Photo/Illutration Guests pose for the camera in “yukata” casual kimono outside the Tomonoya Japanese-style ryokan in Gyeongju, South Korea, on Jan. 24. The inn, which opened in the ancient capital in March 2021, has received positive responses for the yukata it offers for its guests to wear, officials said. (Takuya Suzuki)

SEOUL--South Korea’s strained bilateral relations with Japan barely surfaced during the nation’s recent bitter presidential election, which saw former Prosecutor General Yoon Suk-yeol emerge victorious.

Yoon, of the main opposition People Power Party, never talked about concrete solutions to wartime, territorial and trade disputes between the two nations during campaigning in the March 9 poll. 

His defeated opponent, Lee Jae-myung, who ran on the ticket of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, is known for his tough stance on Japan. However, the former governor of Gyeonggi province seldom touched upon ties with Japan during his stump speeches.

Among young South Koreans, the troubled relations between the two countries appear to have less influence when it comes to their consumer behavior. 


Tomonoya, a Japanese-style ryokan, opened in March last year in Gyeongju, the ancient capital of the Silla kingdom in southeastern South Korea. The inn has enjoyed popularity with customers, and particularly with women in their 20s through 30s and families with children.

Tomonoya has won a reputation for allowing its customers to soak up Japanese culture in an Instagram-friendly, photogenic environment at a time when it remains difficult to travel overseas because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Installed in every one of the ryokan’s 22 guest rooms is a Japanese-style bath with a tub made of cypress wood, the pride and joy of the establishment.

The inn had no vacancies on a recent weekday in late January, when three university students, in “yukata” casual kimono, were seen taking photos outside the ryokan’s entrance.

“I like Japanese culture and food very much,” said 19-year-old Jho Eun, one of the trio.

Lee Jin-woo, the 35-year-old operator of Tomonoya, worked for a major fashion industry company for eight years after he graduated from a university. He then became an entrepreneur.

Lee spent about a year studying ryokan and hotels of Japan after an acquaintance advised him that he would find an enthusiastic market among the public if he were to build Japanese-style hotels, of which there were none in South Korea.

He collected funds from individual investors and took out loans to open the first inn of the Tomonoya chain on Geoje Island, in the southeast of the country, in 2019. He went on to open two more last year, including the one in Gyeongju.

Lee said his ryokan are operating at an occupancy rate of nearly 100 percent every day, and the majority of their guests have visited Japan on trips.

“Japan was the most common destination for South Koreans traveling abroad before the pandemic set in,” he said. “Issues of shared history do not come into play when it comes to touristic appeal.”

A Japanese-style bath with a tub made of cypress wood is seen in a guest room at the Tomonoya ryokan in Gyeongju, South Korea, on Jan. 24. (Takuya Suzuki)

Lee said he believes that young people have few opportunities in their daily lives to reflect on the history of Japan’s colonial rule over Korea, which lasted from 1910 through 1945.

Lee, a fan of Japanese TV dramas, has traveled to Japan on many occasions. He began operating the ryokan because he had a positive impression of Japan.

Lee said he believes that Japan and South Korea should cooperate over security matters because both countries are in similar positions in the face of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs and the U.S.-China rivalry.

“We should not be dwelling on the past,” he said in lamenting the strained bilateral relations.

But he also said he is skeptical of Tokyo’s position that the issues of shared history, including that of wartime Korean laborers, have been “settled.”

Other young people of his generation appear to share a similar stance as Lee toward Japan. In fact, many young South Koreans participated in the 2019 boycott of Japanese products in protest against Tokyo’s imposition of export restrictions.


At the same time, though, there is currently a Japan boom of sorts, mostly among young people, as the pandemic drags on. Lines form on most weekends outside famous tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlet), ramen and other Japanese-style restaurants in Seoul.

Nijimori Studio, a tourist facility that opened last autumn in Dongducheon outside Seoul, is another popular haunt in the same vein. The theme park, initially built as a studio for shooting dramas in, is home to Japanese-style buildings and retro-style shops.

“Streets are clean in Japan, where there are also a lot of good things to eat,” said a 31-year-old woman who was strolling in rented yukata in the theme park on a recent national holiday in late January. “I came here because I cannot go to Japan due to the pandemic.”

The woman said, however, that she had taken part, for some time, in the boycott of Japanese goods.

“It’s a different matter when it comes to the issues of shared history and the territorial dispute,” she said. “Japan should admit (to its responsibility) when and where it should.”

Visitors crowd the Nijimori Studio Japanese-style theme park in Dongducheon, South Korea, on Jan. 31. (Takuya Suzuki)

Parties including the Seoul National University Asian Center in January released the results of a survey, in which respondents were asked to choose from six diplomatic issues the ones that the incoming government of the new president should focus on.

Some 70 percent said it should place emphasis on strengthening the alliance with the United States.

The fewest proportion of respondents, at slightly less than 30 percent, said the next government should focus on restoring ties with Japan. That is likely a sign of the growing public indifference to the soured relations, which have become the norm.

A legal process, in the meantime, is under way in South Korea for converting Japanese companies’ assets in the country into cash, through selling them off, to pay compensation to wartime Korean laborers who won lawsuits in the country. If such forced reparations were to become a reality, that “could catastrophically worsen bilateral ties,” a Japanese government official said.

If the worsening spat were to hit headlines, young South Koreans who are enjoying Japanese culture and are usually giving little thought to the issues of shared history could turn against Japan at any moment.

At the same time, young South Koreans are also reflecting on the new bilateral ties that they will be creating in their own time.

“It is certainly never easy to settle the bilateral issues of shared history,” Lee said. “If there are more opportunities to learn about the culture of each other’s nation, however, that will gradually help deepen mutual understanding. And I hope to play a role in that process in what little way I can.”