By Kim Hyun
BUYEO/GONGJU, South Korea, Oct. 1 (Yonhap) -- Like many Japanese compatriots of his age, Eiji Hattori, 66, turned to volunteer work in his hometown of Kani in Gifu Prefecture after retirement in 2009.
But last month, the former drink factory manager jumped on a plane to South Korea, drawn by his newfound interest in an ancient Korean kingdom that was once close with Japan but now is little known beyond its borders.
"Most Japanese don't know there was such a major exchange in ancient times between the two sides," said Hattori, who works as a guide for Japanese visitors to the 2010 Great Baekje World Festival underway in Gongju, South Chungcheong Province.
"There was a war, and the relationship didn't go well," he said through an interpreter, referring to a 16th century Japanese invasion and Japan's 1910-45 colonial occupation of Korea. "If the ancient exchanges are inherited, I think there would be a new kind of relationship."
Japanese visitors, organizers say, are expected to account for roughly half the foreign tourists who will come to the Great Baekje World Festival, which opened in the Baekje Kingdom's capitals, Gongju and adjacent Buyeo, on Sept. 18 and will continue until Oct. 17.
Facing China across the Yellow Sea, the kingdom briskly absorbed aspects of advanced civilizations -- from Buddhism and Confucianism to the Chinese characters and code of law -- and passed them on to Japan until its demise in 660.
Most Japanese are oblivious of the ancient Korean kingdom, but its legacy was emphatically manifested in remarks Japanese Emperor Akihito made just before Japan co-hosted the 2002 World Cup with South Korea.
"I, on my part, feel a certain kinship with Korea," he said, citing a historic record relating the Japanese imperial line to Baekje.
According to the Chronicles of Japan, a granddaughter of Baekje's King Muryeong gave birth to a boy who later became Japanese Emperor Kammu in the late 8th century.
"Baekje made a pivotal contribution to the foundation of ancient kingdoms in Japan," said Chung Jae-yun, a Baekje history professor at Kongju National University.
"The cultural belt in Northeast Asia that binds Korea, China and Japan with a common mentality and the use of Chinese characters is largely attributed to the cultural and diplomatic role Baekje played in the region," he said.
Another Japanese volunteer guide, Kotobu Takada, a 39-year-old housewife who is also from Gifu Prefecture, said she signed up hoping to refine her Korean language skills, but that she has already learned a lot more than she bargained for.
"I didn't know much about Baekje, except what we learned from school," she said. "But doing this volunteer work, I came to know about the emperor's remarks and Japan's ancient relationship with Baekje. I am trying to explain to Japanese tourists about our historic relics that were influenced by Baekje and that the two countries were close."
In Korean history, Baekje is little more than a minor player among its rival kingdoms. Its northern neighbor, Koguryo, is known for its territorial advance into China and military and artistic prowess. Its eastern rival, Silla, became the final victor which eventually conquered Baekje and Koguryo in the 7th century and lasted about 1,000 years.
The Baekje festival is part of Korea's growing efforts to revisit and promote the ancient kingdom's forgotten legacy. The festival began as a small community event in 1955 in the rubble of the Korean War. In an effort to develop Baekje's heritage, the South Chungcheong provincial government in 1993 launched a large-scale complex where Baekje's palaces, fortresses, Buddhist temples and villages have been recreated.
With the completion of the Baekje Cultural Land at a cost of 690 billion won (US$600 million), this year's festival is being held in a much grander scale, aided by a variety of high-tech programs.
A musical on Baekje's history, titled the "Story of Sama," entertains viewers with a visual spectacular on a stage set up on the Geum River. The Great Baekje Cavalcade involves more than 100 soldiers and horses reenacting ancient parades.
But the event put greater emphasis on revisiting Baekje's prime. Along the alleys of exhibition halls, one gets a chronicled view of Baekje's maritime prowess through replicated treasures.
Chiljido, or the Sword with the Inscription of Seven Twigs produced in Baekje in 369 and now preserved in Japan's Isonokami Shrine in Tenri, was a brotherly gift from Baekje's heroic King Geunchogo who wished well for the Japanese king of his era.
Wang In, a pioneering Baekje scholar born in 373, was dispatched to Japan to teach Confucianism, the Chinese writing system and architecture. Called Wani in Japan, he taught the Japanese royal family and became the forefather of Japanese culture in the Asuka period.
Baekje festival organizers say they hope to draw 2.6 million people, including 200,000 foreign tourists.
"We are expecting the number of Japanese visitors to be around 100,000, half of the entire foreign visitors," said Kwon In-seon, an organizing committee official. "Japan has connections with Baekje, and it's a short distance to travel,"
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