South Korea vs. Japan, a rivalry like no other

By | September 19, 2013

The summer of 2012 was probably one of the most memorable summers for most South Korean soccer fanatics. During the 2012 London Olympics, the South Korean national team won, for the first time, the bronze medal by defeating Japan 2-0. With the bronze medal in their hands, all the players on the team were exempted from the mandatory two year military service. Even though I had served in the military myself after my freshman year at Duke in 2010 and got out in March of 2012, I just felt elated for the whole team and the fact that they had won the bronze.

South Korea Soccer

However, my elation turned into a frustrating anger with the onslaught of baffling articles and litigations from the IOC and FIFA. Their accusation was that a Korean player, Jong-woo Park, displayed a politically charged sign, disregarding the IOC and FIFA’s rules against players making political statements and demonstrations. IOC ultimately proposed that Park must be stripped of his bronze medal.

With the accusation, Park was banned from attending the medal ceremonies and was denied the medal at first. Months later, he was finally able to get the well deserved medal when the IOC determined that his action was not politically motivated.

Looking back at these events, I still can’t figure out why Park’s actions were viewed as politically motivated. The sign that Park held up reads 독도는 우리땅, in direct translation, it means “Dokdo is our territory.” Literally, Dokdo is a South Korean territory, much like Hawaii is the 50th state of the United States. I don’t quite understand why claiming the rightful ownership to one’s territory is a politically motivated action. Some opponents argue that Dokdo can be either Japan or Korea’s territory since it is equidistant from both nations. But it really doesn’t matter whether Dokdo is equidistant from both South Korea and Japan because Dokdo has been continuously mentioned in the Korean history since year 512(no I didn’t make a typo in writing out the year). In Samguk Sagi(History of the Three Kingdoms) Dokdo(called Usan-guk back then) was conquered by General Sabu Lee of the Shilla empire. More over, in a 1417(Columbus landed in 1492) report in Taejong-Sillok(Annals of King Taejong) it has been said that 86 people were living in Dokdo. If someone asks you why Hawaii is the United State’s territory and not Mexico’s how would you react? Exactly.

Currently, Japan is in another dispute with China regarding the Senkaku Islands. Both nations claim ownership to the islands and this controversy has been labeled “the most serious for Sino-Japanese relations in the post-war period in terms of the risk of militarized conflict.”

The intensity between South Korea and Japan has spilled onto the soccer pitch as well. South Korea vs Japan is more than a soccer match in that the latter has colonized and brutalized the former for over 30 years. I think this, combined with the highly-competitive nature of the Koreans, is the driving reason behind why South Korea always plays Japan as if it is the World Cup finals. The head coach for the national team for the London 2012 Olympics, Myung-bo Hong, literally said “Go destroy them” before the bronze medal game. As a result of this strong mindset, South Korea beat Japan 2-0.

South Korea has won most of the matches between Japan until the recent retirement of Ji-Sung Park. Ever since Park’s retirement from the national team, South Korea has suffered at the feet of skillful and tactical Japanese players such as Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, and Makoto Hasebe. The last defeat that I’ve had to watch was the final of the East Asian Cup held in Seoul. This was even more painful in that it was the first time in 13 years South Korea lost to Japan at home.

The actions of post WWII Japan stands in stark contrast to the actions of Germany. Since the 1970s, the Germans have continuously expressed their humiliation and sorrow in their actions during WWII. One of the most famous events is Warschauer Kniefall, when the Chancellor of Germany Willy Brandt knelt in front of the Nazi-era Warsaw Ghetto Uprising memorial. Moreover, before the kickoff of Euro 2012, the German national team actually visited the Auschwitz concentration camp and paid respect to the Holocaust victims. The DFB President Wolfgang Niersbach also commented “It is our duty and our responsibility to look very closely and above all to communicate again and again to the many young athletes in our clubs that anti-Semitism, racism and intolerance have no place in our society.”

