Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
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Chefs dispatched from South Korea prepare boxed meals for the country‘s Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games delegation at a hotel in Japan rented out for their sole use. Photo: Reuters

Tokyo Olympics: Japan’s South Korea, China tensions resurface as legacy of war haunts Games

  • Anti-Japanese grievances concerning territorial disputes, war crimes, and even produce from Fukushima have been aired during the Olympics
  • A ‘surge of nationalism’ associated with global sporting events makes it easier for such unresolved issues to rise to the surface, an analyst said
In a small hotel near the Olympic Village hired out exclusively for their use, a team of South Korean chefs has been cloistered away preparing meals throughout the Tokyo 2020 Olympics for the country’s entire delegation of 232 athletes and 122 officials.
The Koreans’ refusal to eat in the same dining hall as the thousands of other foreigners at the Games comes amid ongoing worries in South Korea about the quality of Japanese fish and produce, following the Fukushima nuclear disaster that was triggered by a devastating 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.

It is a development that the Japanese government has viewed with some measure of despair, with officials urging Seoul to intervene and stressing that the concerns were unwarranted, according to sources who spoke to Kyodo News.

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South Korea’s government says it never instructed its delegation to set up a food service, which according to reports includes screening ingredients for radioactivity.

But the issue is just one of several that Tokyo has had to confront from the visiting South Korean delegation – and their legions of supporters back home – during the Games.

Environmental activists, one wearing a mask of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, protest near the Japanese embassy in Seoul earlier this year. Photo: AP
Besides fears stemming from radioactivity, the actions of Korean athletes and officials have also been shaped by frayed bilateral relations, stemming from long-running disputes over compensation for forced labourers during Japan’s colonial-era occupation of South Korea and “ comfort women”, a euphemism for sex slaves recruited to serve in Japan’s wartime military brothels.
Japan’s unresolved legacy of conflict, more than seven decades after World War II ended, also extends to its relationship with China, where athletes face strong public pressure to win in matches, especially against Japan, and anti-Japanese sentiments run high on Chinese social media, with derogatory names used for Japanese athletes.
When hosted by Japan, the impact of protests are magnified
Professor Andrew Yeo

Andrew Yeo, a politics professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, said the fact that Tokyo was hosting the Olympics provided an opportunity for athletes and spectators alike to air their anti-Japanese grievances, including those related to territorial disputes, past war crimes, and other historical disagreements.

“When hosted by Japan, the impact of protests are magnified with the added bonus of putting the Japanese government in an embarrassing spotlight,” he said.

Yeo added that anti-Japanese sentiments have also been present at past sporting events like the Olympics or Football World Cup that were not held in Japan.

Japan – South Korea

Before the Games got under way, there had been speculation that South Korean President Moon Jae-in might hold a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on the sidelines of the Olympics, but any hopes of this were dashed when Moon cancelled his planned trip days after a Japanese diplomat made crude remarks about the proposed summit.
Tensions have also flared in recent months over Japan’s plan to discharge 1.25 million tonnes of contaminated water from the crippled Fukushima plant and an official Olympic torch relay map that marked a group of disputed islets as Japan’s territory.
The Liancourt Rocks – known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan – have been a point of contention at previous Olympic Games after featuring on flags waved by fans.
Bad blood between the two sides was on show from the moment South Korea’s athletes arrived at the Olympic Village two weeks ago, with the team ordered to remove banners hung from their balconies that spelt out: “I still have the support of 50 million Korean people” after the message was interpreted as a reference to a 16th-century naval battle between the two countries in which the Korean side prevailed despite being outnumbered.

Tokyo Olympics: South Korean athletes urged to ignore tensions with Japanese hosts

In response, South Korean officials said the International Olympic Committee had assured them that Japan’s “rising sun” flag, regarded as a symbol of Japanese aggression and colonial rule over the Korean peninsula, would be banned from stadiums and other Olympic venues. South Korea first requested the ban in 2019.

Further upset came this week, when Japan reportedly expressed concerns about stories in South Korean media that criticised the bouquets being given to Olympic medallists, amid suggestions the flowers – from Fukushima – might be harmful to health.

However, May Kang, an analyst based in Seoul, said that the widespread anti-Japanese sentiment among South Koreans has been raging in recent months, adding that the various dissatisfactions seen during the Olympics are simply a continuation of this. “Even without the Olympics, anti-Japanese sentiments would have been expressed in other ways,” Kang said, pointing to the ongoing boycotts among many South Koreans of products such as Japanese beer and retail outlets including Muji and Uniqlo.

Japan – China

The sentiment in South Korea is similarly shared by the Chinese, who were reminded about their history with Japan last month during the 84th anniversary of the full-scale outbreak of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, more commonly known as the Lugou Bridge incident.

As the Chinese nationalistic tabloid Global Times reported, the commemoration “was buoyed by the strong national patriotism which was pushed to a climax by the centennial celebration of the Chinese Communist Party” early last month. The tabloid also added: “In sharp contrast, the Chinese public’s perception toward Japan has dipped to a new low after Tokyo acted as Washington’s vassal in attacking China and straddled China’s bottom line issues, such as the island of Taiwan.”

The spectre of conflict continues to haunt interpersonal and diplomatic relations, despite the decades that have passed since the conflict, otherwise known as the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Last month, Chinese gymnast Tang Xijing was lauded on domestic social media after she performed a routine during an Olympics qualifying round to Jiu’er, a song taken from a 1987 film set in occupied Shandong province during the war.

“China has become powerful and can now go to her bully’s house to give them a slap in the face,” read one comment, while others hailed the move as “liberating”.

Further social media invective was directed Japan’s way last week after China suffered two high-profile defeats against the Olympic hosts in events where Chinese athletes have traditionally dominated.

Tokyo Olympics: Will China beat Japan (and the US) at their own Games?

Chinese social media users not only accused the judges of being biased, but also mocked the Japanese team with epithets such as “little Japan” – a derogatory term popular in China – following wins in the table tennis mixed doubles final and the artistic gymnastics men’s all-around event against Chinese players.

Such rancour may seem out of place at the Games, given the much-vaunted Olympics values of excellence, friendship and respect.

But the “surge of nationalism” associated with global sporting events, when combined with “historical mistrust of Japan”, makes it easier for disputes to rise to the surface, according to Jonathan Berkshire Miller, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs think tank.

Silence deafening as Western teams avoid Xinjiang cotton row in Tokyo

He said this need not always be the case, however – pointing to how speed skaters from Japan and South Korea shared an embrace following a tense race at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

“This was a touching moment of sportsmanship and class, demonstrating the abilities of athletes to overcome and not fall into political trenches on these issues,” he said.

Looking ahead to the next Winter Olympics, which will be held in Beijing next year, Yeo from The Catholic University of America said it is unlikely that there will be as many protests specific to East Asian historical disputes.
“[However], it is likely to be much more politicised than it was this year with China as the host,” Yeo said. Recalling the disruption of the torch relay by supporters of the Free Tibet movement in 2008, Yeo noted that issues such as Xinjiang and Hong Kong “will surely become a point of protest for the hosting nation” in 2022.