Korea and Japan should play games togetherSports has been used before as an extension of politics. Adolf Hitler used the 1936 Berlin Olympics to showcase the superiority of the “Aryan race,” although the four track-and-field gold medals won by African-American Jesse Owens put a serious dent into that plan. Then we have the famous “ping-pong” diplomacy of the 1970s, which helped end the Cold War between Washington and Beijing. A visit by then-U.S. president Richard Nixon to China in early 1972 marked the end of hostilities between the two countries. For this country, inter-Korean sports events, such as the occasional friendly soccer game, have long been part of Seoul’s efforts to stay on good terms with its brother across the demilitarized zone.
With an eye on the constantly deteriorating ties between Seoul and Tokyo, sports could be the solution to issues that are otherwise hard to overcome. If you have been in this country long enough, you know what this is all about.
The territorial dispute over the Dokdo Islets and difference over the interpretation of the shared history between the two countries have been a constant block in relations between the two countries. While the Korean wave has hit home in Japan, few efforts are being made here to learn about our neighbor across the sea. I think that we need to make more contact with Japan, and sports seem to be the best venue. Until now, except for the occasional friendly soccer match with Japan, there have been few such events.
In 2005, the first Konami Cup Asia Series was held between Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China to crown the best baseball team in Asia. Events like that are a good start, but more regularity would help. The point is to get to know the other side through FREQUENT contact. In that sense, an event similar to the Olympics does not really qualify as an ice breaker because we have to get hyped up every four years between events. And, with national pride at its highest, there is little room to get to know each other.
What I have in mind is a strictly bilateral sports event that would see the two sides face each other at least a dozen times throughout the year.
Staging two to three friendly soccer matches with Japan every quarter would be a good idea. There would be tension and, for a while, maybe even hard feelings if a game is lost. Nevertheless, any true sports fan will find himself hooked. Who would not love a beautiful pass by Hidetoshi Nakata, Japan’s first world-class soccer player? And once that feeling is inside someone’s head, we start to look beyond a person’s nationality.
Combining the two nations’ baseball leagues would be a good idea, too, however crazy it may sound. In size, the combined league would only amount to 20 teams. That could be the salvation to a Korean league in which every team has been losing money and the number of fans has been declining since the mid-1990s.
Sports might provide the breakthrough where politics have failed. Half a decade after the country’s independence, we are still at odds with our neighbor. But let’s remember that it’s much easier to beat up a stranger than a known face. It’s time for a face-off in the ring.
by Brian Lee
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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