Goals on the Ice and Politics in the Air as Japan Beats Unified Korean Team

Goals on the Ice and Politics in the Air as Japan Beats Unified Korean Team

When Griffin scored her goal, midway through the second period, cutting Japan’s lead to 2-1, the crowd leapt to its feet and roared with joy.

For many fans, the political and historic charge of the game was the point.

“I am not very interested in hockey,” said Cho Young-kyu, 20, who attended with a group of high school friends. “I decided to come here because it is a game between Korea and Japan and it is a unified Korean team.” Several other fans expressed similar interest in the political drama rather than the sport.

Mr. Cho, who wore a baseball hat with a peace symbol embroidered on it and carried both a South Korean and a unity flag, took special glee in pointing out a couple of tiny dots on the unified flag. They represented tiny islands in the sea between Japan and the Korean Peninsula, known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan, that are administered by South Korea but claimed by Japan. “These are our islands, not Japan’s islands,” he said.

Given the circumstances, Wednesday’s game played out with civility. When Japan scored, there was no booing. Instead, Korean fans quickly rebounded with chants of “It’s O.K.!” The Japanese fans applauded the Korean team at the end of the game.

Over all, relations between Japan and South Korea have generally been on a long-term upward trend. In the late 1990s, South Korea dropped its bans against Japanese films, videos and comic books, and began allowing Japanese performers into the country. In 2002, when the countries co-hosted soccer’s World Cup, even after Japan’s team was eliminated, fans rooted for South Korea.

But under Mr. Abe’s leadership, the relationship between the countries has deteriorated. In 2013, Mr. Abe’s party proposed new language for school textbooks that inserted a more nationalist tone, requiring the history books state that there is still a dispute about whether the Japanese Army played a direct role in forcing so-called comfort women from Korea and elsewhere to work as sex slaves for its soldiers. Most foreign historians say the brothels could not have been run without the military’s cooperation.

The countries signed an agreement in 2015 to resolve the comfort women dispute, but after the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, was elected last fall, he pledged to review the deal. In January, Mr. Moon said he would leave the deal intact, but he called for a renewed and sincere apology from Japan, a declaration that provoked frustration in Tokyo. At a summit meeting with Mr. Moon immediately before the start of the Olympics, Mr. Abe reiterated Japan’s position that the 2015 agreement should be “final and irreversible.”

But it was the presence of North Korea that has threatened to open the biggest gap between Japan and the South.

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