Photo/Illutration Seoul’s Hongdae district, a popular gathering spot for young people, features many Japanese restaurants, such as izakaya pubs and ramen shops. (Narumi Ota)

A sophomore at Meiji University in Tokyo who is a big fan of the K-pop girl group Twice and mastered writing hangul in high school plans to study in South Korea this summer. 

“I know Japan and South Korea are not on the same page in terms of historical perceptions of their shared past,” the 20-year-old said. “But my love for South Korea is a different thing.”

The woman’s sentiment toward Japan’s neighbor exemplifies how young people in the countries are coming closer together in recent years despite years of frosty relations between Tokyo and Seoul.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s visit to Japan on March 16, the first in more than a decade for a summit with the Japanese prime minister, comes amid this backdrop.

SEKC Kankoku Ryugaku, a company that arranges study programs for Japanese students in South Korea, said more than 600 Japanese students signed up in 2022, 1.5 to 1.8 times the number prior to the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

Most Japanese students were in their late 20s and early 30s previously, according to the South Korean company. But the largest age group now comprises those in their late teens and early 20s.

Sejong University in Seoul said the number of Japanese students studying in South Korea rose to third in 2022 from fifth in 2019 in terms of nationality.

Educational institutions in Japan also witnessed an increase in the number of students wishing to study Korean.

When Kanto International Senior High School in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward launched a Korean language course in 2000, only seven students enrolled.

But enrollment began climbing around 2010 and today about 40 students are attending the course.

“Now, many of our students are studying Korean with a specific aim, such as becoming an interpreter or working for a South Korean company,” said Shinji Kurosawa, deputy principal of the school.

Mejiro University, located in the capital’s Shinjuku Ward, reported a shortage of applicants for its Korean language major in fiscal 2005. The number later shot up tenfold, however, leading the university to set up Korean language studies as part of its Foreign Language Studies Department.

A past Korean boom in Japan wound down as bilateral relations soured.

But that pattern does not necessarily hold true today, said Kim Kyung-ho, professor of Korean studies at Mejiro University.

Although South Korea’s top court ordered Japanese businesses in 2018 to pay compensation to their wartime Korean laborers, which significantly strained ties between Tokyo and Seoul, the Korean boom remained largely unaffected by the row, he said.

“Today’s youth in Japan have been immersed in Korean culture since they were very young and they keep informed about the latest events in South Korea through social media,” Kim said. “They look at South Korea without being exposed to prejudice.”

That also seems to be the case with young Koreans.

In Seoul, a 23-year-old college student expressed excitement on March 13 after she emerged from a movie theater.

“It was great!” the student said of “Suzume no Tojimari” (Suzume), the latest by anime director Makoto Shinkai.

The anime ranked at the top of the domestic box office between March 10-12, according to the Korean Film Council. The second was “The First Slam Dunk,” another Japanese anime, which has attracted more than 4 million audience members overall.

The student, 23, traveled to Tokyo last fall. Although she does not support the South Korean government’s plan to resolve the issue of wartime laborers by setting up a foundation for the payment of redress, that does not dampen her admiration for Japanese culture.

“I like that Japan and Koreans are open to anime and other culture from Japan,” she said.

In Tokyo, a 23-year-old college student from South Korea took a photo with the giant Unicorn Gundam Robot in Tokyo’s Odaiba district on March 9, signaling a similar sentiment.

“My grandfather harbors ill feelings toward Japan,” she said. “But I separate history and politics. I pay my regards to Japanese culture.”

In Seoul, a 29-year-old graduate school student said travel restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic offered an opportunity for people in the two countries to "realize afresh that we do not dislike each other after all."

While South Korean TV dramas were huge hits in Japan, South Koreans built up a desire to travel again to Japan.

How people in Japan and South Korea view each other differs from generation to generation, according to Lee Won-deog, professor of Korea-Japan relations at Kookmin University in Seoul.

“Middle-age people or older tend to take a hard-line stance toward historical issues as they have a strong inferiority complex as Japan was a major power for their generation,” he said. “But younger generations today regard Japan as an equal partner. I believe Japanese have a similar attitude.”

(This article was written by Natsuki Edogawa and Eriko Noda in Tokyo and Narumi Ota in Seoul.)