Wash Post: South Korea’s naturalized athletes in the PyeongChang Olympics; beyond treated as mercenaries?

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Hi Blog. While the PyeongChang Olympics are still going on, let’s talk about how national borders are being broken down in the name of enhancing national sporting prowess.

As per the Washington Post article below, South Korea has been converting foreigners into Korean Olympic athletes with the stroke of the bureaucratic pen.  Thus it is unclear at this point how much of a dent they will make on the national self-image of what it means “to be a Korean”.  If they don’t win (which, sadly, they won’t), then it’s doubtful they will be anything more than an unsuccessful means to an end, an asterisk in the annals of Korean sports.

But if they are accepted nevertheless as “true Koreans” (as opposed to mercenaries; and there is a positive precedent with naturalized citizen Lee Charm/Bernhard Quandt becoming South Korea’s National Tourism Organization leader in 2009; until, ahem, he stepped down in 2013 due to a sex scandal), Debito.org will be among the first to cheer.  Especially since South Korea, unlike Japan, allows for some form of dual nationality.

In a similar vein, Japan too has made “instant Japanese” for the purpose of strengthening Japan’s international sports showings, and the fielding of athletes of international roots who didn’t make teams overseas.  And there have been some wins on their part.  But the outlook is not good:  Beyond someone like the (legendary but nasty) baseball player Oh Sadaharu, and some famous Sumo wrestlers (who nowadays aren’t even officially counted as “Japanese” anyway), who remembers them?  Dr. Debito Arudou

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Can you sing the anthem? Okay, you can play hockey for South Korea
By Chico Harlan, The Washington Post, February 11, 2018
https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/olympics/can-you-sing-the-anthem-okay-you-can-play-hockey-for-south-korea/2018/02/11/fe63fa36-0ef6-11e8-8b0d-891602206fb7_story.html

PHOTO CAPTION: Seven of the South Korean men’s hockey team members are foreign-born, including six from Canada.

GANGNEUNG, South KoreaNot long after South Korea was chosen to host these Winter Olympics, as officials spoke openly about setting new medal records and showing off the country’s growing winter sports prowess to the world, a humbling reality set in:

South Korea was going to have to field a men’s ice hockey team.

At that point, the country’s all-time Winter Olympic hockey record was 0-0. Its national team was ranked neck-and-neck with North Korea. The country had a nonexistent hockey tradition, a thin pool of talent and just a few years to draw up a plan that would save itself from embarrassment.

Player by player, the results of that plan stepped Sunday night onto the ice, where the team’s latest practice kicked off with a goalie skating out from the locker room, wristing a puck at an angle and saying, in English, “These boards are bouncy.” Soon the whole team was on the ice, circling and taking slap shots, and somebody yelled, “Whooo, nice one.” Finally the coach settled at center ice, calling everybody toward the red line to take a knee. Every word of his was in English. “Bring it in, bring it in,” he said.

In a bid to upgrade its hockey program in fast-forward, one of the world’s most homogenous countries has created one of the most foreign-heavy Olympic teams of all time. Among 25 players on the South Korean men’s hockey team in PyeongChang, seven were born in other countries, including six in Canada. South Korea has 19 foreign-born athletes competing for it in these Olympics, most of any country, with hockey accounting for the largest share.

The men, so far, have gotten far less attention than their South Korean female hockey counterparts. The men, unlike the women, have no eye-catching diplomatic narrative. They don’t share a roster with any North Koreans. They won’t draw synchronized cheerleaders to their games. Instead, they prepare in near-empty arenas — and draw only three or four media members to their practices.

The imported men’s players are less mercenaries than converts, granted naturalized Korean citizenship even though they have no Korean blood. To get that opportunity, they had to play at least two seasons for Korean clubs in a pan-Asian hockey league. And then meet with national hockey officials. And then national Olympic officials. And then the country’s Ministry of Justice.

Oh, and then they had to take a test and sing the national anthem.

“Then, you find out if you pass or not,” said Eric Regan, a defenseman from Ontario, who naturalized in 2016. “I was with Matt Dalton, the goalie, at the time. We went through the process together and we both passed along with, I think, two other biathletes that day — both Russians. A month later we’re playing in the world championships for Team Korea. It was wild.”