In this photo provided by the German Soccer Federation, DFB, manager Olivier Bierhoff and players Philipp Lahm and Miroslav Klose, from left, tour through the Nazi death camp Auschwitz with the German national soccer team in Oswiecim, southern Poland, Friday, June 1, 2012

Japan, in contrast, is not even close to what Germany has done in terms of reconciling with the past. In fact, whenever a soccer match is held between South Korea and Japan, the Japanese fans always bring out the “Rising Sun Flag” a symbol of Japanese imperialism. What is shocking to me is that while the Germans detest the term “Nazi” and their symbol the Hakenkreuz, the Japanese are embracing their war flag and wearing it proudly on their uniforms. The “Rising Sun Flag” is an insult to the Asian countries in that it reminds them of their painful history. The “Rising Sun Flag” to the Asians is like what Hakenkreuz is to the Europeans. Bringing in such dismisses the whole idea that lies behind soccer that two teams compete with each other to promote cultural interaction.

Courting Controversy: Olympic Uniform resembled rising sun flag!

I think Japan should follow Germany’s path in dealing with the past. Japan should come clean and say what they should have said a long time ago. There is an old South Korean saying “A nation that forgets its history has no future” and Japan, should not, forget about its history.

11 thoughts on “South Korea vs. Japan, a rivalry like no other

  1. Andy

    This is called zero self awareness. You say that the blatant political sign is okay but a flag that only Koreans view that it represents Japanese militarism is not okay.

  2. Pingback: International Football’s 10 Most Politically-Charged Football Rivalries | NanSports

  3. Kapono

    Wow again… You are partly correct to say that South Korea doesn’t “fuss” over this island. They inspire the people to do that through their many outlets. To get to the real issue at hand, it is common knowledge that Dokdo (Takeshima) is now more than a scuffle over rich fishing ground. Since that was a minor issue, it historically was nothing more than a fuss. Now that this area is a targeted possibility for natural gas exploitation, suddenly people seem to care about these islets (Japanese or Korean). For the common person, there is nothing besides nature and beauty to exploit from that island. The irony is that nature threatens to be destroyed as two countries battle it out over natural gas exploitation rights.
    I believe you’d have to be in a shell not to understand both the complexities of relations between these two countries and their roots. Anyone who have heard of the listens to the news should be at least partially aware of the disagreements between Japan and Korea. Perhaps I don’t read from the same sources as you do. As far as history and apologies go, read this (from a source outside Japan or Korea): Japan’s forgotten apologies
    Here is a list of the apologies japan has officially issued and a timeline: Japan’s Apologies
    In fact, Japan has officially issued more apologies to South Korea than has any other country in history. Given those facts, I fail to see your point. Perhaps you haven’t been to Japan or Germany lately…
    In Germany, like the whole of Europe, there are still many openly right wing fascist groups still alive and well today despite what any government might display as a public gesture. Follow soccer enough and you’ll know that racism is alive and well in Europe. Fascism re-emergence in Europe There are also many in Germany who still deny some of the major events during the holocaust ever happened.
    As for Japan, I personally lived there for 4 years and frequent Japan multiple times per year on business. I’m sorry, I don’t exactly see or hear of any anti Korea hate groups forming. On the contrary, I see a young Japan trying to embrace Korean foods, shows, movies, pop culture, etc., but are bombarded by the realities when they see the public displays of hate they see coming from South Koreans through the news outlets. My wife (who is Japanese) complains about it from time to time. As much as she tries to like or even love Korean culture, I can see that she struggles with events like this. As for PM Abe, yes that was an embarrassment for Japan. I don’t see that many were particularly thrilled about the way he handled that problem. Not only was it bad form, but horrible politics. You don’t get much mileage from isolated situations like that. All opinions aside, I would see Japanese PM’s being more calculated than that. If you say you want healing, perhaps you should stop stirring the pot. You solve nothing by promulgating your distaste for a country and advocating others who have become nothing but a vehicle inspiring ill feelings in their countrymen as Park Jong-Woo did after the win against Japan. To defend the players denial of taking a political position during that match is blatantly ridiculous and destroys your credibility from the get-go. He made a choice, suffered the consequence only temporarily. He was given the medal back because Korean officials used the defense that he didn’t actually make the sign. Since you like side by side comparisons this should bring some light to your world. This would be equivalent to a German national player walking up to a guy with a Nazi flag, taking it out of his hands, parading it around publicly, and later saying he didn’t make the flag, so I shouldn’t be held responsible for the obvious message it portrayed. Park Jong-Woo clearly made a bad personal choice when he took the sign from a fan and displayed it proudly and with a smile. With FIFA’s aggressive new campaign combating racism in the game, he should have stepped as far from that sign as possible. To defend him when the facts are so clear to everyone around you is yes…delusional. Sorry and please step into the realm of reality.

