Shin: NU World Cup logo’s combination of Japanese, South Korean flags was insensitive, misguided

Paige Shin, Op-Ed Contributor

My paternal grandfather was born in 1931, to a Korea occupied by the Empire of Japan. Forbidden to speak his own language at home, he grew up learning Japanese in school and was forced to take on a Japanese name. I never knew he was fluent in a language other than Korean until we were sitting in a small ramen shop in Hawaii and over warm bowls of noodles, he animatedly spoke in Japanese to the chef. I never heard him speak the language again after that day, even when I begged him in fascination. Then, when I was 7 years old, he passed away.

Western intervention and colonization remain controversial yet well-learned topics. But less light is often shed on eastern colonization efforts, including those of Japan before and during World War II. The country quickly became a world power in the early 20th century, solidifying its membership in the Axis alliance and subsequently occupying the Korean peninsula, parts of China and numerous Southeast Asian countries.

That is why, when I went to watch my friends play in this year’s NU World Cup, I was shocked to see the tournament logo. When I caught glimpse of a player’s sweatshirt bearing the official design, I had to do a double take. Printed on the sweatshirt was the combination of South Korea and Japan’s flags: the large red circle from Japan’s national flag with four black trigrams from South Korea’s flag surrounding it.

Although often unaddressed in mainstream U.S. history classes, Japan annexed the Korean peninsula in 1910, in part through political pressure and constant intervention. Speaking Korean — although initially allowed — became strictly forbidden, and hundreds of historical artifacts were stolen and relocated to Japan. Those who dissented, such as prominent freedom fighter Yu Gwan-sun, were imprisoned and often tortured. Of the most infamous atrocities, young girls and women were forced to serve in Japanese military brothels as “comfort women,” or sex slaves. Other countries occupied by the Japanese empire faced similar war crimes. To this day, tensions between Korea and Japan persist as many issues, such as the Japanese government’s reluctance to acknowledge its wartime actions, have been left unresolved.

The issue, therefore, is not that South Korea and Japan were the chosen countries to be represented during this year’s NU World Cup. Rather, the problem is that the two flags were combined. Before NU World Cup’s organizational teams decided to publish their design and print merchandise, they should have conducted more research into the relationship between the countries involved and more deeply considered the sensitivity needed when combining two flags into one. Asking a more diverse range of students for their opinions on the logo, for example, could have been a good start. I’m sure there was no malicious intent in creating the design, but NU World Cup’s logo — with elements of the South Korean flag surrounding the red circle of the Japanese flag at the center — is a nod to the country’s colonialist past, when Korea forcefully became a part of Japan. Japanese flags flew over Korean houses and government buildings, and the Korean flag was banned. It brings back these memories of Koreans’ suffering, even if that was not the intent.

Additionally, South Korea and Japan are two completely different countries. I find it hard to determine the necessity of combining the two flags, as opposed to having them sit side by side. Although South Korea and Japan may be culturally similar and geographically close to one another, they are not the same country and cannot be treated as such.

My intent isn’t to make a political statement. Rather, I hope to shed light on a portion of history that is often unaddressed, and to highlight the lack of research that was conducted before NU World Cup’s logo was published.

NU World Cup’s logo was created in poor taste, especially considering Korea-Japan relations remain an incredibly sensitive issue that continue to impact many Koreans today. Human rights questions remain unresolved: Of the 238 Korean survivors who came forward about their forced prostitution by the Japanese military, only 44 were alive as of 2016. The incredible struggles these women were forced to endure — from societal stigmatization to traumatic experiences — continue to deeply affect their emotional health today as Japan does not fully acknowledge its responsibility in the trauma.

I am someone who hates to rock the boat. But this issue comes from a place of deep emotion — the pain my paternal grandfather, and so many more, felt both as they grew up and even today. I now realize that the reason my grandfather refused to speak Japanese after that day in Hawaii was because of the deep heartache it caused him. This issue is only a matter of respect, and as the tournament obviously highlights diverse countries, a sensitive worldview is vital.

Paige Shin is a Medill sophomore. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.