South Korea's Cho Gu-gam and Japan's Aaron Wolf do battle during the men's 100kg judo finals in Tokyo. Wolf prevailed. Photo: AFP

TOKYO/SEOUL – The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics have drawn to a close. Records have been broken, sportive agonies and ecstasies have been shared and viewers have been inspired.

But despite the Games’ ambitions for “harmony and diversity,” two countries left the event even more divided than before. It will surprise no Asia watchers that those nations are the host country and its closest democratic neighbor. 

Relations between Japan and South Korea have always been prickly, but they deteriorated sharply after Shinzo Abe’s first administration kicked off in 2012. The resultant bad blood has continued to spill, flooding 2020’s “festival of peace.” 

It’s hardly surprising. It was former prime minister Abe, after all, who lured the Olympics to Tokyo in 2013 and he has made a career out of harnessing anti-Korean sentiment for political gain. 

Anti-Japanese sentiment is on a constant simmer in South Korea at the best of times, so South Korean politicians and opinion leaders have repaid with interest.

On the plus side – and in contrast to, say, soccer hooliganism in Europe – there have been no violent incidents. Instead, there have been a series of petty media and political scraps. 

But seen through a wider prism, these signals indicate that one of the biggest challenges for US policy in the region – somehow bringing the two countries together, thereby presenting a united front against China and North Korea – will be steeper than ever, post-Games.

Legal, trade and diplomatic disconnects

Seoul-Tokyo animosity is rooted in Japan’s 1910-1945 colonization of the peninsula and related abuse of Koreans and exploitation of their land and resources. The feud is compounded by differing views of this history and whether or not Japan has appropriately apologized and compensated.

Its most recent, and particularly strained chapter, opened in 2017. 

In 2015, Abe and his South Korean counterpart had agreed on a deal on the “comfort women” – the women, many Korean, who labored in wartime military brothels, often under appalling conditions. The deal comprised Japan paying South Korea 1 billion yen (US$9.8 million) to settle the emotive and contentious issue for good. 

But when the Moon Jae-in government took power in Seoul in 2017, it disavowed its predecessor administration’s deal and unilaterally froze the Japanese funds. 

Relations plunged far further in 2018 when South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to pay reparations to South Koreans conscripted as slave laborers during the Second World War. 

Tokyo refused to accept the court’s decision, on the grounds that the forced labor issue had been resolved in 1965 when the countries had opened diplomatic relations and Japan had paid hundreds of millions of dollars in reparations and soft loans.

Escalation then spiraled.

The court seized Japanese firms’ assets in South Korea. An angry Tokyo implemented export controls on critical high-tech materials to South Korea. Infuriated, South Koreans boycotted Japanese products and Seoul alarmed Washington by threatening to cancel a military intelligence-sharing agreement – which was only saved by US intervention. 

Following Abe’s departure and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s appointment in September 2020, there were hopes of a reset. But matters did not improve.

In January 2021, another South Korean court ordered Japan to pay additional reparations to comfort women and Moon disavowed the decision. However, Suga still refused to meet him.

Then, on July 16, a high-ranking diplomat in Japan’s Seoul embassy told a local reporter that Moon was “masturbating” if he expected a summit with Suga, as, “the government of Japan does not think about the Japan-Korea relationship as much as Korea does.” 

South Korean protesters shred a huge Japanese flag during a rally near the Japanese embassy in Seoul in 2019. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je

That caused a predictable uproar in South Korea. Less than a week before the Tokyo 2020 opening ceremony, South Korea’s presidency called off Moon’s planned visit to the Games. The national grudge match continued even before the Games even got underway.

Tiny islands, big issue

South Korea was in an uproar when domestic media reported that a pair of islets had appeared, as Japanese territory, on the online Olympic Torch Relay map. The islets – Dokdo in Korean, Takeshima in Japanese – in question lie between the two countries. Though South Korea occupies them, their ownership is disputed.

The issue inflamed South Korea, which had been required by the IOC to scratch the islets from its own Olympic maps in 2018. Numerous bodies and persons, official and unofficial – including presidential candidates – wrote to the IOC demanding the map be changed. 

There was no response from the IOC or from the Japanese side. Although the map was reproduced in Korean media with the islets boldened and circled, two Asia Times sources have examined the map in question. Neither has been able to see the supposed islets.   

Japanese social media was all a-buzz when news broke on July 20 that the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee had rented a hotel near the Athletes’ Villages to establish a bento (lunch box) distribution center for its athletes. The bento specifically excluded ingredients from Fukushima and its eight neighboring prefectures. 

At home, Seoul has banned imports of fishery products from Fukushima and nearby waters due to radiation concerns from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant damaged by the catastrophic tsunami and earthquake of 2011. 

South Korean athletes were encouraged to avoid food prepared using items from the region in the Athletes’ Village canteen. However, despite rumors circulating in the Twitter-sphere, they were not mandated to eat only South Korean meals, and according to Kyodo News, many continued to dine in the Village. 

Though some Japanese apparently saw the bento situation as a calculated insult, it was hardly the first time a participating nation had provided their own meals for their athletes. 

South Korean athletes had a separate meal option in the Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games, and the Japanese Olympic Committee established its own food facility at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. Furthermore, the United States imported 72,000 pounds of food and beverages from Colorado for the Tokyo 2020 Games with little fuss. 

What distinguished the South Korean meal plan at Tokyo 2020 was the concern about radioactive contamination, given that the dining facility tested all ingredients for radiation before cooking them.