The plan to boost South Korea’s competence began in 2014, with the hiring of a coach. The coach was Jim Paek, the first Korean-born player to make the National Hockey League. He had won a Stanley Cup championship in the early 1990s with the Pittsburgh Penguins, skating alongside Mario Lemieux. Several months after his hiring, the International Ice Hockey Federation announced that South Korea — having shown enough commitment to its program — would get an automatic bid, becoming one of 12 teams in the Olympic tournament. Traditionally, host countries receive automatic bids.

To hear Paek tell it, the national team recruited foreigners not from all over the world but rather from its own doorstep, targeting foreigners already playing in South Korea. For years, a handful of borderline NHL prospects had landed in the Asia League, a 15-year-old hockey league that spans four countries and has had 15 teams — seven of which have dissolved. Teams in Korea attract players by offering modest perks: a car, a tax-free salary, an apartment with heated floors. “I literally live in a building called Samsung,” said Mike Testwuide, a U.S.-born player on the Korean team.

It was these players that Paek began to recruit.

A few were already naturalized citizens. Others, Paek pitched on the idea.

He told them the Olympics were coming up, and that they could help.

“I didn’t hesitate, really,” Testwuide said. “It’s about showing that Korea has a serious hockey program.”

Paek said scouting players for his national team was relatively easy. The talent pool was so thin that it didn’t take much time.

“I don’t know if that’s lucky or not,” he said.

At least two of Korea’s current players, Bryan William Young and Alex Plante, have logged a couple of shifts in the NHL. The goalie, Dalton, dressed for a few games as a Boston Bruins backup. The player who has spent the most time in Korea, Brock Radunske, has played more than 350 games in the Asia League — and stands at 6-foot-5, nicknamed the Canadian Big Beauty.

The team begins play Thursday and is matched in a group with Canada, Switzerland and the Czech Republic — countries with a combined 27 medals in men’s hockey. South Korea’s Yonhap news agency wrote recently that a “winless performance isn’t entirely out of the question.” But Paek disagreed.

“We work really hard, and our expectation is, we’re prepared to win a game,” he said. “To win every game we play.”
ENDS

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19 comments on “Wash Post: South Korea’s naturalized athletes in the PyeongChang Olympics; beyond treated as mercenaries?

  • I find it quite cynical; these foreign players are merely useful.Honorary Aryans, I mean, Japanese, much? And it is the celebrity worship that Japan suffers from.
    The average Joanie Gaikokujin isnt going to become an instant Japanese, no matter how hard she or he tries. ( I always get “you dont look like a Japanese”, when overseas. More interestingly, conversations in Japan have included “(the (black) American teacher) doesnt look like an American, but Arnold Schwartznegger does” (Hollywood cliche of buff, action hero American). Or even, “The British teacher in a suit doesnt look like someone from Manchester” (Oasis/Liam Gallagher haircut, anorak and surly swagger?)

    At least it raises a debate in the public eye about what it means to be a Korean, or Japanese. Maybe. For a while. While its on TV.

  • “If they don’t win…then it’s doubtful they will be anything more than an unsuccessful means to an end…but if they are accepted nevertheless as “true Koreans” Debito.org will be among the first to cheer.”

    Honestly, I think Debito.org should cheer regardless since I cannot in my wildest dreams conceive of Japan doing something remotely similar.

  • Yeah, small steps, but Korea is making some progress at least. Japan is blissfully ignorant of any of these issues, muddling along with case-by-case double standards that serve to fudge any perception of a standpoint at all.
    Example? Japanese Olympian Mathew Cambridge has his anglophone name rendered in Katakana, despite being always Japanese, not naturalized.
    U.S. Olympian Mirai Nagasu always has her name displayed in kanji even though she has been a U.S. citizen since birth and always writes her own name in English.
    The goal here is not to send out clear messages about who is or isn’t Japanese, but rather to deliberately muddy the waters so that the average Tanaka can’t conceptualize the irrationality of it, because, y’know, ‘we Japanese are (insert some ante-diluvian mumbo-jumbo here).’

