Japanese-Korean relations are loaded with controversial issues. As there are two Koreas as of 2006, there are now three partners to the relationship, Japan, North Korea and South Korea.
Japan's policies toward the two Koreas reflects the importance this area had for Asian stability, which is seen as essential to Japanese peace and prosperity. Japan is one of four major powers (along with the United States, China, and Russia) that have important security interests on the Korean Peninsula. However, Japan's involvement in political and security issues on the Korean Peninsula is more limited than that of the other three powers. Japan's relations with North Korea and South Korea has a legacy of bitterness stemming from harsh Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. Polls during the postwar period in Japan and South Korea showed that the people of each nation had a profound dislike of the other country and their people.
Article 9 of Japan's constitution is interpreted to bar Japan from entering into security relations with countries other than the United States. Consequently, Japan had no substantive defense relationship with South Korea, and military contacts were infrequent. The Japanese government supported noncommunist South Korea in other ways. It backed United States contingency plans to dispatch United States armed forces in Japan to South Korea in case of a North Korean attack on South Korea. It also acted as an intermediary between South Korea and China. It pressed the Chinese government to open and expand relations with South Korea in the 1980s.
Japan's trade with South Korea was US$29.1 billion in 1991, with a surplus of nearly US$5.8 billion on the Japanese side. Japanese direct private investment in South Korea totaled US$4.4 billion in 1990. Japanese and South Korean firms often had interdependent relations, which gave Japan advantages in South Korea's growing market. Many South Korean products were based on Japanese design and technology. A surge in imports of South Korean products into Japan in 1990 was partly the result of production by Japanese investors in South Korea.
Japan-North Korea relations remained antagonistic in the late 1980s. The two governments did not maintain diplomatic relations and had no substantive contacts. The opposition Japan Socialist Party, however, had cordial relations with the North Korean regime.
Issues in Japan-North Korea relations that produced tensions included North Korean media attacks on Japan, Japan's imposition of economic sanctions on North Korea for terrorist acts against South Korea in the 1980s, and unpaid North Korean debts to Japanese enterprises of about $50 million. Japan allowed trade with North Korea through unofficial channels. This unofficial trade reportedly came to more than US$200 million annually in the 1980s.
In the early 1990s, Japan continued to conduct lengthy negotiations with North Korea aimed at establishing diplomatic relations with Pyeongyang while maintaining its relations with Seoul. In January 1991, Japan began normalization talks with Pyeongyang with a formal apology for its 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. The negotiations were aided by Tokyo's support of a proposal for simultaneous entry to the United Nations by North Korea and the Republic of Korea (South Korea); the issues of international inspection of North Korean nuclear facilities and the nature and amount of Japanese economic assistance, however, proved more difficult to negotiate.
In the early 2000s, the Japanese are continuing to dispute with the South and North Koreans. However that escalated since the prime minister honored the Yasukuni shrine. Also, Japan is negotiating about Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea during 1970s and 1980s. Japan is also claiming an island in the East Sea which is under South Korean control since 1950.
Korea is geographically close, yet emotionally distant from Japan. Given the historical relationship between the two countries, the paradoxical nature of their relation is readily understandable. Since normalizing relations at the urging of the United States in 1965, Seoul and Tokyo have held annual foreign ministerial conferences. The usual issues discussed have been trade, the status of the Korean minority population in Japan, the content of textbooks dealing with the relationship, Tokyo's equidistant policy between Pyongyang and Seoul, and the occasional problems.
At the first of three ministerial conferences held in 1987 (in Seoul, New York, and Geneva, respectively), the two countries' foreign ministers discussed pending issues, including Seoul's trade deficit with Tokyo. The Japanese minister of foreign affairs pledged to assist Seoul in its role as host of the Olympics. Seoul and Tokyo signed a bilateral agreement on sea rescue and emergency cooperation.
The 1988 foreign ministerial conference was held in Tokyo. There the two countries agreed to expand exchanges of youths, students, and teachers, and to establish the twenty-first century committee between the two nations, as well as a joint security consultative committee for the Seoul Olympics.
Roh Tae-woo's Nordpolitik somewhat relaxed Seoul's vehement opposition to Tokyo's approach to Pyongyang. The Japan Socialist Party, in particular, has become active in improving relations not only between Pyongyang and Tokyo, but also between itself and Seoul. As the Japan Socialist Party abandoned its posture favoring Pyeongyang, Seoul has welcomed the new equidistant policy, inviting a former secretary general of the Japan Socialist Party, Ishibashi Masashi, to Seoul in October 1988. Ishibashi's visit was unusually productive, not only in improving his party's image in Seoul, but also in his reported willingness to mediate between Seoul and Pyeongyang. While Tokyo appeared willing to assist Seoul in improving relations not only with Pyeongyang but also with Beijing, it did not seem to welcome the much-improved Seoul-Moscow relationship. Further, Seoul-Tokyo relations became somewhat strained when in 1989 Tokyo began steps to improve relations with Pyeongyang.
