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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Small Island with Big Role

Jihae Hwang

Jun. 15, 2015

South Korean tourists are flocking to a small Japanese island that has a key role to play in building a bridge between the two nations. Tsushima, in southwest Japan, is a historical hub for trade and cultural exchanges. Fresh efforts to attract South Korean visitors have been successful despite strained diplomatic ties.

People who live on the island have been marking the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea with a series of events. One of the most popular is a parade and historical re-enactment of envoy missions from the Korean Peninsula to Tsushima that occurred between the 17th and 19th centuries。During that period, Japan followed an isolationist foreign policy, but did trade with selected partners.

The re-enactment parades in Tsushima started more than 30 years ago and continue thanks largely to the commitment of one local man who researches history to recreate costumes and accessories that were worn by South Korean envoys who passed through the island during Japan’s closed-door period. Shinjuro Shono pays close attention to detail. “We had to be right because many of the spectators were Koreans,” he says. “Even though our budget was small, we aimed to accurately recreate the costumes of 300 years ago.”

Shono’s efforts have helped attract tourists and the island also boasts a marathon and a music festival. About 500 South Koreans visit each day, taking advantage of the island’s proximity and access. Tsushima is just 50km away from South Korea and a round-trip boat ticket costs about $30.

As Japan’s diplomatic ties with its neighbor have soured, relations on Tsushima itself faced a setback three years ago when South Korean thieves stole two sculptures from a temple. Locals felt they had no choice but to stop the popular parades that honor the tourists from yesteryear, but Shono and his supporters stepped in to ensure they continued. “Tsushima must never stop these exchanges with Korea. This is the path we need to take. I think the people of Tsushima need to recognize that exchanges with Korea must go even further,” he says.

Shono hopes personal relationships forged between visitors and locals can help diffuse the tension between the two countries. People who call Tsushima home have a unique perspective on how to get along with their close neighbors. And there are economic benefits, with the island’s tourism industry estimated to bring in $26 million annually in a boost for a region that struggles with a dwindling and ageing population.