Media’s Japan bashing is getting oldRivalries, bad blood. Call ‘em what you like, but they go a long way. What would “Star Wars” be without the eternal struggle between the evil empire and the rebels? Can you imagine Calvin without Susie? In the real world of sports, it’s the same. Germany against Britain in a soccer match always has emotional pull. Such games, and the “extracurricular” activities surrounding them, are like gulping down a big fat burger after a week of eating carrot sticks and celery. They’re a treat to sports fans.
Korea has its own rivalry, dating back more than half a century. When its athletes play Japan, it doesn’t even matter what the sport is ― it’s all-out war, and the sports tabloids make no secret of that point. For the majority of the sports press, putting Japan into the sports mix is like slathering a man with honey and then throwing him into a colony of South American fire ants.
When Park Chan-ho grounded out Ichiro Suzuki, it was not just another ground out. It was The Ground Out. When Lee Seung-yeob broke the Asian home run record, previously held by Sadaharu Oh, one newspaper carried the headline: Japan in Shock! I still remember Han Chang-hwa telling me how it was in the old days when he and his teammates went to Japan for a qualifying match for the 1954 World Cup. As the old-timer put it, he “went to war.” That’s just how it’s been whenever the two countries’ sports stars have met since Korea gained independence from Japan in 1945.
It is no coincidence that virtually every soccer game against Japan is coupled with the Korean word daecheop, or big battle. The metaphor originates from the Hansan Daecheop of 1592, when General Lee Sun-shin destroyed a Japanese Navy fleet.
For a long time we haven’t had a boxing match between the two countries. When it happens, should the Korean boxer win, here’s how it would look in the next morning’s headlines: Japanese Boxer Beaten to Pulp. Leftovers Sent Back in a Coffin! Well, probably not that extreme, but you get the picture.
Indeed, sports seems to be one of the few remaining bastions of intense nationalism. Lexus has been pulverizing the Korean luxury car market for the past couple of years. Ten years ago nobody dreamed of buying a Japanese car, never mind knew what Lexus meant. How strange.
So what would a game against Japan look like? Make no mistake, as long as we celebrate Independence Day on Aug. 15 every year, any competition will resemble a gunfight at the OK Corral. It’s do or die, and Korean sports writers will add the salt and pepper to the goulash. It’s not so bad, in all honesty. Still, I must say that even in the midst of this bitter rivalry we should acknowledge those who have achieved greatness in sports ― even when they happen to be from the neighboring island nation.
Hideki Matsui, the New York Yankees’ outfielder, had a great game in the World Series against the Florida Marlins, hitting a three-run homer in Game 2 that set the tone. While his performance plastered every newspaper in Japan, here it was a blip.
Matsui also happens to be one of the leading candidates for the American League Rookie-of-the-Year award, but I have yet to see a Korean sports tabloid carry his story on the front page, or even inside. He’s a great player, and he deserves praise. True sports fans will care.
by Brian Lee
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