In 1996 FIFA announced that the two countries would jointly host the 2002 World Cup. The next few years would see leaders of both countries meet to warm relations in preparations for the games. Though citizens of both countries were initially unhappy about having to share the honors with the other, and the Dokdo controversy flared up again, it turned out to be very successful.
In 2005, despite having been declared the "Korea-Japan Friendship Year", was a tempestuous one. Dokdo controversy erupted again when Japan's Shimane prefecture declared "Takeshima Day" and asserted Japan's claim over the islets. The response in South Korea was impassioned outrage, with large demonstrations in the streets, an official "Dokdo Song" taught to schoolchildren, and a general outpouring of anti-Japanese sentiment. One man set himself on fire in protest, and another man and his mother cut a finger off.
Other issues which came up that year included the question of compensation for comfort women; the history textbook controversy; and the revelation of secret compensation for colonialism paid to South Korea in 1965. While outrage over these issues is real, some observers believe that politicians in both countries use them to manipulate public opinion, whipping up nationalist fury to win votes; there appears to be no end in sight to the controversies. There are also concerns in South Korea about Japan's apparent strengthening of its national defense force. A relatively minor issue which has been back in the news recently is the issue of compensation for Korean leprosy patients who say they were ill-treated during the colonial period. 
Despite these continuing controversial and hurtful issues, Korean pop culture is popular in Japan. Dubbed the "Korean wave", Korean singer who can speak Japanese (BOA), and television dramas are avidly consumed. In 2004, The Nihon Keizai Shimbun attributes the success of Korean wave to the pioneering efforts of Winter Sonata,which has been avidly consumed by Japanese people especially of women 40 years or older. The audience rating of the drama was 20.6%. A novel based on the drama has sold over 1.2 million copies and over 400,000 copies of DVD compilation has been sold. However, there has been a backlash; a book published in 2005 was usually translated as "Hate the Korean Wave". It sold well enough that a sequel was released. Now, the Korean wave is in the contrary wind.
Broadcasting stations other than NHK completed the withdrawal from the South Korea drama. For instance, The program of the South Korean drama could not exceed 5% of viewership, And the program was abolished.
The Japanese culture has received the limitation of Ban on Japanese Culture of the South Korea government. A Japanese popular song is prohibited in South Korea. As for the drama, only the drama jointly made with South Korea is open to the public. It was permitted to the Japanese movie to open it to the public in South Korea in 2003.
The right to possess a group of islets in the East Sea remains a point of contention between Japan and Korea. Dokdo, known as Takeshima in Japan, has been under South Korean control since 1954 by the first president of Korea, Syngman Rhee (李承晩).
Until the late 1980s, North Korea's post-World War II policy toward Japan was mainly aimed at minimizing cooperation between Japan and South Korea, and at deterring Japan's rearmament while striving for closer diplomatic and commercial ties with Japan. Crucial to this policy was the fostering within Japan of support for North Korea, especially among the Japanese who supported the Japanese communist and socialist parties and the Korean residents of Japan. Over the years, however, North Korea did much to discredit itself in the eyes of many potential supporters in Japan. Japanese who had accompanied their spouses to North Korea had endured severe hardships and were prevented from communicating with relatives and friends in Japan. Japan watched with disdain as North Korea gave safe haven to elements of the Japanese Red Army, a terrorist group. North Korea's inability and refusal to pay its debts to Japanese traders also reinforced popular Japanese disdain for North Korea.
Coincidental with the changing patterns in its relations with China and Russia, North Korea has moved to improve its strained relations with Japan. Pyeongyang's primary motives appear to be a quest for relief from diplomatic and economic isolation, which has also caused serious shortages of food, energy, and hard currency. Normalization of relations with Japan also raises the possibility of North Korea's gaining monetary compensation for the period of Japan's colonial rule (1910-45), a precedent set when Japan normalized relations with South Korea.
The first round of normalization talks was held January 30- 31, 1991, but quickly broke down over the question of compensation. Pyeongyang has demanded compensation for damages incurred during colonial rule as well as for "sufferings and losses" in the post-World War II period. Japan, however, insists that North Korea first resolve its differences with South Korea over the question of bilateral nuclear inspections. Other points of contention are North Korea's refusal both to provide information about Japanese citizens who had migrated to North Korea with their Korean spouses in the 1960s, and to discuss the case of Yi Un Hee, a Korean resident of Japan whom North Korean agents had kidnapped to North Korea to teach Japanese in a school for espionage agents. For many years the North denied the abductions but admitted to 13 of them in 2002. In 2002 and 2004, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made two high-profile visits to Pyongyang to press for their return. North Korea eventually returned some of the kidnapped, claiming that the rest had died. The positive effect on relations disintegrated when Japan claimed that a DNA test had proved that the returned remains of Megumi Yokota, kidnapped at 13 and said by the North to have committed suicide, were in fact not hers.
Many North Korean citizens rely on money sent from relatives in Japan. Some in Japan believe that the government should threaten to cut off those remittances to force Pyeongyang to make concessions. Others believe that the hard right in Japan is exploiting that and other issues to advance its own nationalist agenda.