    • In fact, I’d go one step further and suggest that Japanese contradictory positions seen in case by case analysis are actually a coherent strategy of (a kind of) intellectual ‘asymmetric warfare’.
      That is to say, that in presenting confusing and contradictory cases, the overall policy is to confuse critics of Japan’s institutional racism by denying them a clear definition of what it is exactly that they are in opposition to. Upon such shifting sands, critics of Japan’s institutional racism are deliberately liable to find themselves wrong-footed, undercut, and open to all manner of ‘what-about-ism’, deflection, and obfuscation.

    • Loverilakkuma says:

      To be honest with you, it’s really hard for me to say which is better for worse. SK has a similar race issue with Japan, so it’s like a lesser of the two evils.

  • Brooks Slaybaugh says:

    Well what about those two skaters from Michigan? They are skating for Japan and their mother is Japanese. The New York Times reported they had dual nationality, but I had to wonder about that.

  • It happens both ways. Didn’t some Japanese become a citizen of Myanmar so he could compete in the olympics a few years ago? I remember something along those lines.

      • Andrew in Saitama says:

        And I wonder if Neko hasn’t tried to have his Japanese citizenship reinstated. He certainly got his PR very quickly.

  • Andrew in Saitama says:

    On a related topic, I was at the Cup Noodle Museum recently. I noticed that in all the colourful details on Momofuku Ando’s life, not a single mention of his Republic of China (Taiwan) background.

      • Andrew in Saitama says:

        However, he did not have Japanese citizenship at the time he invented instant noodles (you know, “Japan’s most significant invention of the 20th century”) and would not until 1966.

        Much like some early 20th century industry that Team Japan so desperately wants to be recognised as World Heritage while ignoring that a lot of it was built on interned Korean labour.

        Or indeed, TV programs showing how wonderful “Japan’s 100 Yen Shop” products are, blissfully ignorant of how much would bear the label “Made in China”, or would be domestically produced using low-paid foreign workers.

      • Not the full story: Ando as a Taiwanese had to choose between becoming a citizen of the Republic of China (Taiwan) or remaining a Japanese subject. Ando chose the former in order to keep his ancestral properties in Taiwan (since all Japanese nationals had to forfeit their properties in Taiwan). However, Ando remained in Japan.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Momofuku_Ando

      • Whereas, of course, Koreans forced to come to Japan to labor, are still not Japanese despite Korea also being ‘a part of Japan’ at the time.

        Ahh, Japan sure does like to make everything different on a case-by-case basis.

        Incidentally, anyone know why Taiwanese are less angry about Japanese wartime occupation?
        Taiwan was always administered by a naval admiral, not an army general, and the level of brutality was correspondingly lower.

        • Baudrillard says:

          bust the myth of “benign” Japanese rule of Taiwan; it was one of the worst: “The cession of the island to Japan was received with such disfavour by the Chinese inhabitants that a large military force was required to effect its occupation. For nearly two years afterwards, a bitter guerrilla resistance was offered to the Japanese troops, and large forces – over 100,000 men, it was stated at the time – were required for its suppression. This was not accomplished without much cruelty on the part of the conquerors, who, in their march through the island, perpetrated all the worst excesses of war. They had, undoubtedly, considerable provocation. They were constantly attacked by ambushed enemies, and their losses from battle and disease far exceeded the entire loss of the whole Japanese army throughout the Manchurian campaign. But their revenge was often taken on innocent villagers. Men, women, and children were ruthlessly slaughtered or became the victims of unrestrained lust and rapine. The result was to drive from their homes thousands of industrious and peaceful peasants, who, long after the main resistance had been completely crushed, continued to wage a vendetta war, and to generate feelings of hatred which the succeeding years of conciliation and good government have not wholly eradicated.” – The Cambridge Modern History, Volume 12[17]
          Sir Adolphus William Ward; George Walter Prothero; Sir Stanley Mordaunt Leathes; Ernest Alfred Benians (1910). The Cambridge Modern History. Macmillan. pp. 573–.
          And inevitably, The Japanese used Aboriginal women as “comfort women”- where they served as sex slaves to Japanese troops.[65]William Logan; Keir Reeves (5 December 2008). Places of Pain and Shame: Dealing with ‘Difficult Heritage’. Routledge. pp. 124–. ISBN 978-1-134-05149-6.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiwan_under_Japanese_rule#cite_note-WardProthero1910-18

