When Can We Be Friends?

When it comes to sports, while we may be swimming in the cool pool of popular culture, if those sports happen to pit South Korea against Japan, then we have strayed into the searing hot tub of politics.

National flags raised on the pitching mound of a vanquished, bitter foreign rival. Ice skaters of a former colonizer interfering with the practice routine of a skater from their former subject state. Claims of snobbery and allegations of unfair play.

The ReDot world was recently abuzz with news of taunts and intrigue, pay-back and conspiracy, measured in strikeouts and runs scored, impeded lutzes and truncated triple axels. Incidents from two of the world’s premier sporting events of 2009 reminding us that, when it comes to sports, while we may be swimming in the cool pool of popular culture, if those sports happen to pit South Korea against Japan, then we have strayed into the searing hot tub of politics.

These two Asian nations may be separated by no more than 200 kilometers (120 miles), but in the contemporary world of global sporting culture, they occupy opposing sides of an iron curtain, locked in a super-charged, overheated, cold war. Each regarding the other with suspicion, across a body of water that -- guess what -- one calls “The Sea of Japan” (guess who) and the other (guess again) stubbornly insists on calling “The East Sea”. Each carefully taking note of what is said, what gesture is made, and what action is (or is not) taken toward the other.

It may all be rooted in history, but nowadays it gets expressed in flags brandished, pathways impeded, words spoken, bows snubbed. The two nations are now so star-crossed, so linked in an inescapable chain of fateful inevitability, that those with any distance or perspective can only comment with rueful bemusement. Consider Ichiro Suzuki -- the face of Asian baseball, and one of the best players on the planet. The man who once admitted that he wanted to whip the Koreans so badly that they would "feel that they won't be able to beat Japan for the next 30 years," now sighs in resignation: "It's like a girl you said goodbye to, and then you bump into the same girl again on the street so many times because there's a destiny to meet again . . . Might as well get married if we are going to meet this frequently."

In baseball it began in 2000, when Korea beat Japan to win the bronze medal at the Sydney Olympics. For Japan it was an unthinkable, ignominious, unbearable turn. Until then, Korea had never medaled in the sport and Japan had been the big Asian dog on the block: netting bronze in 1992 and silver in 1996. Then, in 2002, the co-hosted FIFA World Cup provided a chance for solidarity (and, hence, rapprochement); and yet, events conspired to inadvertently stoke the rivalry even more, as one co-host, Korea, went through to the semi-finals, while the other, Japan, failed to make it past the round of 16.

For Japan, solace was found back on the diamond, with an Olympic bronze in 2004 (made doubly sweet by Korea’s failure to medal), and a gold medal in the inaugural (2006) World Baseball Classic (WBC), achieved, in part, by defeating Korea in the semi-finals. This only led, in the ensuing Olympics, to Korea returning the favor (in spades): securing gold and achieving this by virtue of two victories over Japan, who finishing 4th. Truly a tough mochi for ReDotters to swallow.

And then came this year’s WBC and, in the wake of the evident decline in the Cuban and American empires, baseball’s new twin super-powers slugged it out in what turned out to be a thrilling best of five series: twice in the Asian round, two times in the second round in San Diego, and then in the tourney final in Los Angeles.

The head-to-head clashes began in March with Japan’s 14 to 2 mauling of the Koreans in the Tokyo dome, followed two days later by a closely contested 1 to 0 game that determined the pool winner (or, more significantly, perhaps, the pool loser: Japan, in front of their disappointed home fans).

Then, on American soil, the Koreans again bested Japan 4 to 1 -- this time winning by jumping on Japanese pitching phenom, Yu Darvish, for three runs in the first inning. Two days later, with both teams assured of a spot in the final round, and nothing to play for but seeding, the Japanese put the screws to the Koreans, 6 to 2. The final clash between the two sides was a game worthy of a tourney final: a nail-biting, see-saw, extra-inning affair (could it be any other way?) in front of a near-capacity crowd, eventuating in a 5 to 3 Japanese victory.

By any other measure, though, Japanese diamond dominance would seem illusory. Since 2000, the two nations that share a short sea have squared off 16 times in international competition, with both sides winning eight times apiece. The aggregate score has been nearly as equal: Japan 43, Korea 38. In world rankings, the Koreans have ascended to number two, while the Japanese stand at number three.