    1. JJ

      You’re obviously speaking from a Japan-favored perspective, which is clearly evident from you generalising all Koreans as “delusional”. . . . Basically you’re telling all the victims and their families that their deaths and sufferings were all in their head? Those women, who were brutally raped by hundreds are only delusional? Please. Get a grip.

      Koreans don’t hate Japanese either. I love Japanese invented things, food and their culture. But that doesn’t mean we can forgive them for what they have done, especially when we all we’ve got is denial, not apology. And oh so little you know about their hate towards koreans or “Josen-jin” as they disrespectfully call us.

      And your statement about Koreans’ “delight” at Japan’s tsunami really pissed me off. You took ONE comment out of thousands and made it sound like the rest also stand by that opinion. Many, many Koreans grieved over the countless deaths, and accused the minority who left those thoughtless comments. I don’t understand why you’re so eager to make us look bad. As I said, we may hate the country, but not the people or the culture.

      And how can we move on, without a single apology? “Japan is a different country now” All Japan re-paid for our suffering is teaching young Japanese a rewritten history and calling us “delusional”? You can ask China about this, they’ve also experienced it first-hand.

      There’s a difference between Japanese sushi and Korean kimbap. We don’t claim that we created sushi . . . what are you basing your statements on? And what game? No idea what you’re trying to say. Territory-wise, There Are even proofs that Koreans lived in Dokdo way before Japs discovered it, and it’s not a “scuffle” over fishing spot. It’s our land, we don’t want it taken from us.

  4. Kapono

    Let me start by saying that you sir are in complete denial as South Koreans often are. How do you not see that this is not politically motivated? I am from Hawaii, so your side by side comparison doesn’t even come close to being applicable here. The people of Hawaii and America should also hate Japan, but time and change of hearts and minds heals woulds. In this case, S. Korea was playing against Japan’s National team. That player knew he was getting full press from both countries and the world when he took his opportunity to wave that politically charged sign. It is people like him that keeps anger flowing through the veins of young Koreans. The fact that he got the medal back is beyond me. I think the world has accepted that Japan is a completely different country now. They are no longer a country absolutely controlled media, nationalism and and emperor. It’s people for the most part are very anti-war these days. That That flag you speak of only symbolizes a fighting spirit in a country which has no real military anymore. It is still flown on all of their naval ships and sails and parks next to American naval vessels. To say they can’t fly that flag anymore because it offends people is like saying America can’t fly it’s flag in Japan after the war. I personally find it disturbing that nobody mentions the distasteful Anti-Japan signs that were held up during that match by South Korean fans. I particularly liked the one that expressed a South Korean fan’s delight in the fact that Japan just had a tsunami. Shame on him, and people like you for turning a blind eye on what is pure hate/ultra nationalism with attempts at throwing a pity party. Let the past go so that we can all move past it!

    Another real issue is Korea’s continuous false claims as to what they have created (food or sport) or what is really owned (territorial). Whether it is Korea claiming they created sushi, or claiming they created the beautiful game on a Korean Soccer site. One word: Delusional!

    1. Jun Yoon Post author

      Kapono, I was trying to point out how absurd it is for Japan to claim our land Dokdo as one of theirs. The comparison to Hawaii was just another way of indicating that level of absurdity. If you think the South Koreans are in complete denial then please read the comment that I’ve left for Jordan. In the comment I go very deep into the history between South Korean and imperial Japan and you should be able to understand why South Koreans are in complete denial when they see Japan claiming ownership over Dokdo. In fact, the very reason that the South Korean government doesn’t fuss over sovereignty over Dokdo is because the South Korean government has reasons to claim that Dokdo is rightfully ours from the beginning.