          • This is interesting, but doesn’t really answer Jim’s question of “why Taiwanese are less angry about Japanese wartime occupation?” or to extend the question, why would many Taiwanese go the extra step of defending Japanese far-right talking points?

            Still it does feel as if many Taiwanese, politically speaking, are so preoccupied with mainland China and mainland Chinese that it seems like any baggage that Taiwan has with Japan is brushed aside.

            On the internet at least, like JapanToday, JapanToday forums circa early 2000s, and /r/taiwan subreddit, I notice that many boorish types of Taiwanese seems be defending Japanese revisionist history and in some cases collaborating with the Netto uyoku and spreading anti-Chinese racist hate on the internet.

            The idea that a holocaust survivor would ever defend the Nazi is baffling indeed.

            Many Taiwanese also overlook the fact that the ROC would probably be ruling the mainland today if it weren’t for Japanese aggression. The KMT (ancestors of many modern Taiwanese) for the brunt of the battles against the Japanese.

            Reading history, It seems like the CCP are the ones that should be thankful of Japan and be Pro-Japan(in theory at least), while the KMT should theoretically be the most bitter towards Japan, not the other way around.

            Perhaps modern Japanese pop-culture and anime hold a strong pro-Japan sway amongst nationalist Taiwanese youth? strong enough that they are willing to overlook Japanese aggression and or outright deny Japanese aggression against their ancestors?

      • Andrew’s point remains correct.

        The Cup Noodle inventor was a Chinese Citizen “gaijin” named “Gô͘ Pek-hok” when he invented Cup Noodle.

        A hated “gaijin” living in Japan, even a “traitor gaijin” at that who chose Chinese citizenship over Japanese citizenship to avoid Japan stealing all his assets at a young age (which Japan still managed to do later anyway, when Japan claimed that this “traitor Chinese gaijin” was trying to do something bad by setting up scholarships for poor kids). He only stopped being a “gaijin” when he became a “naturalized-citizen-of-Japan” in 1966 and took his wife’s name Ando, eight years AFTER his invention.

        So Japan is conveniently forgetting to mention that once again a “gaijin” invented something which Japan now takes credit for.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Momofuku_Ando

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @bayfield, let’s also not forget that GHQ’s ‘reverse course’ policy of letting a generation of political war-criminals like Abe’s grandfather form what was to become the LDP with CIA money to turn Japan into ‘a bastion against communism’, also dovetailed nicely with the timing of the KMT running away to Taiwan and bring the ‘official’ China for almost the next 20 years. The whole time, Japan is giving ODA to Taiwan as an anti-communist ally, and basking in the perceived validation of their fascist beliefs that they think this former colony is giving them. Taiwan appears to be a group of Chinese who ‘know their place’ vis-a-vis the Japanese ‘master’.
    After all, the only thing a japanese right winger hates more than the chinese is the communist chinese.

    • Baudrillard says:

      Its hard to quantify “hate” but Taiwan is hardly monolithic, as there are KMT Mandarin speaking newcomers who fled after the communist takeover- about 600 000 at the time I believe-to the native Taiwanese who speak another language and the extremely anti Japanese aboriginals mainly in the south and east.
      The later’s opinion was rarely asked, And the KMT was a fascist dictatorship dependent on US support, a bit like South Korea used to be.
      Having been to Taiwan from Japan a few times more recently, younger people seem more pro Japanese and there was that Alberto Fujimori type crooked president, Chen Shui-bian who even dressed up and posed in traditional Japanese attire in one photo shoot, but again, but all this indicates is that Tawan partly “seems” to be “less anti Japanese” than other former colonies, no doubt due to its beleaguered position as a largely unrecognized state.

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