Such numbers may not be sufficient consolation for the Koreans, though, who had to endure witnessing the victorious Japanese beaming as they knelt behind a gargantuan hinomaru (flag) on the Dodger Stadium infield, adorned with sparkling gold medal necklaces, celebrating their second consecutive world title.

By contrast, the Korean team removed their silver medals -- which, to their minds, amounted to no more than dull dead-weight -- and dejectedly trudged off the field. For the losers, their defeat would render the four years between Classics (and, more importantly, the lost bragging rights accompanying it) a grating, interminable wait.

In their newspapers in the days to follow, complaints would be printed about an arrogant Ichiro, and the “dirty samurai”, Nakajima, who, on the Korean version, obstructed sliding base runners by blocking second base when fielding and tried to interfere with defensive fielders in trying to break up double plays. For more neutral observers, such actions would simply be considered “good, smart, hard-nosed baseball”. The way Ty Cobb taught it, the way he played it, no more, no less.

The story in the rink is even more contentious and -- dare I say it? -- frostier.

Neither Asian nation had been known for figure skating, until recently. Following form, the ReDot’s success preceded that of its cross-straight sister, with the latter clambering in catch-up mode, but making up large tufts of turf fairly fast. The first line was etched about two decades ago, when Midori Ito --; a squat dynamo of an athlete --; became the first woman to land a triple axel in competition. Two years later she garnered a silver medal at the 1992 Olympics.

But for over a decade thereafter, Ito’s success stood out as an apparent aberration; it wasn’t until 2002 or so -- and then only among the “ladies” -- that Japan began to register regular skating success. Gold medals came in the World Figure Skating Championships in 2004, 2007, and 2008, with silver in 2006 and 2007, and bronze in 2002 and 2003. In 2006 an Olympic gold was garnered --; Japan’s first ever in figure skating --; and by a skater who hadn’t medaled in any of the events listed above. In a word, Shizuka Arakawa’s feat caught nearly everyone off guard, but served to underscore the larger point: that Japanese ladies figure skating was talent-rich and, for global rivals, formidable.

This prowess was epitomized by Mao Asada, a spindly pixie with personality and panache; equally acrobatic and graceful; capable of turning triple axels with aplomb, yet moving with the smooth, elegant line of a prima ballerina. With the 15-year-old Asada being crowned 2005 Grand Prix Final champion, the skating world was thrown into such an “I-can’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing” frenzy that they tried to wrangle an exemption that would allow the under-age Mao to participate in the Olympics.

And even though that gambit didn’t pan out, Mao corralled silver and gold, respectively, in the 2007 and 2008 World Figure Skating championships. By 2008 Mao had cornered the market on prizes, winning not only the Worlds, but the Four Continents championships and the Grand Prix Finals. And with Japanese women holding down three of the top seven slots in the 2009 world rankings, and four of the top twelve, certainly one would have to believe that Japan’s figure skating dominance was irrefutable.

Only -- not so fast there, pardner, -- in the blink of an eye, there was a new sheriff in town, and her name was Yu-Na Kim. This 18-year-old South Korean skater had actually been on the radar for some time: she had shouldered her way past Mao for gold in the 2007 Grand Prix Finals, the 2008 Skate America, and the 2009 Four Continents Championships. And by March, 2009, when every skater of merit was convening in Los Angeles for the World Figure Skating Championships, Kim had managed to wrest the top spot in the world rankings.

But coming to Los Angeles, people were not necessarily talking about Number 1 Kim versus Number 2 Asada; instead, they were engaged in the “did-they-or-didn’t-they?” discussion kindled by Kim, concerning team Japan. Blogs, web forums, chat rooms and news agencies were abuzz with the allegation that (depending on whose dark version one heard and accepted) the ReDot’s top three skaters hindered, interfered with, intimidated, bullied, gang-assaulted, or mind-screwed Ms. Kim during the 2009 Four Continents Championships that she won.

The kerfuffle came about because of an interview Kim gave to South Korean TV station SBS. Although the skater was careful to avoid naming names, SBS was more than willing to fill in the blanks, verily accusing Japan’s top skaters of unsettling Kim prior to the competition. The station anchor began: “in her exclusive interview with SBS, Kim said some of her competitors have constantly interfered (with) her practice during warm-ups.” This was a bit of an elaboration, but the story reporter went even further:

This season, Kim Yu-Na had to hold her breath quite a few times at warmups. When she attempted jumps, she had not a few narrow squeaks as other skaters got in her way. It is common courtesy amongst figure skaters to stay out of the way of a skater attempting a jump. However, (at the 4CC) there always appeared another skater in Kim Yu-Na's jump path, and ironically enough, it always happened to be a Japanese skater.