In April, Tokyo had announced plans to dump wastewater that had been used to cool the nuclear reactors at Fukushima into the Pacific, prompting an intense backlash from China and South Korea, who feared pollution of both water and fisheries. Protests erupted in both nations and the issue has not died down.

Japan’s Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told an August 3 press conference that he had assured South Korea of the safety of Fukushima items used in the villages. According to Kyodo News, Motegi said: “I want to make (the Games) an opportunity to send a message to the world that agricultural, forestry and fishery products from the disaster-hit areas are safe.” 

Tokyo was further irked by some South Korean reports that criticized bouquets given to medalists for using flowers from Fukushima and adjacent prefectures on the grounds of “potential radiation.” 

Still, cool heads tried to talk down the issue. 

The department head of the Korean Olympic Committee’s Olympic Village management team told Fuji News Network, “The bento facility isn’t being run because of Fukushima. We are trying to improve the competitiveness of our athletes through sufficient nutritional intake.” 

According to Kyodo News, a source close to the South Korean Sport and & Olympic Association said the anti-Fukushima produce agenda was set by “politicians who loudly took up the issue.” 

Banner versus banner 

Another quarrel forced the International Olympic Committee to adopt the intermediary role often taken by the United States. 

Only days before the opening ceremony, banners were hung by South Korean athletes from their Olympic Village residences. They read: “I still have the support of 50 million Korean people.” 

The number is a reference to the population of South Korea, but the phrasing mirrors the words of 16th-century Korean naval hero Yi Sun-sin. Yi, about to fight an odds-against battle against a superior Japanese invasion fleet, told his king: “I still have 12 warships left.”

After Japanese complaints, the IOC ruled the banners provocative, citing Article 50 of the Olympic Charter which states “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”  

On July 17, South Korea’s Olympic Committee removed the banners.  

In return for taking down the banners, South Korean Olympic chief Lee Kee-heung told Korean media that the IOC promised in writing it would ban the display of the Japanese Rising Sun flag. South Korea had been requesting the IOC ban the flag from the Tokyo Games since September 2019.

The kyokujitsuki – displaying a red disc similar to the Japanese flag but with 16 rays radiating outward – was the official flag of the imperial navy. Asian nations, including Korea, colonized and occupied by the Japanese empire until its defeat in 1945, associate the flag with the invaders and their war crimes.

However, some Japanese argue that it predates the imperialist era as its origins trace back centuries and the flag was adopted by the military in the 19th century.

Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs explained in a PDF presentation on the flag that it is still used as “good catch flags used by fisherman, and celebratory flags for childbirth and seasonal festivities … The government of Japan has explained, and will continue to explain at every opportunity its view that the display of the Rising Sun Flag is not political promotion, to the international community including the Republic of Korea.”

A message in the music

During the Olympic Opening Ceremony, the theme music from the video game Dragon Quest, written by Koichi Sugiyama, was played at the start of athletes’ march.

Sugiyama, 90, is infamous for his homophobia and historical revisionism. He is reviled in Korea for referring to the “comfort women” as paid prostitutes and is also well-known for his general hostility toward Korea. A close friend of ex-Prime Minister Abe, he has donated more than $80,000 to Abe since 2011. 

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seen on a poster behind a statue of a teenage girl symbolizing former comfort women who served as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II during a demonstration demanding the Japanese government’s formal apology near the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

Weeks before the opening ceremony, it leaked out that Sugiyama’s music would be used. Japan’s Twitterati and opposition politicians were all a-buzz at the news, which provoked international outrage. South Korean newspapers did not fail to notice. 

Then a buddy of both Abe and Sugiyama, Naoki Hyakuta, the author of kamikaze fan-fiction The Eternal Zero, implied in a July 31 tweet that the entire Korean Women’s Volleyball Team had had plastic surgery. That was not received well.

Professor Koichi Nakano, an expert on Japanese politics at Sophia University, speculated that the use of Sugiyama’s music sent a message to Abe’s support base that they were not being ignored.

Plus ca change?

Despite the two countries’ similar national agendas – maintaining their separate alliances with the United States, while continuing their economic relationships with China and managing the risks of North Korea – vested interests in both countries keep emotive fires burning.

“What I am seeing globally, is a lot of political entrepreneurs who have tapped into grievance politics and uncertainty – Trump, Johnson, Duterte,” said Seoul-based Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert with Troy University. “This plays out in a slightly different way in South Korea and Japan, where there are certain factions and leaders and voting blocs where it seems to pay off in keeping this grievance going.”

Leadership elections are upcoming in both countries. 

In Japan, Suga must win his party’s vote of confidence in September. If he wins that, then he will have to fight a national election in October. But given the dominance of Suga’s Liberal Democratic Party, experts expect no real change after the latter race.

“Suga is not that popular and his approval ratings are down, but the LDP is likely to win and as long as the LDP is the ruling party, their position will not change dramatically,” said Lim Eun-jung a Japan specialist at Korea’s Kongju University. “If we take that as a constant, then the only variable is South Korea.” 

A new variable is set to hit the political scene in South Korea, after a presidential election in March 2022. (Incumbent Moon is constitutionally restricted to a single term.)

“As we are the variable, if a candidate who is brave enough to break through the stalemate and persuade domestic civil society can win, we can have new chances,” of improved bilateral relations Lim said. 

But the pragmatists in both capitals who see the benefits of overlapping national interest, as well US foreign policy wonks, look likely to remain frustrated.

“With challengers like China and spoilers like North Korea, the region is seeing an increasing risk of instability,” said Pinkston. “But [Seoul-Tokyo hostility] is not a new problem, it has been festering for years and has disappointed US foreign policymakers going back years and years and years.”