Japan and South Korea are in a loggerhead over a Japanese decision to tighten control on exports of high-tech components to the neighboring country. The decision was first announced right after the end of G 20 summit in Osaka in July. Japan is extremely unhappy over some of the recent developments in South Korea, particularly over the decision of the highest court in Seoul ordering a number of Japanese companies to pay compensation to Koreans who claimed to have been forced to work in related affiliates of those companies during World War II. Moreover, the court has also approved seizure of assets of those companies in case they fail to pay compensation.

The decision of the Japanese government to curb export to South Korea of materials that are used for producing mobile phones and semi-conductors is seen by many as a punitive action against South Korea's increasingly hostile moves against what Seoul sees as Japan's past mistakes. Tokyo, however, has denied having any such link, though failed to provide reasons convincing enough to justify that claim. A number of meetings between the officials of two countries, including the one between the foreign ministers, not only failed to close the gap, but widened the rift further. At a recent meeting in Bangkok, the two top diplomats of neighboring countries were seen facing each other in a tense atmosphere reflecting the hostile mood. So, the show continues with no sign of when the curtain is supposed to be dropped.

Moving a step further, the Japanese government has also taken a cabinet decision last Friday removing South Korea from the list of preferential trade partners. The decision is to take effect from around August 23, which would compel South Korean firms apply for individual permission each time they would like to import one of more than a thousand high-tech materials and products. And in another latest development, the Aichi Triennale 2019, a major art festival in central Japan, has decided to shut down a section of the exhibition focusing on freedom of expression. At the center of dispute is a statue of a girl sitting in a chair, similar to one placed in front of the former Japanese embassy building in Seoul that symbolizes wartime comfort women, a historical fact that Japanese government is uncomfortable with.

The term comfort women, which in Japanese language is pronounced as 'ianfu', is used to depict the plight of women who were employed to provided sexual services to Japanese troops during World War II. Many of those young girls were forced to join the rank and many among those were of Korean ethnicity. This has left a prolonged impact on Korean psyche as many in Korean Peninsula see such Japanese act synonymous to arrogant colonial mentality. South Korea is demanding that Japan extend formal apology to such victims and pay compensation.

The statue of the girl is an artwork that was on display at Aichi Triennale's section titled "After 'Freedom of Expression?'" Most of the works displayed on that section could not be displayed in the past in Japan due to censorship or self-censorship. So, the Triennale's attempt to bring all such works in one section of an important art event was seen as a bold attempt in defense of freedom of expression. However, Aichi Governor Hideaki Omura, who also heads the organizing committee, announced last Saturday that he had received a number of threatening e-mails, phone calls and fax messages and as a result there had been growing worries about the safety of managing the exhibition. The organizers subsequently had come to a decision to close the section completely.

On the other hand, the growing tensions between the neighbors are also taking a toll on Japanese cultural export. The release of the latest segment of popular Japanese animation series 'Doraemon' has been postponed in South Korea indefinitely. It has been reported in the media that movie theatres across the country refrained from booking the film fearing the anti-Japan sentiment that now gradually spreading all over the country.

The growing antagonism against Japan is also harming other businesses related to culture and entertainment. In the southern city of Busan, restaurants are putting up signs reading no-entry to Japanese customers. In Seoul protest rallies calling upon Koreans to retaliate against Japanese actions are becoming a regular feature, though some are also calling citizens to remain calm. Citizens are also signing petitions urging the government to take tough action against what they see as high handed Japanese attitude. The South Korean presidential office accepts petitions from the public and the government is obliged to respond if the number of signatories exceeds 200,000. One of the petitions is calling for boycotting 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

So, what's next? There is no sign that the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in a mood to discuss the issue with the South Korean President Moon Jae-in. This leaves the field open for the entry of a third party to mediate in the dispute. But who will be that third party remains a guessing game. The US administration has hinted about its willingness to remain in the sideline as the two neighbors sort out the differences among themselves. This might open the door for a Chinese entry.

It has been reported in the media that Japan, China and South Korea are considering the idea to hold their annual three-party summit in December. China, which is to take the rotating leadership for this year's trilateral framework, was hoping to organize the meeting earlier. However, due to Japanese prime minister's busy involvement during much of the second half of the year, Japan has expressed the desire for a later date and China is now proposing to hold the summit in December. It might provide an opportunity for both Japan and South Korea to sort out outstanding issues that not only are eroding mutual trust, but also harming them economically. However, much will depend on where the surging tide of populism might take the leadership of both the countries to before the planned trilateral summit.

(Tokyo, August 5, 2019)

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