Ah yes, the good old ReDot nemesis, ever rearing its bullying head, never going to give the South Koreans any kind of fair shake. In case that claim hadn’t worked to unite the TV viewers, the reporter then editorialized:

It's quite doubtful it was an accident as this kind of near-collision incident had been repeated in every competition. It was worse at last month's 4CC. It was so bad that Brian Orser complained that this one Japanese skater was deliberately shadowing Kim.

Speaking for Kim, the reporter concluded with a rousing: “Kim said she won't stop practicing her jumps in case this happens again at the upcoming Worlds. She said she won't be psyched out and won't hold back if another skater gets in her way.”

For their part, the Japanese Skating Federation appeared to have been caught flat-footed and, thus, responded -- well, actually -- rather typically Japanese. Which is to say, they seemed underwhelmingly shy or overwhelmingly reluctant (depending on your viewpoint) about articulating their self-interest.

They offered up some pablum on their web site about not yet receiving any official protest; about how “skaters seriously practice for competitions and they can, in no manner, intentionally obstruct others"; about how, with six skaters warming up prior to each segment of the competition, it is “natural” that competitors sometimes nearly collide. Their statement observed that in the 2008 Japanese national championships, Miki Ando, the 2007 world champion, injured her right foot when she and her own compatriot, Fumie Suguri, bumped into one another during warm-ups. As if logic and data could possibly trump conspiracy theorization.

While the Federation’s response was measured, some Japanese media couldn’t ignore the salvo fired across their nation’s bow. A sports daily described Kim’s remarks as "'Japan-bashing' without warning." (Meaning -- what? -- nation-bashing is acceptable as long as one is given a head’s up?) Unwilling to sit by silently, Kim’s agent observed that while Kim felt she was obstructed “several times” during warm-ups "she never singled out any country in the interview with SBS.” He then continued in classic tit-for-tat, cold war mode: “It (was the) news media that mentioned Japan. If this situation continues, we may have to lodge a protest."

The actual footage of that practice -- or, at least, some of it -- has been posted on YouTube and can be found below. Judging from the subtitled commentary, it appears that the clip was prepared by a Kim fan, and comes with a strong presumption of Japanese culpability. You can judge for yourself. But looking at this video, it is difficult to discern any evidence that a grand plot perpetrated by wanton nationalist criminals was actually afoot.

As of this writing the Worlds have yet to be completed; but, for anyone following the established dynamic, the eventual winner is irrelevant. It merely serves as fuel for the crackling fire that both Asian rivals assiduously fan. And besides, for many in Korea, at this stage of global cultural history, when they run the video, when they see the ReDot on the opposing skater’s costume or baseball cap, conflict and bullying is all that they can apprehend.

Perhaps it’s unavoidable, as such images apparently must pass through a filter flickering traces of a one-sided political and cultural exchange from the 6th century; when a nascent Japanese empire, lying across the narrow (“East”! – but soon “Japan”!) sea, gratefully received the Chinese writing system, Buddhism, chopsticks, and potted craft from the more advanced Three Kingdoms.

These contemporary conflicts are also processed by brains that have been schooled with textbooks recounting how, in the late 16th century, Japanese Shoguns stormed the unified Korean kingdom, burning numerous temples, before retreating in defeat to their own archipelago.

Today’s Koreans also recall tales of forebears -- not so many generations prior -- who fell under Japanese control following the defeat by the Japanese of the Chinese, on Korean soil, in 1895, then the Russians, in 1905. The arrival, thereafter, of more than one million Japanese colonists, brought an end to the storied Choson Dynasty, whose unbroken rule dated back to 1392, and led to the forcible relocation of more than a million Korean ancestors to Japan.

As mentioned in ReDotPop: At Home, Away, in the wake of this colonization, much of traditional, authentic Korea was expunged. To control the people, Japanese rulers forbade the speaking of native Korean; the teaching of Korean history; the continuation of past Korean ways of life. Subjugation was so complete that the grandparents of Koreans today can still sing many of the Japanese songs "taught" to them in their Japanese-run schools.

