Thursday, February 25, 2010

Icing on the cake

Would South Korean fervor about Kim Yuna not exist or simply not be as, well, fervent if there were no Mao Asada or Miki Ando (or even Mirai Nagasu)? Is the existence of Japanese competitors and the prospect of beating them a major factor in Kim Yuna's runaway popularity in South Korea? Without Mao as a rival, would Kim Yuna not have made $8 million last year?

John Glionna of the Los Angeles Times seems to think so:
Wearing a sassy black dress, twisting and leaping to a medley of spy thriller songs, the queen of South Korean figure skating is continuing a quest her countrymen hope is no mission impossible:

Not just to win, but to beat the Japanese in the process.

Kim Yuna, the pouting 19-year-old monarch-on-ice, is poised to win South Korea's first Olympic gold medal in figure skating -- a feat that for many countrymen would prove to be a satisfying athletic and political victory over their Asian neighbors.

Because when it comes to sports competitions against Japan, their colonial-era overlords from 1910 to 1945, Koreans wear their fiercest game faces -- whether on a baseball or soccer field, or even within the graceful realm of the figure-skating rink.

"With South Korea versus Japan, it is all about one-sided nationalism," said Shin Kwang-yeong, sociology professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. "Of course, Japan's colonization of Korea and emotions between the two countries are instilled in sports.

"It's a phenomenon based on South Korea's group perception about its traumatic history. If you do not win a gold medal, other medals are not satisfying."

And medals are sweeter if snatched from a Japanese competitor.
I know I'm swimming against the current of K-blog public opinion here, but I think Mr Glionna is betraying a facile inspection that is so common in anglophone analysis of Korea as to be cliché: If some issue or incident involving Korea can be even remotely connected with Japan, then Korea's longstanding han must be a major factor if not primary cause of whatever that is.

True, the loudest voices among the netizenry may bring up such things — whether it's the much maligned Apolo Ohno being half-Japanese or the President of Korea being someone trying to make nice with Japan and who was born in Japan and lived there for five years — but for the general population, I submit, the Japan factor is merely icing on the cake if it's something being considered at all.

Let's go back to my original questions: Would Kim Yuna be loved any less, would she be any less possible or any less rich, if she had no Japanese competitors? I submit that the answer is a resounding no. There is no small dose of national(istic) pride in support for her — she is going to get a gold for our country and serve as a shining example of Korean skill, ingenuity, and coolness — but that patriotic passion would be there whether her primary opponent were Japanese or Jamaican, American or Armenia, Chinese or Chilean, North Korean or South African.

Let me demonstrate. Imagine that through a series of small miracles that the Korean national team were able to make it into the group of 16 at the World Cup in South Africa. Then through a series of luck and more miracles, into the final eight, then the final four, and eventually we see South Korea in the actual final game of the World Cup.

Anyone in South Korea in 2002 knows that the ROK would be going so crazy over this that the manufacturing base would virtually shut down for two weeks and the entire country would be a giant party zone full of hyped up people going nuts with the prospect of being the best team in the world in soccer. The entire country would be on edge like never before with each pass in the final game, with screams resonating across the peninsula with each near miss. The screams following a goal by Korea, Republic of would be deafening.

Okay, now imagine the final game is, through other miracles, being played against Japan. Would the anticipation and anxiety be greater? Probably some, but replace Japan with Brazil and there would still be national insanity. In 2002, no matches were played against Japan, but the country was still at a fever pitch.

Icing on the cake. But not the cake.

So while the Korea-versus-Japan aspect would be an additional element, it would be a superfluous element. And it's sloppy and lazy for anglophone reporters to use it as a standby. Let me use another illustration: let's imagine that there were a lot of public gloating in South Korea about Toyota's woes instead of the subdued response in which a lot of people worry that Hyundai and Kia are in a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I kinda situation (and I have no doubt some people are gloating, as they are in the US as well).

It would be easy for Mr Glionna or some K-bloggers to attribute that sentiment not just to national pride about Hyundai and Kia not having such problems (anymore), but to this stick-it-to-former-colonizer attitude that, in their minds, always prevails. And people would read that and nod their heads in agreement, going, "Yeah, South Koreans really hate the Japanese."

But here, where in actuality there isn't much of such gloating at all, we don't see a soul-searching discussion of why South Koreans aren't hating on the Japanese when they have the perfect opportunity to do so. Because that would mean dismantling this facile notion and putting its parts in a museum somewhere.

A few paragraphs back, I mentioned people who bash President Lee Myungbak for his pro-Japan geopolitical stance by pointing out that he was born in Japan (Osaka, to be precise). Yes, there really are such people (Google 이명박+일본놈 or some such), but they do not represent the norm at all. In fact, President Lee's Japanese-ness rarely is brought up in criticism. Yet it would be right there for Mr Glionna or K-bloggers to again talk up South Korea's eternal hatred of Japan if President Lee ever were the target of many South Koreans' wrath over something Japan-related.


  1. I think you've got this one right. I don't think Kim Yu-na's Japanese rivals have anything to do with her popularity. She's cute. She wins. She's Korean. That's more than enough.

    Her top rivals could be from any country and she'd still be as popular as she is today.

    On a completely unrelated note, you've been on a roll recently. Great work done at Monster Island during the past week or so.

  2. I do think the "rivalry" with Asada has been whipped up out of proportion, but, well, any athlete needs "rivals," competitors, and storylines.

    As an aside I really enjoy Glionna's articles.

  3. Yeah, I agree, Kushibo's been on the ball when it comes to reporting Korean-related sporting events. He's a sport lover like me, but ironically can't watch the events due to his self-imposed "curse". haha
    By the way, I just want to add to this article you posted about how commentators keep mentioning the rivalry and animosity between Korean and Japanese: I think it's completely blown out of proportion and untrue. There are a few moments I can pick out where the historic rivalry may have been a factor (ie- Japan VS Korea in the World Baseball Classic...and whenever Japan plays Korea in a soccer friendly) but I think the Yuna (Korea)VS Mao Asada (Japan) thing is not least I don't feel it. Like Kushibo pointed out, even if there were no Japanese skaters, Koreans would be just as fanatical about Yuna beating everybody else.

  4. Sorry...I didn't mean "curse"...but rather "jinx".


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