, with South Koreans leading the charge in comparison to their Japanese counterparts. In 2023, 5.25 million Koreans visited Japan while only 2.32 million Japanese visited Korea in return. Furthermore, Japan has the highest number of self-proclaimed “never travelers” at 35 percent. This complex interplay of historical grievances and contemporary cultural exchanges illustrates the well-known paradox of Japan-South Korea relations. While pop culture creates bridges, the deep scars of the past and differing perspectives on historical accountability continue to hinder the development of interpersonal connections between the two nations.

The Challenge

Enhancing people-to-people ties between Japan and South Korea is a complex challenge, yet it remains crucial for fostering a more cooperative relationship between Seoul and Tokyo. While there have been various attempts to strengthen these ties, most of these have fallen short due to several key factors.

First, the dynamics are changing within younger generations in both nations. Unlike their predecessors, who were directly affected by wartime atrocities, today’s youth are growing up in an environment that is increasingly distant from these historical grievances. Despite this, it would be a misunderstanding to say the youth have “forgotten,” as these grievances still heavily influence public opinion amongst the younger generations—regardless of many contemporary Japanese and Korean youth forming new memories rooted in cooperation and shared cultural touchstones. This shift is evident in recent surveys, such as the joint study by Genron NPO and the East Asia Research Institute, which revealed a significant improvement in youth mutual perceptions when compared to older ones, but still pointed to a looming gap. In particular, political ideology seems to play a role here, as wartime memory is taking on an increasingly important role in left-leaning South Korea and right-leaning nationalism in Japan, further complicating the picture.

Next, Japan-Korean relations have often been exacerbated rather than ameliorated by government actions on both sides. Political leaders in both Japan and South Korea have sometimes responded to disputes with resolutions and statements that escalate tensions, seeking domestic political appeal over bilateral reconciliation. The 2018 Korean Supreme Court ruling on forced labor, followed by Japan’s retaliatory export controls, exemplifies this pattern. More recent developments, such as the lifting of trade sanctions and attempts at diplomatic reconciliation, show promise but still lack the depth needed for sustainable improvement. President Yoon Suk Yeol’s local funding initiative to compensate forced labor victims and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s apologies, while steps in the right direction, fall short of a formal, legal acknowledgment of past events.

Another significant hurdle is Japan’s approach to historical education. The tendency to downplay or whitewash certain aspects of wartime history in Japan, while not as dire as some in Seoul would have commentators believe, still stands in stark contrast to countries like Germany’s handling of its past. An example of this can be seen in the persistent issue of the Dokdo/Takeshima islands. Young people in Japan and Korea, who embrace a combative relationship with their counterparts across the Tsushima Strait, particularly depend on this issue to define their animosity, with their exposure to the issue typically originating in nationalist-leaning educational materials on the subject.

Proposals: Tourism

A first step to bridge the gap centers on actively promoting deeper tourism between Japan and South Korea. While niche tourism has benefited from cross-cultural exchanges, there has not been a significant increase in broader tourism. Targeting two key demographics could boost these numbers. Firstly, the younger generations, spanning from early Millennials to late Gen Z, in both countries show potential for increased travel interest. Secondly, addressing the phenomenon of the Japanese “never traveler”—individuals who rarely or never travel abroad—could tap into a significant, yet unexplored market segment within Japanese society.

In 2017 and 2018, the Japanese Tourism Board cited that roughly 7.1 to 7.5 million inbound Korean tourists had visited Japan. During the pandemic, these numbers dramatically fell, with no full rebound to pre-pandemic numbers since. As noted previously, Japan also retains a unique cultural and nationwide trend of dramatically low passport-holding rates with just 15 percent of citizens holding a passport. Japan has the highest number of self-proclaimed “never travelers” at 35 percent. Many have cited a preference for readily available domestic trips within Japan due to a variety of reasons. Changing long-standing cultural practices is not possible overnight, however, promotion and ease of access from a dual private-public approach could be a huge leap forward. The respective governments have an opportunity to promote inbound tourism to support local economic growth, while private sector companies stand to benefit from increased passenger travel through more sales.

To address the tourism gap and promote tourism among the identified subgroups above, several concrete proposals show promise. For the younger generations in Japan and South Korea, creating government-sponsored tailored travel packages that align with their interests, such as technology, pop culture, and ecotourism, could be highly effective. These packages could be promoted through social media platforms and influencer partnerships, leveraging the digital landscape that resonates with these age groups. For the Japanese “never traveler,” a targeted campaign that highlights the ease and benefits of international travel could be beneficial. Simplifying visa procedures, providing language support, and offering introductory international travel packages can lower the barriers to entry. Collaborative efforts between the Japanese and South Korean governments to promote cultural exchange events and festivals could also pique interest. By addressing these specific needs and interests, both countries can significantly boost cross-cultural tourism and bridge the current gap.


