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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
“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.