Thus is it that the actions of Jae Seo come to make more sense. Upon the occasion of defeating Japan in the first WBC, Seo planted the Korean flag on the pitcher’s mound, then did so again this March when Korea beat Japan in the Tokyo Dome. On his version: "(this dispute) goes back to our history and tradition ... It stems from our parents' generation and us.” His conclusion: “I'm sure that our next generation probably will feel the same."

And they will feel this way for a simple reason: because Koreans carry a very large, heavy, chip on their shoulder. One might even characterize it as a cancerous one; a potentially malignant growth which could very easily metastasize. One so large as to blot out current, sound vision, and one that they are clearly unwilling to lift off any time soon and chuck aside.

And if this is so, then it may not matter that Japanese have sought propitiation for a considerable time now -- in forms occasionally political, but most often cultural. In Korea, such overtures have engendered a rather consistent (and, for Japanese, frustrating) history of rebuke and rejection. Thus is it that while in the last decade, Japan has, through ReDotPop, made a concerted effort to right the historical and emotional imbalance -- importing TV shows, like “Winter Sonata”, and verily deifying Korean stars like Bae Yong Joon, and the sultry, slinky songstress BoA -- the jury on reconciliation is still mired in prolonged recess.

I once suggested that one may perceive conqueror's guilt seeking expiation in Japan’s reconciliatory gestures; I will now suggest that these overtures ought to be sufficient to signal to Koreans that times have changed, that new sensibilities are in play, that the moment is right to get over it, to move forward, to get on with the next thing, the next step in inter-national relations and greater concord.

The problem is that there is always some remnant from the past, some other niggling bit of unresolved business impeding progress. Something like that troublesome string of rocks in the middle of that sea (with the disputed name). Islets (to put it charitably) that the Japanese call “Takeshima” and the Koreans (big surprise here) choose to call something else (“Dokdo”). Both nations claim it, but the Koreans have inhabited these craggy up-croppings since the ‘50s, with three people working a lighthouse and 37 rotating police officers defending them.

They’ve also built a website defining the site and proclaiming to the world that it is theirs alone. For their part, the Japanese are far from yielding. On their Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, they devote a page to the disputed rocks (with translations in English, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish), trumpeting “Japan's Inalterable Position on the Sovereignty of Takeshima”. Their conclusion? That: “In the light of historical facts and based upon international law, it is apparent that Takeshima is an inherent part of the territory of Japan” and that: “The occupation of Takeshima by the Republic of Korea is an illegal occupation undertaken on (sic) absolutely no basis in international law.”

In other words, a geo-political impasse. And, given all that you now know about these two nation’s jagged relations, would it surprise you to learn that the discord has spilled across regions, carrying as far afield as the United States? In response to the islet tiff, the president of the Korean Dry Cleaners Association in New York City (of all things!) printed up 250,000 plastic laundry bags and distributed them to some 100 Korean merchants. The sheer vinyl bags -- which would encase the blazers of Italian-Americans, the slacks of Mexican-Americans, the skirts of Jewish-Americans, the ties of Arab-Americans, the shirts of Irish-Americans, and the coats of Asian-Americans -- blares a singular, pointed, inscription: “Dokdo Island is Korean territory ... The Japanese government must acknowledge this fact.”

And, in keeping with such sentiment -- such single-minded righteousness, such indignant, vehement conviction -- at the end of a game, under a Tokyo dome, a white, red and blue flag got planted on an opponent’s pitcher’s mound. And in response, that opponent’s flag was then prominently paraded around another baseball stadium two weeks later in ultimate triumph.

And in awareness of all of this synchronic jockeying, in a Los Angeles ice-skating rink, a few days later, everyone -- from athlete to reporter to politician -- was busy keeping their eyes peeled for what would transpire, not only during the actual competition, but throughout the warm-ups, as well.

And in the meantime -- amidst the incendiary news reports and the vigorous drum-pounding and virulent thunder stick banging and the proud national anthem braying and the ostentatious medal-clutching display -- the one and nearly only question that just about everyone who wasn’t either Japanese or Korean was asking was as simple as it was obvious as it was essential as it was profound:

“When are those two going to get to the point where they can ask: ‘When can we be friends?’”

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