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Scenes of Heisei: Food serves as political bridge in Osaka's bustling Koreatown

Hong Jung-sook walks the streets of Osaka's bustling Koreatown filled with young people, in this photo taken on Aug. 25, 2018. (Mainichi/Yusuke Komatsu)

OSAKA -- Walk under the arch with the inscription Baekjae Gate -- named after one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea -- and it's as if you've been transported to the Korean Peninsula. But it's a district within Osaka's Ikuno Ward, where the narrow alleyways lined with kimchi shops, Korean restaurants and stores selling South Korean pop culture wares are bustling with people.

Many of the approximately 120 businesses here are operated by Zainichi Korean residents of Japan, and the cafe "Nagareru sennen" (Flowing thousand years) is one of them. The cafe, where customers can enjoy traditional Korean tea and cooking, is popular particularly among Japanese women. "We're no longer living in a time when people avoid thing because something is from a certain country," Hong Jung-sook, the 56-year-old, third-generation Zainichi Korean owner of the business, says with heartfelt eloquence. "It's whether something strikes you as 'delicious' or 'beautiful.' People genuinely appreciate things with their five senses."

In Ikuno Ward, one out of every four people are said to be of Korean descent. Koreatown, which is a symbol of that ancestry, has always reflected society's sentiments. When Hong was young, Koreatown was called the "the Zainichi Koreans' kitchen." On the flip side of that acknowledgment was intense discrimination; the Japanese kept their distance.

It was difficult for Zainichi Koreans to gain employment at most Japanese corporations, so about two years after graduating from a junior college, Hong began working at a company owned by her father, which sold Korean food products. The company was a small one, with a six-tatami-mat room as its office. "Most of our clients were compatriots who sold dried food stuffs," Hong recalled. "We struggled to find customers."

According to Cabinet Office surveys between 1978, when such surveys were begun, and 1999, Japanese people polled who said they felt an affinity toward South Korea routinely dipped below those who said they did not. Not only did military dictatorships delay South Korea's democratization, differences in Japan and South Korea's perceptions of history kept South Korea a nearby, but faraway neighbor.

There came a turning point, however: the 1998 summit between then Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, who vowed to resolve the problems of the 20th century before the end of the 20th century, and then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who was known to be well-versed in Japan. The two leaders' determination to build a forward-looking bilateral relationship bore fruit in the form of the Japan-Republic of Korea Joint Declaration: A New Japan-Republic of Korea Partnership toward the Twenty-first Century." This became a catalyst for cultivating congenial sentiment between the people of the two countries. In the Cabinet Office survey carried out in 2000, Japanese people who said that they felt an affinity toward South Korea rose to 51 percent, exceeding those who did not feel that way, for the first time in the survey's history.

Hong saw this change reflected in her work as well. From the late 1990s onward, business with the Japanese food industry surged. Hong says she cannot forget the joy she felt when she got her first order from a nationwide family restaurant chain for cold Korean noodles. "The scale of production skyrocketed," she said.

Based on the promotion of cultural exchange outlined in the joint declaration, South Korea opened up its doors to Japanese popular culture, which it had until then restricted, in stages. South Korean television dramas and K-pop flooded the Japanese market, as well, creating an unprecedented boom of Korean pop culture in Japan. Shops selling K-pop CDs and posters popped up in Koreatown, and the initial clientele of mostly Zainichi Koreans were overtaken by the Japanese. Hong, who left her father's company in 2006 amid the Korean boom in Japan, poured her passion into sharing Korean culture with Japanese people, including offering Korean cooking classes.

However, diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea wavered. Differences in perceptions of history flared up once again, reigniting bilateral tensions.

The purpose of the Japan-South Korea Joint History Research Project, which researchers from Japan and South Korea began in 2002 at the behest of the governments of both countries, was to further mutual understanding of ancient history, the middle ages, the modern period and contemporary history. But discrepancies in interpretation arose during the first round of the project (2002-2005) which took place under the administration of then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. In the second round (2007-2010), which started during the first administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, discord among scholars from the two countries increased even further.

"I heard that the prime minister's office interfered in the selection of researchers on the committee," revealed Kan Kimura, an area studies specialist on the Korean Peninsula and a professor at Kobe University Graduate School, who was one of the Japanese experts on the committee. In fact, then Keio University professor Masao Okonogi, who the Japanese Foreign Ministry had tentatively chosen as the head of the Japanese side of the committee, was kicked out of the group, and was replaced by someone who had initially not even been named as a committee member.

A report released after the second round of the history project clearly indicated that the researchers were failing to reach a consensus. The South Korean side argued that the forced mobilization of "comfort women" was being trivialized in Japanese textbooks, and the Japanese side claimed that educators had doubts about whether it was appropriate to teach young people such a difficult topic as "the battlefield and sex."

Professor Kimura lamented, "Both Japanese and South Korean researchers bearing the weight of their respective 'national flag' became caught up in a kind of euphoria, and there were quite a few people whose objective seemed to be to shoot down the other side's arguments." No joint Japan-South Korea history research projects have been conducted since.

Additionally, conflict over the of the Takeshima islets -- known as Dokdo in South Korea -- whose territoriality is contested by both Japan and South Korea has continued, and such political tensions spilled over into Koreatown. A rise in "twisted nationalism" exemplified by hate speech came to be directed at the residents and business owners in the bustling neighborhood. On the streets near JR Tsuruhashi Station, not far from Koreatown, hate demonstrations calling on Zainichi Koreans to "go home" or encouraging other xenophobes to "kill Koreans" started to take place frequently around 2010. Words inciting ethnic hatred became rampant.

Laws and ordinances regulating hate speech have gone into effect, but that does not mean that Zainichi Koreans and other foreign nationals living in Japan have been relieved of their fears.

"There are people who feel an affinity toward Koreans, and on the flip side, there will always be people who hate Koreans. It's probably impossible to completely nip all the buds of xenophobia." said Kim Kwang-min, the secretary-general of the Osaka-based nonprofit organization Korea NGO Center, which works on protecting the human rights of foreign nationals in Japan. "Instead of trying to drive away such forces, it's important to create a society that does not buckle under them."

At a cooking class in Koreatown led by Hong, the pleasant smell of sesame oil spread throughout the kitchen. On this particular day, a group of four Japanese women were learning how to make gimbap, which are similar to sushi rolls. Shown a roll that Hong made, the four women cheered: "Looks delicious!"

The group has been participating in Hong's classes since February of last year. One participant, 47-year-old homemaker Yasuko Hirata, said of Korean cuisine, "It gives you a chance to eat a lot of vegetables, and clears up your skin. It's energizing."

Last year, some 1 million people visited Koreatown. There was a point when the number of visitors dipped, due to political conflict between Japan and South Korea and hate demonstrations, but people are coming back now. "Delicious things are delicious," Hirata said. "That's enough."

Hong added, "It's all right to start out with simply liking the food. From there, your interest is piqued further, and your interactions with people different from you can begin."

(Japanese original by Yukinao Kin, Osaka City News Department)

This is Part 3 of a 10-part series.

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