Even sports can’t escape reminders of historyTry as we might, some things are just meant to last forever. For good, or for bad.
On Thursday, the Korean Olympic team beat the Japanese team in the Toyota Cup in Qatar with a 3-0 score. Choi Seong-guk, who scored the third goal, promptly wasted no time in letting others know that the match was about much more than soccer. Taking off his uniform shirt, he paraded around in a white shirt, on which he had written: “Tokto is ours!”
There it was ... the eternal struggle between the ex-Japanese empire and its former colony. After half a decade of independence, long since Sony became a household name on the peninsula, there are still some issues that just won’t go away.
The very next day, to no one’s surprise, a sports tabloid’s lead story emulated the way Choi had celebrated his goal: Tokto is ours!
I grew up on a diet of history books telling me how many people were tortured under Japanese rule. Learning about events such as the independence war in Manchuria and the notorious 731 Japanese army unit, which is said to have performed atrocities rivaling those of the Nazis in their prison camps, was standard procedure in getting educated about the island nation next door.
This part of our history seems to have embedded itself so strongly in our minds that there seems to be no way out. At least not for the foreseeable future.
More proof of our undying interest: Recently, the special edition of Tokto stamps was sold out the day it was released. And after only 11 days, 500 million won ($427,000) was raised for the publication of a book about Koreans who had collaborated with the Japanese during their colonial rule.
Some may call it stubbornness, but frankly, the Japanese have been just as stubborn as we have been.
German Chancellor Willie Brandt went down on his knees at Auschwitz in 1970 when he visited Poland. This symbolic gesture was followed up with more material restitution to the victims and more apologies, to such an extent that Germany’s ignominious past has not stood in the way of its becoming a well-respected member of the EU.
Today, German troops are involved in peace missions all over the world, while its GSG9 is one of the most famous elite troop units. Its creation was sparked by the attack by Black September, a Palestinian terrorist faction, on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1970. Nobody thinks they are some altered form of the Waffen SS, and nobody utters a peep when German troops are deployed abroad. The history card is never played.
A gesture like Willie Brandt’s by Japanese leaders could certainly help to catapult us into a new era.
I have a very good Japanese friend who was virtually clueless about what I was taught from our history books. The fact that he didn’t know made me mad, but his openness to accept the facts and immediately admit his country’s wrongdoings ended the matter. Today, he remains one of my best college friends.
If we are still to debate whether some Japanese prime minister’s guilt speech sounded guilty enough after 50 years, we are in no-man’s land.
Can we move forward without a psychological metamorphosis? Yes, we can. But it would take so much time to build the kind of trust that could move both our nations forward.
Whether it’s a gesture from the Japanese, or the result of our own efforts, we need to find a solution to this history hurdle.
by Brian Lee