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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Retracing Path of Peace

May 22, 2015

Japan and South Korea are marking the 50th anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic ties. But lately, relations between the 2 nations have been strained. Ties date back over a thousand years. In the 17th century, Korean kings sent representatives to Japan to strengthen ties. The practice lasted for 2-and-a-half centuries.

Now a group of Japanese and South Koreans has retraced the steps of one of the early diplomatic missions in an effort to promote peace and reinforce their bond. The participants covered about 1,200 kilometers in 52 days. They traveled by foot, ferry and bus. Others joined along the way, with a total of 2,600 people taking part. On Friday, they arrived in Tokyo, completing their journey.

People from Japan and South Korea kick off their walk with a celebration in Seoul. The journey has been held every 2 years since 2007. Participants walk most of the day. They average about 30 kilometers a day. A majority of them are Japanese.

A Japanese participant says she wants to do her best to complete the walk. A Korean participant says she will need to stay in good condition so that she can reach Tokyo. The language barrier makes it difficult for participants to get to know each other. It makes for a quiet journey at first.

A South Korean organizer said they decided to promote friendship between the 2 nations by understanding the hardships experienced by those who worked to improve bilateral ties in the past.

One of the participants is Yeo Woon-jun. He’s the 11th generation grandson of Yeo U-gil, a man who led an envoy to Japan in the year 1607. Yeo visits U-gil’s grave before departing. The inscription on the tombstone says it took U-gil 8 months to complete the roundtrip journey to Japan. Yeo says he wants to see whether a poem written by U-gil and left behind in Japan still exists.

On this day, Yeo and the other participants hike through a steep pass, which is a key passage. Yeo says it was cold and windy. He says that when he climbed up, he was sweating, but when he descended, he shivered from the cold. He says it must have been even tougher for his ancestors.

During a break, Japanese and South Korean walkers share Korean sweets. They also share some hardships. After a short break, they continue on their journey. Yeo talks to one of the Japanese participants. They don’t speak each other’s languages, but they communicate by writing down characters common to both languages.

Barriers between the participants from the 2 countries gradually begin to break down. A Japanese organizer points out that relations between both governments are strained, and in this situation, grassroots exchanges are important.

After walking through South Korea, they board a ferry for Japan and cross the same seas as their ancestors. They arrive at Seikenji Temple in the city of Shizuoka. It’s the same temple where the original envoys stayed. Their legacy remains in the form of poems and engravings.

Yeo finds a poem left by his ancestor U-gil. He says he was very impressed to see the poem. He believes U-gil’s soul remains alive here. They traveled over mountains and across the sea, and 1,200 kilometers later, the participants finally arrive at their destination: Tokyo.

A Japanese participant says Japanese and Koreans can establish an emotional connection with each other if they take the time.

Yeo says he was very happy to reach the goal, and felt it was worth it. He says the walk has helped him to feel closer to Japanese people, and it feels as if they’ve become a family.

Yeo plans to carry on the mission’s aim of spreading friendship and peace.

Sun Sang-kyu, President of the Korea Athletic Promotion Association and one of the organizers of the walk joins Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio. He’s wearing the same style of clothing as his ancestors.

Beppu: Has joining the event changed how you view Japanese people?

Sun: My impression of Japanese people was not good when I was growing up because of my personal history. My father was taken to work in Japan under the Japanese colonial rule. So I was in doubt when I first participated in the event in 2007. But after almost 10 years of taking part, I’m glad that I decided to do it, because in the process, I was able to build strong trust and friendship with Japanese people.

Beppu: This is an 18th century painting of Seikenji Temple by a member of the Korean mission. People made this journey in the past to strengthen ties. What can we do today to make this relationship better now, and in the future?

Sun: In my personal opinion, I think that there should be more private organizations like ours in various fields to make prospered movement. I believe people with the same purpose and interests can actually reach solutions to improve relations between the 2 countries. And I think building strong trust between the 2 nations is the most important thing. In order to build trust, the 2 countries should work together to resolve any issues that need to be dealt with and to overcome what’s happened in the past.