      Moreover, how dare you call South Koreans delusional. Have you even studied the history of South Korea? Or the history of Japanese imperialism during World War II and their actions on the East Asian countries during World War II? From the way that you even bring up the word delusional, I can already see that you don’t even know a single fact about the history between South Korea and imperial Japan. If you had any knowledge about how the people of South Korea and East Asia, you wouldn’t dare use that word.

      You also mention that time heals wounds and to some point I agree with your claim. But time only heals wounds that have been dealt with. For example, the Germans have came forward with their atrocities during World War II. One of the examples that I used in my post was Warschauer Kniefall, where the German chancellor Willy Brandt knelt in front of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
      In addition, Germany has actively participated in trying to make up for what the Nazi did during the WWII. They detest the term “Nazi” and denoune the Hakenkreuz. If you want a more recent example, here is Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, expressing how the Germans should never forget the Nazi Holocaust.
      It is through actions like these that wounds are healed over time.

      In contrast, has Japan ever come forward? No. They are not even close to where Germany is. During the Olympics, the Japanese wore the uniform that resembles their imperialistic flag and even waved the “Rising Sun Flag” during sporting events. I know that the Korean people hold up the Anti-Japanese flags during matches but it is because Japan has never come forward and accepted responsibilities over their actions. But I do agree with you that fans shouldn’t express their delight over the fact that Japan had a big tsunami, that’s just childish.

      I also want to move on the future and be done with the past but not before mending the wounds of the past.
      But to the world’s surprise, Japan has taken another step back with the recent visit of the Japanese PM Abe’s visit to the war shrine Yasukuni.

  5. Jordan Pearson

    I happened to be studying abroad in Seoul during the 2012 Olympics, and the Korean soccer matches shut the city down. Though usually bustling with people, the streets looked like a ghost town because everyone was inside watching the game. And just when you start thinking that everyone has disappeared for good, everyone- and I mean everyone- erupts in cheers for a goal scored or jeers for a bad call or missed opportunity, a sound that echoes through the concrete forest of apartment buildings and businesses.
    The time difference made watching the matches all the more interesting. Because the games were played in European time, my host family and I would have to get up at 3 or 4 am to watch some games- and we weren’t the only ones. Even during these matches in the middle of the night, I could hear people throughout the apartment building cheering for the Reds.
    The match with Japan was certainly an interesting one. Like Jun said, this match was clearly more than a soccer match because of the Japanese Occupation period from 1910-1945. It is this way with any international competition, but more so with soccer than anything else. The older generation still have first hand memories of this experience, which drives such a fierce rivalry.
    I agree with Jarrett in saying that the “독도는 우리땅” (Dokdo is our territory) sign was politically motivated. While the Korean view (which Jun explains clearly) says that the 삼국사기 (History of the Three Kingdoms) mentions the conquering of 우산국 (Usan-guk), Japanese scholars claim that these references (and others) are not to Dokdo, but to 울릉도 (Ulleung-do), a Korean island located between Dokdo and the Korean peninsula. If this is the case, Korean’s claims to the island would come later than the mid-17th century claims that Japan has. (Dokdo is called Tokeshima in Japan. This pamphlet from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs explains their point of view:
    I bring this up not to choose sides, but simply to say that this is an ongoing political debate and that the sign was clearly politically motivated. Had it been a Japanese player with a sign saying “Takeshima is our territory,” I’m sure this would have been viewed by Koreans as a very politically charged action. I personally don’t think that Park’s medal should be stripped, but the IOC has bans on making political statements for a reason and I feel that an action that clearly breaks that rule should be punished, maybe by a suspension from international play for a few games, a fine to the player or team, or something of that nature. I would be very interested to see why the IOC ruled that Park’s actions weren’t politically motivated.

