December 17, 2006
The emperor Wendi of the Sui dynasty of ancient China either thought big or was good at bragging. He said, “How can I allow the people of the Jin dynasty to live in despair and pain because of a small river which is like a belt in width?” In fact, the Yangtze River at its lower reaches was wide enough to be easily taken for an ocean. But he used that excuse to conquer the Jin state that lay across the river. That is the source of the expression “neighbors with a belt of water in between,” often used by the Japanese to refer to Korea-Japan relations. Tottori Prefecture, facing the East Sea (Sea of Japan), demonstrates this expression well. In 1819, a Joseon dynasty boat embarked at Pyonghae, Gangwon province, with 12 merchants aboard. Caught in a storm, the boat drifted to the coast of Tottori Prefecture. Local officials rescued the merchants, took good care of them and sent them home safely. Much later, in 1991, old scrolls were found in the Tottori area. They contained a drawing of the incident, thank-you letters from the sailors and a list of the castaways. Tottori Prefecture authorities traced the descendants of the people on the list and held an event to commemorate the incident. This incident has since been widely used as a symbol of friendship between Korea and Japan. But Tottori’s history is not all pretty. Take Dokdo, called Takeshima in Japanese. Old Japanese records state that in 1618, the Otani and Murakawa families of Tottori received government permits to cross the sea border, and they fished near the islets on the way to and from Ulleung Island. Based on this document, Japanese experts claim that the islets were part of Tottori at that time. Recently some Tottori council members and right-wing organizations tried to designate a Takeshima Day, but had to stand down in the face of opposition. A standing committee reviewed their request and deferred the decision, saying there was no reason to designate the day if it would damage relations with Korea. The committee was aware of the consequences that occurred last year, when Shimane Prefecture designated a Takeshima Day and damaged diplomatic relations. Meanwhile, Masan, a Korean city that responded to Shimane’s Takeshima Day with a Daemado Day, decided to shelve its plan for a commemoration this year in an attempt to improve relations with Japan. It seems that local governments in both countries have become more mature after enduring Takeshima Day controversies. The expression “neighbors with a belt of water in between” sounds more meaningful these days.
The writer is a Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Ye Young-june