Examining nexus of sports, international relations

by Robert Whiting

Special To The Japan Times

Editor’s note: Whiting was a guest speaker and panelist at the inaugural gathering of the International Sports Relations Foundation in Seoul recently. This is a new organization founded by Moon Dae-sung, a Republic of Korea’s National Assembly member and 2004 Athens Olympics taekwondo gold medalist, to promote international relations through sports.


The speakers and panelists at the event, held June 22 at the National Assembly Building in the South Korean capital, featured former Olympic athletes, noted scholars and other dignitaries, and it was attended by delegations from Istanbul, Madrid and Tokyo — the latter led by convivial Masato Mizuno, the CEO of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Bid Committee.

The speakers were asked to cite examples of how sports improves relations between two countries, and so when my turn came I told them the story of pitcher Hideo Nomo — which goes as follows, for those not familiar with the tale.

Nomo played during a time when United State-Japan relations were at their lowest point since World War II over trade, as Japan flooded the U.S. with cameras, cars and TVs and Japanese companies bought up iconic American properties like Rockefeller Center in NYC, real estate in Pebble Beach, California, and Columbia Pictures. Americans complained of “unfair trade” and a group of U.S. lawmakers had even smashed a Japanese car on the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

Japanese called Americans arrogant blowhards, lazy and poor losers. “Uneducated and illiterate,” was the publicly expressed opinion of the Speaker of the Japanese Parliament (the Diet).

“Americans can’t make anything that works,” said longtime politician and former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara.

In fact, in 1995, when Nomo left Japan to try his hand with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he was regarded as a traitor by the media and the baseball world in his native land. For a time, his own father even stopped speaking to him.

But then he started winning and people’s attitudes changed. His games were telecast live to Japan and watched by enthralled early morning commuters on huge outdoor jumbotrons.

When Nomo was named starting pitcher in the 1995 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, Japan Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, called him a “national treasure.”

At the same time, Nomomania took hold in Southern California among American fans and Nomo became the first international sports star Japan has ever produced. The atmosphere between Japan and the U.S. suddenly became less chilly.

The New York Times said Nomo was the “one export from Japan that no one in American was complaining about,” while the Asahi Shimbun deemed Nomo’s success a “catharsis” for Japanese who were weary of the constant carping of the U.S. government over their trade imbalance.

Nomo, I said, summing up, perhaps did more than any other diplomat or politician to improve cross-cultural relations between America and Japan, and at the same time, as writer Midori Masujima observed, helped ease an inferiority complex Japan had toward the world in many ways.

In a subsequent speech, a Ph.D from Sogang University named Lew Seok-jin, pointed out that while sports can be a useful tool in diplomacy, sports can also be used to do great damage. He cited what Adolf Hitler did in the 1936 Munich Olympics, which the Nazi leader attempted to use as a platform for Aryan superiority, and he also cited sporting matches between Iraq and Kuwait, India and Pakistan and Japan and South Korea, especially soccer. These are nations that have a long history of conflict with each other.

Some historical background: The ROK-Japan sporting rivalry dates back to as early as 1954 in the postwar era when the Korean soccer team visited Japan for World Cup-qualifying matches and ROK President Syngman Rhee suggested the entire squad throw itself into the East Sea if it did not advance.

The Koreans won the first match versus Japan in Tokyo 5-1 and tied the second to qualify for the World Cup in Switzerland, thereby saving themselves from drowning.

The rivalry, has manifested itself many times over the years, such as the time a South Korean pitcher planted the Korean flag in Petco Park in San Diego after a win by his nation’s squad in the 2009 WBC quarterfinals. A provocative act that upset many on the Japanese side.

Professor Lew cited the example of the intense, widespread joy expressed by Koreans in Seoul when the news of Japan’s draw with Iraq in a 1994 World Cup qualifying match in Doha was telecast.

Japan’s failure to win enabled the Korean squad to squeak past archrival Japan into the World Cup finals. The professor said that a reaction of a young Japanese male acquaintance of his had been so disgusted by the celebratory spectacle that he became “anti-Korean” as a result.

“Two peoples who hate each other should not meet on an athletic field,” Professor Lew said, “because it will just make things worse.”

Later, however, when asked by a young reporter, I was able to cite the example of the friendship between Hideo Nomo and Park Chan-ho, while they played in Los Angeles, as evidence that on an individual level the so-called hostility gap between Japanese and Koreans can actually be bridged.

I also cited the quote by Ichiro Suzuki after that 2009 WBC in which the Koreans and Japanese played each other five times, “There is a destiny,” he said. “It’s like a girl you said goodbye to, and then you bump into the same girl again on the street so many times because there’s a destiny to meet again.

“Might as well get married if we are going to meet this frequently.”

In one of the final presentations, ex-Olympic field hockey player Barry Maister from New Zealand, cited playing sports as a fundamental human right because playing sports directly affects our health.

He used the example of India where, he said, 93 percent of that country’s youth have never taken a class in physical education or participated in any kind of organized sport.

There are countries in Africa that are just as bad, he added, and noted that young people in these countries suffer a variety of diseases and illnesses that are directly related to inactivity. Among them is heart disease.

In fact, research shows that lack of exercise can lead to heart disease more often than smoking does, while an abundant measure of physical activity can prevent blood clots, high blood pressure and the chance of developing type 2 diabetes.

In addition, physical activity makes you feel good about yourself, relieves stress, reduces feelings of anxiety and depression and lowers the risk of osteoporosis. Having no venue or program for sports is a real tragedy.

One valuable thing I learned from this very important and useful conference, which will be an annual event, is that South Korea, Japan, the United States, among other countries in the world, are very lucky in this regard.

* * *

During the evening reception, the delegations good-naturedly ribbed each other about who would win the 2020 Olympic bid and all seemed to agree that at present a three-way tie exists among the three Olympic candidate cities and that the coming weeks and months until Sept. 7 when the final decision would be made at the 125th IOC Session in Buenos Aires, would be intense.

Most agreed that Istanbul’s vision for the 2020 Olympics may be the best one, but if unrest in the city continues, than Istanbul may be deemed too risky and Tokyo’s stock will continue to rise.

Said one delegate who asked not to be identified, “Tokyo has to do a better job of selling itself between now and September and prove that the Japanese people really want to host it. We all wonder just how enthusiastic Tokyo residents are about the idea of the Games. Japan is facing a huge national debt right now and given the fact that the last Winter Olympics in Nagano (in 1998) finished up awash in red ink, it is difficult to understand why the Olympics should be a priority for Japanese.”

“Tokyo has to keep pushing,” the delegate said, “and at the same time find some way to keep their gaffe-prone governor, Naoki Inose, from doing any more damage to the city’s cause. He has to keep his mouth shut.”

Robert Whiting is the best-selling author of several books, including “You Gotta Have Wa,” “The Chrysanthemum and the Bat,” and “Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan.”