Japanese–Korean relations involve three parties: Japan, North Korea, and South Korea. Japan's relations with North Korea and South Korea has a legacy of bitterness stemming from harsh Japanese colonial rule over Korea from 1910 to 1945.
In the early 2000s, Japan-South Korea relationship soured when the Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi visited the Yasukuni shrine. Conflict continues over claims for the Liancourt Rocks, a small island in the Sea of Japan (East Sea). Bilaterally and through the Six-Party Talks, North Korea and Japan continue to discuss Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea during 1970s and 1980s.
Japan-North Korea relations turned more antagonistic in the late 1980s. The two governments did not maintain diplomatic relations and had no substantive contacts. The opposition Japan Socialist Party, however, had cordial relations with the North Korean regime. Japan allowed trade with North Korea only through unofficial channels reportedly exceeding US$200 million annually in the 1980s.
Issues in Japan-North relations that produced tensions included North Korean media attacks on Japan, Japan's imposition of economic sanctions on North Korea for terrorist acts against South Korea in the 1980s, and unpaid North Korean debts to Japanese enterprises of about $50 million.
Until the late 1980s, North Korea's post-World War II policy toward Japan was mainly aimed at minimizing cooperation between South Korea and Japan, and at deterring Japan's rearmament while striving for closer diplomatic and commercial ties with Japan. Crucial to this policy was the fostering within Japan of support for North Korea, especially among the Japanese who supported the Japanese communist and socialist parties and the Korean residents of Japan.
Over the years, however, North Korea did much to discredit itself in the eyes of many potential supporters in Japan. Japanese who had accompanied their spouses to North Korea had endured severe hardships and were prevented from communicating with relatives and friends in Japan. Japan watched with disdain as North Korea gave safe haven to elements of the Japanese Red Army, a terrorist group. North Korea's inability and refusal to pay its debts to Japanese traders also reinforced popular Japanese disdain for North Korea.
Coincidental with the changing patterns in its relations with China and Russia, North Korea has moved to improve its strained relations with Japan. Pyongyang's primary motives appear to be a quest for relief from diplomatic and economic isolation, which has also caused serious shortages of food, energy, and hard currency. Normalization of relations with Japan also raises the possibility of North Korea's gaining monetary compensation for the period of Japan's colonial rule (1910-45), a precedent set when Japan normalized relations with South Korea.
The first round of normalization talks was held January 30- 31, 1991, but quickly broke down over the question of compensation. Pyongyang has demanded compensation for damages incurred during colonial rule as well as for "sufferings and losses" in the post-World War II period. Japan, however, insists that North Korea first resolve its differences with South Korea over the question of bilateral nuclear inspections. Other points of contention are North Korea's refusal both to provide information about Japanese citizens who had migrated to North Korea with their Korean spouses in the 1960s, and the issue of Japanese soldiers taken prisoner by the Soviets during WWII and sent to North Korea.
Many North Korean citizens rely on money sent from relatives in Japan. Some in Japan believe that the government should threaten to cut off those remittances to force Pyongyang to make concessions. Others believe that the hard right in Japan is exploiting that and other issues to advance its own nationalist agenda.
Since normalizing relations at the urging of the United States in 1965, Seoul and Tokyo have held annual foreign ministerial conferences. The usual issues discussed have been trade, the status of the Korean minority population in Japan, the content of textbooks dealing with the relationship, Tokyo's equidistant policy between Pyongyang and Seoul, and the occasional problems.
Roh Tae-woo's Nordpolitik somewhat relaxed Seoul's vehement opposition to Tokyo's approach to Pyongyang. The Japan Socialist Party, in particular, has become active in improving relations not only between Pyongyang and Tokyo, but also between itself and Seoul. As the Japan Socialist Party abandoned its posture favoring Pyongyang, Seoul has welcomed the new equidistant policy, inviting a former secretary general of the Japan Socialist Party, Masashi Ishibashi, to Seoul in October 1988. Ishibashi's visit was unusually productive, not only in improving his party's image in Seoul, but also in his reported willingness to mediate between Seoul and Pyongyang. While Tokyo appeared willing to assist Seoul in improving relations not only with Pyongyang but also with Beijing, it did not seem to welcome the much-improved Seoul-Moscow relationship. Further, Seoul-Tokyo relations became somewhat strained when in 1989 Tokyo began steps to improve relations with Pyongyang.
Japan's trade with South Korea was US$29.1 billion in 1991, with a surplus of nearly US$5.8 billion on the Japanese side. Japanese direct private investment in South Korea totaled US$4.4 billion in 1990. Japanese and South Korean firms often had interdependent relations, which gave Japan advantages in South Korea's growing market. Many South Korean products were based on Japanese design and technology. A surge in imports of South Korean products into Japan in 1990 was partly the result of production by Japanese investors in South Korea.
In 1996 FIFA announced that the two countries would jointly host the 2002 FIFA World Cup. The next few years would see leaders of both countries meet to warm relations in preparations for the games. Though citizens of both countries were initially unhappy about having to share the honors with the other, and the Liancourt Rocks controversy flared up again, it turned out to be very successful.
The year 2005 was designated as the "Japan-South Korea Friendship Year". However, the Liancourt Rocks controversy erupted again when Japan's Shimane prefecture declared "Takeshima Day", inciting mass demonstrations in South Korea. .
Other issues that came up in 2005 included the history textbook controversy. While outrage over these issues is significant, some observers believe that politicians in both countries use them to manipulate public opinion, whipping up nationalist fury to win votes; there appears to be no end in sight to the controversies. There are also concerns in South Korea about Japan's apparent strengthening of its national defense force.
The Japanese onslaught is evident in literature as well. Japanese literature is the most translated foreign literature in South Korea, dominating 32% of the market share. Popular Japanese authors include Haruki Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto, and Kaori Ekuni.
Korean drama production companies are competing to secure the rights to Japanese novels and manga. In the film industry, the number of movies based on Japanese works is also increasing. The recent hit movies Oldboy, 200 Pounds Beauty and the Korean television drama White Tower are both based on original Japanese versions. Howl's Moving Castle, an Japanese animation film, drew 3,000,000 viewers in the South Korean market.