The soccer field should be where we battle JapanYesterday was Independence Day. It was a day to celebrate, but the sentiment toward Japan was not at its highest. The temperature is high between Korea and Japan in both politics and in sports.
Even to this day, the episode of Son Ki-jung, the Olympic marathoner who won a gold medal at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 when the country was still a Japanese colony, is a vivid tale. Son ran with a Japanese flag on his chest, but tore it away and replaced it with a South Korean flag when posing for pictures. Alas, a hero was born. Son passed away more than three years ago. At the time, President Kim Dae-jung sent condolences to the family and Son was awarded the country’s highest order of Sport Merit. Today his body rests at the National Cemetery.
There are other stories that involve national emotions over Japan. In 1954, the national soccer team had to play Japan to qualify for the World Cup that year. President Syngman Rhee told the team, “If you lose, don’t even think of crossing the East Sea.”
The two qualifying games for the Asian region were scheduled to be played, one in each country, but anti-Japanese feelings in Korea made it unsafe for the Japanese team to come and play here. Korea agreed to play the two qualifiers in March in Tokyo. By defeating Japan 5-1 in the first game and drawing 2-2 in the second, Korea went to its first World Cup.
It’s not different today, as soccer matches between the two sides are an emotional display of nationalism (at least for the Koreans) It’s a do-or-die match. A game lost leaves a bitter aftertaste. It’s not hard to hear the word “Jjokbari,” which is a degrading slang word for Japanese, spoken among the crowd.
Sixty-one years later, we are now witnessing a new start ― or are we? Earlier this month, the two sides agreed to resume regular exhibition games, saying the two soccer bodies needed to improve their playing level and figured playing each other was a good way to do just that. This is a good beginning not only for the practical purposes, but also to heal some wounds. When the Dokdo dispute flared up again last year, sports exchanges were cancelled at all levels here. Amateur games were halted, as sponsors of events cited national feelings. We cannot repeat this behavior. Or, if you insist, we could ― but that would mean another 50 years of spinning an old story like wrestlemania and who wants that?
I think Japan should share equal blame for the bickering between the two sides, which often provides the catalyst for a renewed feud, but Korea also needs to show more maturity. As diplomats say, leaving a communication channel open is important. We can use the sports venue. Being at each other’s throat hasn’t moved us anywhere. Cultural exchanges have.
So even when Tokyo decides to print new history textbooks that anger Seoul, and even when it keeps lurking around the Dokdo islets, and even when the UN decides to use the Sea of Japan markings in all of its member countries, we should NOT go berserk. We should play ball.
by Brian Lee