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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, March 18, 2006

S. Korea, Japan pride at stake

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Columnist

Headlines in South Korea newspapers tell us that President Roh Moo-hyun will not hold a summit conference with his Japan counterpart, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, without a promise to address some decades-old sensitivities.

But the only showdown between the two nations that anyone there is really talking about now comes thousands of miles away on a baseball field in San Diego today.

Now, that's a rivalry.

Korea vs. Japan in the semifinals of the inaugural World Baseball Classic is the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees with hundreds of years of often hostile history behind them. It is the Dodgers and Giants on steroids. And, that's not a Barry Bonds reference.

The WBC might be a spring training-time yawner for many, arriving as it does in the midst of the NCAA basketball tournament, but in Asia it has awakened long-standing emotions and stirred nationalistic passions of the type rarely seen in sport. It is a whole new version of March Madness.

To put it in perspective, we're told Koreans are comparing their two one-run victories over Japan so far with events of more than 300 years ago when Admiral Yi Sun Sin and his ironclad "turtle ships" turned back Japan's invaders.

So, you can see why Japan wouldn't relish going 0-3. Why its pride is on the line.

For the Koreans, any international sporting triumph is huge, witness their success in the World Cup they co-hosted. But none carries more significance than anything against Japan, its across-sea neighbor and harsh colonizer from 1910-1945.

So brutal was the period that Koreans were forced to take Japanese names and forbidden to study their own language. Korean athletes who competed in the Olympics did so with the Rising Sun on their uniforms. Thousands were forcibly conscripted to work in Japan's war machine or forced into prostitution.

And, with that historical baggage, if Korea could step over Japan a third time to meet the winner of the other semifinal, between Cuba and the Dominican Republic, for the inaugural championship, well what would be bigger?

Not much apparently for the nation roughly the size of Utah. It has gotten so far behind its previously unheralded but suddenly 6-0 baseball team that the government announced it will waive the mandated two years of compulsory military service for the players still subject. National rallies have been held. Newspapers devote page after page to the string of triumphs over not only Japan, but China, Taiwan and the United States.

Korea has long been self-described as a shrimp among whales in East Asia, where it has been at the mercy of the machinations of Japan and Russia for centuries. A victory today would be a sporting symbol sign the shrimp has thrashed whales.

Reach Ferd Lewis at flewis@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8044.