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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Japan and South Korea: A Meeting of Minds

Kengo Okamoto

Aug. 30, 2016

While Japan and South Korea remain at odds over some political issues, high school students from both countries recently got together to find common ground.

They spent nearly a week of their summer vacation in an area of northern Japan that was hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The event helped students try to overcome barriers between them.

Forty high school students from South Korea and 40 from Japan met in the town of Minamisanriku. They were guests of an organization that works to boost economic cooperation between the countries.

Kim Bo-ah, who hopes to work in international trade one day, was one of the participants.

"Like many South Koreans, I have negative feelings about Japan. I only hear the political issues between our countries. But I want to break my prejudice by attending this event," Kim says.

When the girls met, things were awkward at first but they broke the ice by exchanging gifts and practicing a few words. Then they began tackling their first task -- introducing themselves in a foreign language.

"I'm Kim Bo-ah. I'm a first year in my high school," Kim said.

The participants kept bumping into the language barrier so the organizers gave them activities that would get them working together.

The students also took a bus ride to visit areas that were hit by the 2011 tsunami.

"There's still really nothing in Minamisanriku," said the guide, Shun Ito, during the bus tour.

It's the first time organizers have taken a group to the affected areas. They want to let students know about the disaster and the ongoing recovery efforts.

"Only by talking about the disaster can we pass on the experiences to future generations," Ito said.

Signs of the catastrophe are gradually disappearing but students could see the remains of a local government office. Dozens of people were at the building when the tsunami hit and many of them died. The students prayed for their souls.

"I first thought that the land was just like that, I did recognize after seeing the picture, that they usually had a tall building, they had a lot of houses, and hospitals. Then I knew that it was all result of tsunami. Then I felt like how tremendous the effect can be, how it killed many people," Kim said.

The students got on fishing boats to see how the aqua-culture industry is recovering. The South Korean government still prohibits all seafood imports from around the disaster-hit area so the organizers wanted to show the visitors from South Korea that the seafood is safe.

"I was a bit concerned about seafood in Japan. People in my country are a little biased against it, but I'm not so worried now," said Yoon Dong-wook, one of the South Korean students.

Kim Bo-ah and her friends also took part in a summer festival. The organizers wanted to show how locals are trying to bring life back to the area.

There was also a quiz night. Japanese and South Korean students paired up and tried to answer the questions, hoping to overcome the language barrier. It was clear they were getting closer as the trip went on.

"I had a hardship in communicating with them by language, but I am absolutely happy to talk with them by body language. Although we couldn’t communicate well, now we can communicate with our eyes, and we became very closer," Kim said.

"I would like to tell them, to some students who may have some bad impressions on Japan, that that’s wrong. I also want to tell to go and visit Japan because we have many good people here."

NHK World senior correspondent Kengo Okamoto joined anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: The students look like they had a lot of fun. How often is this kind of event held between Japan and South Korea?

Okamoto: The Japan-Korea Economic Association organized this event. It was the 23rd time to take place since 2004. Other similar gatherings have also been held in either country. The Japanese Foreign Ministry said that last year, there were more than 400 events marking the 50th anniversary of the normalization of ties between the 2 nations.

Shibuya: As we saw, the students visited various spots affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster. What kind of impression do you think it made on them?

Okamoto: I was surprised to see the areas had hardly any sign of damage. And I think the students were, too. They had to rely on survivors' stories. A hotel owner shared her experience with the youngsters. She had helped locals during the most difficult time, the several months immediately after the catastrophe.

Many South Koreans are concerned about the effects of radioactivity following the nuclear accident in Fukushima. Japanese organizers earlier tested seafood from the region and showed their Korean counterparts that it was safe. That encouraged organizers to hold the event there.

Beppu: The students became friends after spending a week together. How do you think they felt about the souring relationship between the 2 countries?

Okamoto: Some of the students may have discussed political tensions between their nations during the event. I think the students had opinions and stereotypes regarding their foreign friends before meeting. Their views were made up unconsciously by media and what they've been told. But I believe some prejudices can be changed through interaction. I think this kind of program can help resolve conflicts that affect both countries.