This year marks the 50th anniversary of the normalisation of diplomatic ties between Japan and South Korea, but the path toward improved relations looks arduous due to such ongoing problems as a row over the Takeshima islands and the so-called comfort women issue.
On Sunday, the government dispatched Yohei Matsumoto, parliamentary secretary at the Cabinet Office, to participate in the Takeshima Day ceremony in Matsue hosted by the Shimane prefectural government. This is the third consecutive year the government has sent the parliamentary secretary as a national government representative to the event.
The government decided not to send a higher-ranking official, such as a Cabinet minister or senior vice minister, but the South Korean government protested nevertheless.
"Under the resolve to steadfastly protect our country's territory, territorial waters and territorial airspace, we will do our best to solve the Takeshima issue calmly and peacefully in accordance with the law," Matsumoto said at the ceremony.
The ceremony was attended by about 470 people, including Liberal Democratic Party Acting Secretary General Hiroyuki Hosoda, former Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yoshitaka Shindo, and heads of municipal governments and assembly members in Shimane Prefecture.
Okinoshima Mayor Kazuhisa Matsuda said: "More than 60 years have passed since we became unable to fish around the Takeshima islands. It's extremely regrettable."
Matsuda pressed the central government to take action to solve the issue, saying, "The government's leadership is indispensable to solve the territorial issue."
It was 2013 when the government first sent the parliamentary secretary at the Cabinet Office, who is in charge of territorial issues, to the ceremony. The dispatch of a central government official was aimed at strengthening Japan's sovereignty claim over the Takeshima islands, in response to a visit to the islets by then South Korean President Lee Myung Bak in August 2012.
The Japan-South Korean relationship rapidly cooled after Lee's visit to the islands, known as Dokdo in South Korea. The bilateral relations have remained strained even since February 2013, when Park Geun-hye assumed the presidency.
There has been no bilateral summit between Japan and South Korea since December 2012, when Shinzo Abe was reelected prime minister and launched his second Cabinet.
Abe often stresses Japan's position that his "door for dialogue is always open." However, there is no prospect of a bilateral summit meeting, as Park has continuously urged Japan to make concessions over the comfort women issue.
ROK's rule of law questioned
The Japanese government has increasingly distrusted the South Korean government since last year, as indicated in the policy speech Abe delivered in the Diet on Feb. 12. Abe described South Korea only as "our most important neighbouring country."
In his policy speech last year, Abe called Seoul "our most important neighbouring country, with which we share fundamental values and interests."
A senior Foreign Ministry official said, "Since last summer, South Korea's rule of law and freedom of the press have been questioned, so the government decided not to use the phrase concerning sharing values."
The former Seoul bureau chief of The Sankei Shimbun was indicted without arrest in October last year for allegedly defaming Park in his column. This indictment was a decisive factor behind the changed wording in Abe's policy speech, the official said.
Due to the stagnant political relationship between the two countries, the number of Japanese tourists to South Korea has dropped.
Defence cooperation between Japan and South Korea has also been sluggish. Seoul has unilaterally delayed its signing of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), under which the two countries would exchange a broad range of defence secrets. The Japanese and South Korean governments agreed on the pact in 2012.
Given the circumstances, the major focus this year is whether a bilateral summit meeting will be held at an early date.
The Foreign Ministry is trying to make a breakthrough in the strained relations, and places importance on a meeting between the Japanese, Chinese and South Korean foreign ministers that is scheduled to be held in Seoul in late March. On the sidelines of the meeting, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida plans to hold bilateral talks with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se to exchange opinions on improving ties.
Seoul seeking summit talks
On Sunday, the South Korea government issued a statement by a Foreign Ministry spokesman to protest Matsumoto's attendance at the Takeshima Day ceremony.
The statement said that any provocations over Dokdo, which is clearly an integral part of South Korea's territory in terms of history, geography and international law, would be in vain. However, the South Korean government, according to a South Korean Foreign Ministry official, anticipated Japan's dispatch of the parliamentary secretary to the ceremony.
Seoul remains unchanged in its policy of seeking to achieve a summit meeting between Park and Abe by holding a summit meeting among South Korean, Japanese and Chinese leaders after a planned meeting of South Korean, Japanese and Chinese foreign ministers in late March.