In 1987, the European Union established a program named Erasmus meant to foster greater cooperation between universities within the European Union. By 2014, the program had become so successful it was expanded to include education, work training, teaching opportunities, and sports education. Between 2014 and 2021, over 13 million people participated in the program in some capacity. It still stands as a respected program to foster greater unity amongst EU nations and develop their own workforces for a European market. In turn, Japan and South Korea should create a similar program tentatively titled East Asian Student Exchange Program (EASTEP) to provide opportunities for students in university programs to study in, learn about, and experience each other’s nations first-hand.

Logistically, both Japan and South Korea host a fair number of prestigious universities that already support robust international study abroad programs, which could provide the initial knowledge to support a fledgling program. Schools in Japan such as Tokyo, Waseda, and Osaka Universities all hold student bodies made up of at least 10 percent international students. In Korea, schools like Yonsei and Seoul National University support roughly 15 percent and 7 percent international student population. While not all-encompassing, these universities demonstrate that higher education in both nations can support a robust international student body.

Within an exchange program such as this, certain areas of focus should be emphasized. First, any exchange program would be either a semester or an entire academic year abroad for students to gain as much exposure and experience as possible within each other’s nations. Given the immense political dynamics and extensive contentious history, this program would have a strong co-curricular focus on cultural and historical education to expose students to historical narratives and perspectives often dismissed within their home countries. Museum visits, historical site visits, and in-class education are all methods that could help expand students’ perspectives. The proposed EASTEP program, drawing inspiration from the European Union’s successful Erasmus scheme, aims to enhance mutual understanding and cooperation between Japan and South Korea through comprehensive academic exchanges, leveraging their strong university networks to facilitate deep connections for students.

Job Credentials

Finally, the liberalization of professional and educational credentials between Japan and South Korea presents a compelling opportunity to strengthen ties and address labor shortages in both countries. Japan and South Korea, with similar educational and governance standards, are well-positioned to mutually recognize professional qualifications and university credits. This would facilitate a smoother flow of skilled labor between the two nations, particularly benefiting Japan, which is grappling with acute labor shortages in skilled, white-collar industries—a domain where South Korea has a surplus of talent.

However, the issue extends beyond the realm of professional and educated sectors. Both countries also face critical shortages in less educationally intensive, or blue-collar, sectors. Here, the mutual recognition of educational and professional standards may not be as directly impactful. This highlights the need for a comprehensive approach that considers various sectors and their unique requirements.

One significant barrier to this collaboration is the notoriously demanding work culture prevalent in both Japan and South Korea. The prospect of moving from one strenuous work environment to another, potentially leaving years of previous efforts behind, might not appeal to many potential participants. While the primary goal is not to overhaul the work cultures of these nations, it is crucial to acknowledge this aspect when advocating for increased professional and educational exchange.

A potential solution to make this transition more attractive could be the introduction of incentives such as temporarily expanded salaries and benefits for participants in programs like EASTEP. This approach could help ease the initial challenges of working in a foreign environment. However, this raises concerns about how domestic populations might perceive foreign workers receiving higher compensation. Addressing these perceptions requires a delicate balance, ensuring fairness and avoiding any resentment or backlash from the local workforce.


While the above recommendations presented for enhancing Japan-South Korea relations are not novel, their re-evaluation is timely due to a unique convergence of political will in both Seoul and Tokyo. The current leadership in both countries exhibits an openness to improving ties, creating a critical window of opportunity. It is imperative to capitalize on this moment to solidify advancements in tourism, cultural exchanges, and professional collaboration.

However, these initiatives are not without challenges. Historically, political frictions between Japan and South Korea have hindered similar efforts. The complexity of these relations, steeped in a contentious history, requires sensitive handling. Progress will demand not only governmental will but also societal acceptance. The successful implementation of these proposals hinges on their ability to resonate with the public, a task easier said than done given the deep-seated historical grievances.

The role of external actors, such as the United States, in this context, is minimal. The intricacies of Japan-South Korea relations are primarily regional and should be addressed bilaterally. External intervention, especially from distant powers, might not be beneficial and could potentially be seen as intrusive. The focus should remain on fostering a self-sustaining dialogue and collaboration between Japan and South Korea.


Despite historical tensions and recent political and economic challenges, there is a growing cultural affinity among the youth of Japan and South Korea. However, this has not significantly increased interpersonal connections, creating implications for political and security cooperation. This article suggests several avenues to enhance these ties, including promoting tourism, establishing an academic exchange program similar to Erasmus, and mutually recognizing professional and educational credentials. These proposals aim to bridge the gap between cultural affinity and actual people-to-people connections, acknowledging youth potential and the necessity of bilateral efforts to aid, if not overcome, issues over historical memory. The success of these initiatives hinges on both governmental will and societal acceptance in navigating the sensitive history and current dynamics of Japan-South Korea relations.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

  • About the authors: Major Ryan Ashley (USAF) is a Fellow in the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and an Air Force Intelligence Officer.
  • Joseph Su is an undergraduate at Boston University pursuing a B.A. in International Relations with a concentration in Foreign Policy, Security Studies, and East Asia. He served as a research intern for the Asia program at FPRI during Summer 2023 and Fall 2023.

Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI ( is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

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