Speaking after holding talks with his South Korean counterpart in the central Japanese city of Kyoto on Friday, Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said he was in complete agreement with his South Korean counterpart Ban Ki-Moon that the two nations' need to have a reasonable working relationship.

"There was agreement on the basic recognition that Japan-South Korea relations are headed in a good direction after a temporary period of tension," Machimura said after the meeting, which was on the sidelines of the annual Asia-Europe Meeting.

Describing their discussions as serious, the two men touched on two of the most contentious issues that reared their heads earlier in the year and plunged bilateral relations to their lowest point in three decades: Japanese school books that South Korea claims glorify Imperial Japan's decades of
colonialism and the ownership of a group of rocky islands in the Sea of Japan - or the Korean Sea, to inhabitants of the peninsula.

South Korea, which has a small garrison on the tiny islands, knows them as Tok-to - which means Lonely Islands in Korean - while on Japanese maps they are identified as Takeshima.

Historic differences

Earlier this year, the government of Japan's Shimane Prefecture passed a resolution designating 22 February as Takeshima Day - which was unsurprisingly not well received in South Korea.

Making this barren speck of land even more symbolic, it was the first part of Korea to be annexed by Japan in 1905. By the end of that decade, the whole peninsula was ruled from Tokyo.

"On the issue of Takeshima, there are differences in the basic thinking," Machimura said. "But we should deal with this issue in a calm manner."

The noises from the South Korean side are also generally positive; the meeting was described as less tense than their previous meeting, in Islamabad, Pakistan, in April, and Ban applauded Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's public and unequivocal apology in the Indonesian capital Jakarta in April for the suffering that Japan's military caused across Asia in the early decades of the last century.

Smear campaign?

But fundamentally opposing views remain. On the same day the two nations' foreign ministers were talking in Kyoto, South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun gave two Japanese politicians visiting Seoul something of a verbal dressing down.

While applauding Koizumi's "heartfelt apology" for the years of military occupation, he added that he is unable to fully accept the apology as genuine because of the recent series of disagreements.

"We are not demanding apologies from Japan, but there are strong forces within Japanese political circles that are going against the spirit of the apology and the reflections that Japan has made in the past," Roh told Tsutomu Takebe, secretary general of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and Tetsuzo Fuyushiba, secretary general of the LDP's ally, New Komeito.

"Unless we deal with these issues, the relationship will inevitably meet problems again in the future"

South Korean President
Roh Moo-Hyun

"Recently, the two countries' relationship has hit the rocks because of the issues of Tok-to and the history textbooks, brought up by Japan," Roh said. "Unless we deal with these issues, the relationship will inevitably meet problems again in the future."

There is a sense in Japan, however, that the leadership in Seoul is playing to the domestic crowd in pronouncements on the state of the relationship with Tokyo, and consequently, the response from conservative circles in Japan was swift.

"South Korea is currently trying to smear Japanese politics and I think the politicians should have responded rather bluntly and said this type of comment cannot contribute to better relations between Tokyo and Seoul," Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural
University, told Aljazeera.net.

Contentious textbooks

"They should emphasise that the school textbooks do not glorify Japan's military past - and in fact I doubt very much whether Roh has even read the books himself," he said.

Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi
apologised for the past 

"In terms of the islands, it is clear that they belong to Japan, but no one here wants to take them back by military means," he added.

"And while the South Korean side is insisting that our school books stop describing them as a Japanese territory, we are not making the same demand on them. They are being unreasonable."

Oil resources

There is a lot more than simply national pride at stake over ownership of the islands, whose surrounding waters are patrolled by the South Korean Coast Guard and which scrambled fighter jets in March when a light aircraft chartered by a Japanese newspaper to take photos of the island approached too close.

For decades, productive fishing grounds have been the main pretext for protecting the islands, but today rocketing energy prices are a larger consideration.

With Japan, China and South Korea among the world's biggest consumers of oil and gas, Seoul is already prospecting for both valuable commodities beneath the seabed close to the islands.

Three projects are planned, with a $225 million gas exploration operation headed by Korea Gas getting under way southwest of Tok-to last year.

Similar disputes with its other immediate neighbours - China to the south and Russia to the north - also revolve around access to potentially lucrative amounts of natural resources.

Other analysts, however, are more optimistic about Japan's relations with South Korea than its other - far larger - neighbours.

Common ground

"My sense is that it will be easier for Japan to improve its relations with South Korea than with China, so I am optimistic," said Greg Moore, an expert in East Asian affairs at Florida's Eckerd College.

"The two countries have had much in common for centuries - much more than Japan and China - and despite the 'bad history' of Japan's invasion of Korea in the 16th century and occupying Korea again from 1910 to 1945, the Cold
War brought them together and trade and other Asian commonalities serve as bonds today," he said.

"The problem, of course, is that nationalism is strong in both countries and 'national face' is seen to be at stake on both sides, leaving little room to negotiate for leaders on both sides," he said. "If a de-escalating 'face-giving' process can be put into motion, initiated by one side, which would allow tempers to cool, there is hope that the current tensions will
dissipate and normality can return.

"There is too much at stake for both sides to allow such issues to drag them further down into a more serious conflict," he said.