Lee Yu Hyung was too feeble to attend the opening ceremony of the World Cup. His old legs couldn’t carry him from his home in Seoul to the city’s state-of-the-art stadium.
Instead, the 91-year-old sat in front of a TV set, listening to the huge cheering crowd and the speeches extolling Japan-Korea cooperation.
Lee was born in 1911 in a Korea that only the year before had been annexed by Asia’s rising military power, Japan. By the time he was 24, he was recognized as one of the premier soccer players in Korea, wearing the colors of one of the top sides in Seoul.
In 1935 his team won the All-Japan championships, a victory that should have assured Lee a place on the side picked to represent Japan at the Berlin Summer Olympics the following year.
But only one Korean was chosen for the Olympic team and Lee stayed home. His exclusion was a bitter disappointment and he would never forget his feeling of helplessness under the domination of a colonial power.
Lee was a member of a college team that went on tour to Shanghai in 1936. The team received a joyous welcome by the Korean government-in-exile in Shanghai. This tour landed Lee and his teammates on a Japanese police black list and would eventually lead to his arrest.
Nine years after Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War and Korea’s liberation, Lee was appointed manager of the national team of the Republic of Korea (South Korea).
In 1954 national pride was at stake as Lee’s team prepared to travel to Japan for a match that would decide which team would go on to the World Cup.
In the midst of preparations for the team’s departure, Lee was summoned to meet with South Korea’s fervently anti-Japanese President Syngman Rhee. The president succinctly laid his and the nation’s cards on the table: “If you lose, throw yourself into the Genkai Sea!”
In the event, Lee did not have to drown himself-South Korea humiliated Japan in a rain-plagued first match 5-1 and drew the second. They returned home triumphant, having booked a place in the World Cup in Switzerland.
For the next 44 years South Korea took its revenge on its former colonial masters. Time after time, South Korean teams beat out Japan for a spot in the World Cup finals. Not until 1998 was the spell broken and Japan finally booked a place of its own in France.
For many, these proxy battles on the soccer pitch reflected the ups and downs in the relationship between the two countries in the 20th century.
Progress has clearly been made. The mere fact that the two nations were able to get along well enough and long enough to co-host the event is evidence relations have improved.
Still, the shadow of history is never far away. At the opening ceremony, sitting near South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was Chung Mong Joon, a vice president of FIFA, the international soccer body, and chairman of South Korea’s World Cup organizing committee.
Chung recently took a swipe at the co-hosting arrangement, saying cooperation was insufficient. He also made a foray into politics and blasted Koizumi’s controversial visit to Yasukuni Shrine.
Not everyone is as negative. A look at the faces of the young on both sides of the water tells us there has probably never been a time when national sentiments have been in such synchronization.
These teenagers are the future and they are responsible for a cultural convergence unthinkable a few years ago. The South Korean movie “Swiri” was a huge hit in Japan; a Japanese actress builds a huge fan base in South Korea with her popular TV drama; a 16-year-old South Korean pop singer launches a successful debut in Japan and a recent album bolted to the top of the charts in both nations.
Many Japanese still vividly recall the scene at Seoul stadium when Japan played South Korea in a qualifying match for the World Cup in France. A banner displayed by South Korean fans said, “Let’s go to France together.”
This is the nature of the times we live in-the relationship is improving, but there have been missteps and there will be more.
The Tokyo Summer Olympics was held in 1964 and Seoul hosted the Summer Olympics in 1988. They demonstrated to the world the restoration and modernization of Japan and the democratization of South Korea.
It is hoped that this World Cup can show how the two nations have worked to overcome their difficult history.
Lee Yu Hyung said, “This tournament should become a common legacy for Japan and South Korea.”
As I watched the opening ceremony come to a close, I saluted Lee, the soccer player and the man, and I hoped he was right.