    1. Jun Yoon Post author

      Jordan, good to hear that you were in Korea in 2012! I’ve watched most of the Olympic Games too. It’s pretty crazy how the people go wild on a bad call or a goal.
      I wanted to clarify some points that you’ve brought up about Dokdo. I can’t appreciate more that you know those facts about Dokdo.
      Here is the official webpage of Dokdo, maintained by the Korean government.
      As the article mentions “Ulleungdo’s Usanguk, a small empire of the native people, was conquered by Silla in the early 6th Century (512 B.C.). In Samguksagi’s
      Sillabongi, we find the record that “Usanguk was conquered by Silla in June” in the 13th year of the reign of King Jijeung.
      As Ulleungdo became the official name of Ulleungdo, Dokdo, a small attachment to Ulleungdo, was named Usando”
      Usandguk was a Kingdom that consisted of both Ulleungdo and Dokdo(which was named Usando back in the days).
      In 1693, Yongbok Ahn received verification from the Dokugawa Administration of Japan that Ulleungdo and Dokdo are Joseon’s territories. This fact is also mentioned in the Sukjong Sillok(Annals of King Sukjong)
      Then in November of 1905, with the coerced signing of the Eulsa Treaty(을사조약), Japan took away the sovereignty of the Joseon empire, thereby coercing all territories that belonged to the Joseon empire.
      With the coercion of sovereignty, Japan changed the name of Dokdo to Takeshima and declared the Shimane Notice No.40 to absorb Dokdo into Japanese territory by force.
      As WWII came to an end, the Cairo Declaration and the Potsdam Declaration were issued in 1943 and 1945 respectively.
      In the Cairo Declaration, there exists a term which mentions “Japan shall be stripped of all islands she has seized or occupied in the Pacific since the beginning of World War I in 1914.”
      Then two years later, the Potsdam Declaration was issued. Japan initially declined coming to terms with the declaration and the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed subsequently on 8/6/1945 and 8/9/1945. Japan then fully came to terms with the Potsdam Declaration.
      In the Potsdam Declaration, the following quote exists “The terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out and Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine.”
      Following the two atomic bombings, Japan completely surrendered on 8/10/1945 and WWII was ended on 8/14/1945.
      Korea earned its independence on 8/15/1945.
      In 1946 the GHQ(General Headquarters Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers) declared SCAPIN No. 677 to exclude Dokdo from Japanese territories.
      The fact that Japan had to declare the Shimane Notice No.40 and incorporate Dokdo into their territory serves as a direct testimony to why Japan does not have ownership of the island.
      These are some historical background which testifies that Dokdo has been and should be included in the Korean territory.
      I really appreciate you bringing up the Japanese side of the story but at the same time it’s very unnerving to see that Japan is declaring what is rightfully ours, theirs.

  6. Maggie Lin

    The fact that the Japanese often publicly embrace their war flag when they play South Korea is a very interesting point that you have brought up. That is extremely politically charged, which I find to be ironic because you mentioned that Park was, at first, banned by the IOC and FIFA for displaying a politically charged sign, but from what I understand, it seems as if the IOC and FIFA could care less about the political statements being made by the use of the Japanese war flag. I agree with Jarrett in that FIFA and the IOC need to re-evaluate their rules about political statements because this doesn’t make sense.

    Although you made very good points about the historical tensions between South Korea and Japan, I think it’s interesting that the two countries ended up co-hosting the 2002 World Cup together. It once again confirms soccer as occasionally being more significant than politics or history combined.

  7. Jarrett Link

    Great post on the tumultuous relationship between Japan and South Korea. Clearly, Japan needs to reconcile some of the sins of their past. That being said, I disagree with you that claiming disputed territory is not a politically motivated action. Park is attempting to advance the agenda of South Korea with that sign. Yet, do I think he has every right to do so? Absolutely. I find it quite hypocritical that FIFA initially punished Park for his sign, as the organization promulgates tolerance and has an ongoing anti-racism campaign. The take home message here is that FIFA needs to re-evaluate their rules regarding “political statements” and maybe treat them on a case by case basis rather than blindly following a poorly constructed rule.


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