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Japanese, S. Korean joint efforts behind UNESCO decision to add envoy records

A scroll depicting Korean envoys, which was one of the items submitted as part of the UNESCO application, is seen. (Photo courtesy of the Nagasaki Prefectural Tsushima Folk History Museum)

NAGASAKI -- UNESCO's decision to add old diplomatic records of Korean envoys to Japan to its Memory of the World heritage program can be largely attributed to the efforts of an organization in Japan and another in South Korea.

The two organizations, "The Liaison Council of All Places Associated with Chosen Tsushinshi (Korean Envoys)" based in Tsushima, Nagasaki Prefecture, and the "Busan Cultural Foundation" in South Korea decided to proceed with their joint application after the latter suggested the idea in 2012.

A procession of people performing as Korean envoys is seen on Aug. 2, 2015. (Photo courtesy of the Tsushima Municipal Government)

With friction continuing between Japan and South Korea over issues such as their respective understandings of history, it is hoped that the UNESCO registration will help bring the two countries closer together. As Liaison Council head Kazuyuki Matsubara, 72, points out: "It is essential that we learn about the spirit of mutual understanding that was demonstrated by the envoys, now more so than ever."

Matsubara was initially inspired to help improve relations between the two countries following a visit by then South Korean President Roh Tae-woo to Japan in 1990. During his visit, Roh brought up the name of the Edo period Confucian adviser Amenomori Hoshu (1668-1755) at a banquet at the Imperial Palace -- emphasizing the importance of a good relationship between Japan and South Korea.

Hoshu, who worked for the Tsushima domain, attended to Korean envoys who visited Japan. After hearing Roh's speech about Hoshu, Matsubara, who was the head of a shipping company that operated between Fukuoka and Tsushima Island at the time, thought to himself: "If the history of the envoys starts to attract attention, then Tsushima Island will begin to gain recognition as well."

As part of their job, the Korean envoys would hand deliver letters from the Korean Dynasties directly to the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo (Tokyo), and be welcomed warmly along the way.

Kazuyuki Matsubara (Mainichi)

Matsubara visited the envoys' route himself -- leading him to set up the Liaison Council in 1995. A total of 19 local authorities, including the Kyoto Municipal Government and the Shizuoka Municipal Government, and about 70 organizations have so far joined the council.

The group's activities soon spread to South Korea, and in 2012, the Busan Cultural Foundation approached Matsubara's council with the idea of applying for UNESCO recognition. After about four years of hard work, the two organizations managed to compile the necessary documents and put forward a joint application.

The Korean envoys visited Japan on a total of 12 occasions between 1607 and 1811. They contributed to the revival of relations between the two countries after they were damaged by Toyotomi Hideyoshi's invasion of Korea.

In their recent application to UNESCO, the Liaison Council and the Busan Cultural Foundation touched on the principle of sincerity that was promoted by Hoshu. In accordance with this principle, the thinking is that the two countries can engage in a sincere relationship, without any deceit.

Matsubara thinks that this kind of spirit is missing from the present day relationship between Japan and South Korea. He said, "I hope the citizens of both countries will work toward respecting the differences between the two nations, and deepen a friendly relationship."

Tsushima Island, where the Liaison Council is based, hosts a special event devoted to the Korean envoys each year as part of its summer festival. This year's event took place on Aug. 6 and saw a total of about 300 attendees -- including dance groups from South Korea. High school students from both nations dressed up in special costumes, and they appeared as ushers or performed in bands.

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