Over the past year, relations between Japan and South Korea have been especially difficult, but South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon last month attended Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony in Tokyo on Oct. 22. Two days later, Lee had a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to whom he delivered a personal letter from South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Their meeting is being viewed as an ice-breaking dialogue.
After the ceremony, Lee made a special visit to Shin-Okubo Railway Station in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward, where he laid a bouquet in memory of South Korean student Lee Soo-hyun, who 18 years ago laid down his life while trying to save another man.
Twenty-five-year-old student Lee Soo-hyun, while waiting at the station for a train on the evening of Jan. 26, 2001, saw a drunken man fall off the platform and immediately jumped down onto the tracks to save him.
Unfortunately, Lee Soo-hyun and Japanese photographer Shiro Sekine, who jumped down after him, were killed by a train, along with the man who had fallen down, but the student’s noble act overturned a negative stereotype that many Japanese had of South Koreans and injected some humanity into the longstanding love-hate relationship between the two nations.
Since then, the name “Lee Soo-hyun” has been a symbol of reconciliation between Japan and South Korea.
On receiving compensation from Japan, Lee Soo-hyun’s parents decided to turn their son’s selflessness into a perpetual gift by setting up a foundation called the LSH Asia Shogakukai that offers Asian students scholarships to study at language schools in Japan. Since 2002, when the first awards were handed out, about 900 students from 18 nations, including Taiwan, have received foundation scholarships.
A feature film called 26 Years Diary, based on the true story of Lee Soo-hyun’s time in Japan, had its premiere screening in 2007 on the sixth anniversary of his death. then-Japanese emperor Akihito and then-empress Michiko attended the screening and expressed their condolences to the student’s parents, who were also in attendance.
It was the first time that an emperor and empress had ever attended the public premiere of a commercial film. In June, the film was followed by a documentary about Lee Soo-hyun’s parents called I Am a Bridge, which was released in Japan and South Korea.
Lee Nak-yeon’s paying respect at a time when relations between South Korea and Japan are at a low point was intended to reinstate an atmosphere of friendship and reconciliation between the two nations. An act of kindness can create a butterfly effect, setting off a chain reaction in international relations.
Further proof of this can be seen from the harmonious de facto relations that have developed between Taiwan and Japan over the past few years.
Following the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, Taiwan donated more than NT$6.8 billion (US$223.52 million at the current exchange rate) in disaster relief — more than any other nation. Since then, Taiwan and Japan have helped each other cope whenever either of them has been struck by a disaster.
This mutual goodwill has generated a virtuous cycle leading many Japanese to rediscover Taiwan as a true friend — and the affinity between the two nations keeps deepening. From tourism in Taiwan to a pearl milk tea trend, Japanese have not grown tired of a “Taiwan craze.”
This tide of warmth has swept away what seemed to be an insurmountable deference toward China among conservative bureaucrats at the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In one stroke, Japan broke free of bowing to China’s every whim.
The Japanese government on March 11, 2012, held a ceremony marking the first anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Then-representative to Japan Lo Koon-tsan (羅坤燦) was not invited to lay a bouquet, but was seated in a second-tier section, which led to then-Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda being sternly questioned by a member of the Japanese Diet and Japanese media accusing the government of being ungrateful.
At the 2013 memorial — which happened after Taiwan-friendly Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office — Taiwan was invited to take part in the bouquet-laying ceremony and Taiwan’s representative was seated in the VIP seats for the diplomatic corps.
Since then, former representative to Japan Shen Ssu-tsun (沈斯淳) and Representative to Japan Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) have been invited to attend memorial events each year and to lay bouquets. China has consistently boycotted the ceremonies after its objections Taiwan’s participation fell on deaf ears.
Asked whether Hsieh would be invited to attend Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony, a Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said: “Attendance at the enthronement ceremony will continue to follow the precedents set during the Heisei era — the reign of Emperor Akihito — or be decided with reference to the precedents of other ceremonies organized by the Japanese government.”
The precedence mentioned first must refer to November 1990, when then-representative to Japan Chiang Hsiao-wu (蔣孝武) attended Akihito’s enthronement ceremony, while the second mention must refer to the Great East Japan Earthquake memorial ceremonies that the Japanese government has held over the past seven years.
The broad swathe of Taiwanese who contributed so much money in charitable donations following the Great East Japan Earthquake could not have begun to imagine that the deadliest natural disaster in Japanese history could lead to closer ties between Taiwan and Japan. It just goes to show how one good deed can beget another.
Chen Yung-chang is deputy secretary-general of the Taipei Chamber of Commerce.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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