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Japan envoy optimistic about Korea ties

Muto expects this century to bring greater prosperity to both countries

Japanese Ambassador Masatoshi Muto sees a brighter future for Korea-Japan relations.

The growing dinning culture found in each other’s countries symbolizes the strengthening ties.

“Korean food in Japan is becoming very popular,” he told The Korea Herald.

But also, Muto noticed that during the last three years, Japanese restaurants known as izakaya have grown in popularity in Korea.

“The next 100 years are of cooperation between Korea and Japan and you can see that in international relations, where Korea is becoming very active,” he said. “Korea and Japan share the same values and the interest that Korea has with the international society are very similar to the ones Japan has.”

In the past, the Korean economy was heavily dependent on Japanese parts and materials but now that is changing.

“Japanese imports of Korean goods jumped by 53 percent over the last four months,” Muto pointed out.
Japan Ambassador Masatoshi Muto (Yoav Cerralbo/The Korea Herald)
Japan Ambassador Masatoshi Muto (Yoav Cerralbo/The Korea Herald)

Last year, Japan became the top investor in Korea, making $2 billion worth of investments.

More and more Japanese companies are inquiring about investment in Korea over other East Asian economies.

For Muto, the future is in the infrastructure development sector.

According to OECD figures, infrastructure development investments around the globe are worth $71 trillion which is 3,500 times more than the total trade of Korean exports to Japan.

“Korea is very active in pursuing this plant manufacturing all over the world,” he said. “If Korea and Japan become partners we can occupy a fairly big share of this $71 trillion over the next 20 years.”

Also, Muto sees a strong possibility of synergy in the energy sector.

“Energy and resource producers monopolize their resources so if Korea and Japan work together it would be advantageous for both countries and we are doing that a lot,” he said.

While Korea and Japan are signing free trade agreements with important trading partners and also looking at the possibility of furthering such an agreement between both countries, Muto believes that this economic relationship can take a broader route than the confines of a trade pact.

“The FTA would be a very important part of it because it symbolizes the closeness of our economies and it would support the integration of our two economies.

“If we are going work together in the world, how can our economies be divided by borders,” he said. “The scope of our economic cooperation would be much bigger than an FTA.”

Muto believes that a Korea-Japan FTA should consist of everything including sensitive sectors like automotive and agriculture.

Like the rest of the world, Japan is also looking at the Korean experience to help bring it to the next level.

“Japanese development was a good example for Korea to look at, but now we are going to look at how Korea is overcoming our experiences,” he said.

While Korea and Japan are entering into a new stage of their economic relationship, Japan is undergoing one of their biggest challenges since the end of World War II.

In March, a ferocious tsunami spawned by one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded slammed Japan’s eastern coast disabling the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant’s cooling system, leading to nuclear radiation leaks and triggering a 30 kilometer evacuation zone surrounding the plant.

Koreans opened their wallets and purses and donated in large sums to help their neighbors overcome this hardship.

“The warmth of the support was so heartwarming. Everybody felt that it was their own disaster and Koreans really thought about us and helped us, I really appreciate that; this feeling is shared by many people in Japan,” he said.

The natural course of events following the meltdown of the plant deterred tourists from visiting the archipelago and damaged agricultural exports.

The World Health Organization says that the health risks in Japan beyond the 30 kilometer evacuation zone are low.

In response to the nuclear accident in Japan, Japanese authorities have instituted monitoring of food products and have restricted the consumption and distribution of some products from certain prefectures or areas.

“We are eating the food (from other areas of Japan) and are making absolutely sure that we are providing safe food,” he said.

But the biggest problem right now for Japan are the “fake rumors” floating around about the safety of their agricultural products.

“We overreact to guarantee the safety of people, which in the short term reflects in a negative way because they say that we took drastic action, but actually we take these actions to ensure safety,” Muto said.

Tourists are also starting to come to Japan again, marked Muto.

In early May, Koreans made up the largest number of visitors to Japan. Tour operators are offering almost 50 percent discounts on trips to places like Hokkaido and Sendai Airport will resume international flights in the weeks to come.

Muto is also proposing that local broadcasters visit Hiraizumi which was recommended as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

What makes this ancient city special besides its historical buildings is that it was virtually unscathed by the earthquake that ravaged everything around it.

Relations between both countries also moved forward recently when the Japanese government agreed to return ancient Korean texts to Seoul.

“We are happy we did that and we will honor that good faith,” Muto said.

By Yoav Cerralbo (