A delegation of 28 Korean university students, as part of the “Korean-Japan Youth Exchange Program,” visited Japan, where they earned an enthusiastic reception from Japanese audiences for the performances they staged at the Korea-Japan Exchange Festival.
I would have to admit that the students who had been selected to represent Korea, as part of a Korea-Japan Youth Exchange Program, were not necessarily an elite group, although it was necessary to undergo interview sessions in Japanese and English. As for myself, it seemed that my selection was based on my dedication to the promotion of cultural diplomacy and some good luck. Indeed, along with our self-introduction essays and interview sessions, the personal determination of candidates, in terms of satisfying the program’s objectives, was the most relevant factor of the selection process.Passionate Performance
This year marks the 38th year of the annual Korea-Japan Youth Exchange Program, which was launched in 1972 when about 20 students from each side visited each other’s country, as a follow-up measure to an agreement reached at the fifth Korea-Japan Ministerial Conference in August 1971. In particular, the exchange program sought to enhance Korea-Japan relations by providing Korean and Japanese university students as the leaders of tomorrow with an opportunity to better understand each other’s culture and people.
The Korea Foundation has organized the overall exchange program since 1992, at the request of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This exchange program now plays an important role in the cultural/academic exchange of the two countries as the scale of the delegations was increased from 20 to 30 in 2002, when the FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan event intensified interest in Korea-Japan relations. With such a profound significance on Korea-Japan cultural diplomacy, the Korean student delegation to Japan received greater attention this year than in previous years because the Korea-Japan Friendship Festival was being held for the first time in Tokyo during the delegation’s stay in Japan.
The delegation first visited several of Japan’s cultural treasures including Nagoya Castle, Shirakawa-go and Gokayama (UNESCO World Heritage sites), and Kenrokuen, one of the most magnificent gardens in Japan. As the delegation members busily made efforts to make Korea known to the Japanese people, even while visiting such sites, I could better appreciate the ability to promote cultural diplomacy through personal endeavors. After this sightseeing, the Korean university student delegation prepared to participate in the Korea-Japan Friendship Festival 2009 in Tokyo, which was the most important event on our itinerary. Held at Roppongi Hills Arena, Tokyo (September 19-21), the festival was an especially meaningful occasion to realize cultural exchange between Korea and Japan.
With the support and assistance of a number of business groups and organizations of the two countries, this year’s festival event, which had been held only in Korea since 2005, was staged for the first time in Tokyo as well. The involvement of so many participants from Korea reflected the major significance of the festival, which included such organizations as Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, along with some 140 performers of various cultural and artistic groups, as well as upcoming stars of the Korean Wave and human cultural assets from Korea.
The Korean students received much encouragement from the Japanese media that extensively covered the festival activities. Although our performance was praised as a highlight of the event, our presentation was far from flawless and hardly as refined as other cultural/artistic groups. Comprised of magic, theater, singing, and dancing teams, our 28-member delegation staged a rather amateurish performance, overall. Nevertheless, we received a more enthusiastic response than other performers, probably because the audience was impressed with our passionate efforts, with little concern about any mistakes made during our performance. After completing their performance, the girls of the dancing team embraced each other, with tears of joy in their eyes, perhaps mainly from a sense of relief. The audience applauded loudly for the girls, in recognition of their sincere, if not perfect, performance. Japanese broadcast media showed highlights of the dancing team’s delightful imitation of “Genie,” from the pop music Korean group, Girls’ Generation, and the theater team’s humorous adaptation of scenes from the hit Korean TV drama “Winter Sonata,” in their evening news programs. I recall being surprised at how many middleaged Japanese women stood in line, after the theater team’s performance, to take pictures with the student who played the role of Bae Yong-joon (known as Yonsama in Japan).
From this experience, I could sense the influence of obasan (Japanese term for middle-aged women), that I had learned from The Birth of a Woman, written by Professor Na Im Yun-gyeong of Yonsei University. In particular, Japan’s obasan are willing to accept Korea in a straightforward manner and without judgment, in contrast to Japan’s mainstream media. Beyond simple affection for Korea’s attractive actors, obasan are quietly doing what the diplomats and politicians of Korea and Japan have been incapable of doing for the past century. I truly respect these Japanese women who serve as a bridge between the peoples of Korea and Japan and demonstrate the potential for harmonious bilateral relations, without regard for nationalistic inclinations.A New Beginning
In fact, being a part of the Korean student delegation and our participation in the friendship festival are the high points of my involvement with cultural diplomacy. After working so hard during the summer months, in preparation for our festival performance, all the personal sacrifice was well worthwhile. Even though tears smeared the eye makeup of the girls of the dancing team, they looked even more attractive and dynamic on the day of our performance. In addition to our presentation, there were so many diverse and extraordinary events to see and experience at the festival, including performances of Bongsan Mask Dance and a Korean B-boys group.
T-shirts and festival pins with Korearelated emotions sold out quickly, well before the festival’s final day, while people lined up to participate in an event for making crafts with hanji, traditional Korean paper. Above all, it was most impressive that so many festival-goers participated in a traditional Korean circle dance, Ganggangsullae, as a finale of the festivities. There was a definite atmosphere of excitement and hope among the participants, without regard to nationality, generation, and gender. All of this makes me believe that the people of Korea and Japan, in their own way, are committed to the realization of harmonious relations.