Behind current Japan-South Korea relations

/ 02:38 PM December 23, 2019

TOKYO — In mid-November at Izuhara Port ferry terminal in Tsushima, Nagasaki Prefecture, the reception desk for the regular ferry service to Busan, South Korea, was closed. There were hardly any passengers in the waiting room.

Over 80% of the customers in the cafe in the terminal building used to be South Koreans, with the menu written in English and hangul. However, when the Japanese government tightened procedures for exports to South Korea in July, things changed completely. The number of South Korean tourists visiting Japan dropped sharply, and the ferry linking Tsushima and Busan was forced to suspend services in mid-August.


“We suddenly lost our South Korean customers,” a female staff member said. “Sales went down by 40%.”

After the ferry service was suspended, all the menu items were rewritten in Japanese.


According to the Tsushima public employment security office, 56 people lost their jobs between July and September in Tsushima, which has a population of about 30,000 people. As of the end of November, only 11 people have been reemployed. The head of the office is fearful about the “drain of the precious workforce out of Tsushima.”

Saga Airport in Saga Prefecture also had to deal with three air routes linking South Korea — Seoul, Busan and Daegu — suspended by mid-August. In July, the number of passengers on the Seoul route was 7,280, 60% of peak figures.

South Koreans visiting Japan in October numbered 197,300, down 65% compared to the same month in 2018, falling to the lowest level on record. This offset the boost in visitors for the Rugby World Cup as the total number of foreign visitors to Japan decreased by 5.5%.

South Korea’s boycott campaign targets various products including Japanese beer and confectionery. According to the Finance Ministry’s trade statistics for October, beer exports to South Korea hit zero for the first time in 20 years 4 months. Overall exports by value to South Korea were also down 23% compared to the same month last year.

Domestic pain

In many respects, the boycott of Japanese products and the restraint South Koreans are exercising about visiting Japan are strongly stoked by the activities of the South Korean government and politicians.

A ruling Democratic Party of Korea lawmaker independently examined payments by eight South Korean credit card companies at Uniqlo stores. He announced on Oct. 31 an estimate that sales had decreased by approximately 60% compared to the same time last year.

“You could say Uniqlo has partly revived, but the boycott continues.”


Since September, five municipal assemblies in regional and major cities like Seoul and Busan have approved “war crime firm” ordinances. The ordinances target goods made by Japanese companies that the South Korean government insists used requisitioned workers, aiming to exclude such goods when ordering equipment.

The South Korean government has urged local municipalities to reconsider the ordinances, which have yet to be enforced, as they may violate World Trade Organization rules.

Nevertheless, after deciding to postpone enforcement, the governor of North Chungcheong Province said in a press conference that he “actively supports the boycott,” inciting residents to act.

The number of people who responded that they are “participating in the boycott” in a poll conducted by Realmeter, a South Korean public opinion polling company, has continued to increase, from 48% as of July 10 to 72.2% on Nov. 27.

However, with the boycott campaign becoming protracted, South Korean companies have started to express difficulties amid the situation.

On Nov. 11, in a National Assembly session, a senior member of the Korea Civil Aviation Association announced that the decrease in international flights resulting from the declining number of South Koreans visiting Japan would mean a loss of an estimated 780 billion won, or about ¥72 billion, in sales a year, sounding a call for the government support measures.

Some South Korean conservatives are concerned about the impact on retailers selling Japanese products.

The conservative newspaper JoongAng Ilbo already sounded warning bells in editorials in August writing: “Many Korean businesses have been hard hit by the spread of a consumer boycott,” “A state leader must take a calm and strategic approach to every challenge” and “Moon may have further fueled anti-Japanese sentiment … But there are no measures that can cushion the impact on Korean companies, the people and the economy.”

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