On Jan 29, during the final of the Asia Cup soccer tournament in Qatar, substitute Tadanari Lee broke a scoreless tie, kicking a goal in the 108th minute to lead Japan to a 1-0 victory over Australia.
"Lee got a great assist by Yuto Nagatomo...but most of all, I think that kick came about because of his incredibly strong desire to decide the game," sportswriter Kiwamu Kabe tells Shukan Shincho (Feb 10). "All the difficulties and trials, the pressure and fighting spirit of Tadanari Lee were wrapped up in that one shot."
The Chinese characters in Lee's given name are interesting, since "Tadanari" can be translated as "to become loyal." But loyal to whom? Lee, who was born Yi Chung-sung, is a naturalized Japanese of Korean descent. And during the tournament, he found himself in a crossfire of brickbats by some South Korean media, which denounced him as "yakuto" (phonetic), meaning a traitor.
The Korean media had apparently pounced on Lee after he'd been quoted as saying he hoped "he could kick a goal" in the game against South Korea.
"When other athletes' remarks were quoted in the Korean media, nobody made anything out of it," Kabe complains. "Just because he's a 'zainichi' (ethnic Korean in Japan), there was an overreaction to an arbitrary interpretation of what he said. But what else could he say? As a striker, his job is to kick goals."
The reaction in the Korean media has by no means been monolithic. A correspondent based in tells Shukan Shincho that the Dong-A Ilbo, a major daily newspaper, ran a story titled "Yi Chung-sung kicks away spite," and related how Tadanari was subjected to abusive treatment by his Korean compatriots during tryouts for the under-19 youth league in 2004, when he was called "panchoppari," a pejorative used to slang Koreans in Japan.
"The article said that Lee was able to assert, to both Koreans and Japanese, that he'd overcome his hardships and dispelled the hard feelings," the correspondent adds.
"As opposed to those who criticized him for 'abandoning' his native country, some Koreans still felt a sense of pride in him as a compatriot," remarks the aforementioned Kabe. "Whether pro or con, I sense they regret an outstanding athlete like Lee wasn't representing South Korea."
Lee's father, Lee Chul-tae, a third-generation zainichi who operates a Korean-style barbecue restaurant in Tokyo, gave the magazine a profile of a Korean family that regards Japan, for better or worse, as home.
"My son's dietary preferences are different from the Korean athletes," he said. "Some might think that Koreans eat kimchi every day, but that's not the case at our home...My son likes umeboshi (pickled plums) and natto (fermented soy beans). Even if his roots are Korean, he grew up in Japan and Japan is his home country. We discussed which country it would be best for him to play for, and we decided on Japan."
Lee Chul-tae says his father (Tadanari's grandfather) watched the final on TV and nodded "Yokatta" (well done).
"My father voluntarily enlisted in the Imperial Japanese Army in WW2," Lee continues. "He cheered for his grandson, who came onto the field waving a 'hinomaru' (Japanese flag). My grandmother, who was the first generation in our family to come from Korea, passed away last year. She would have wanted to see Tadanari in action."
As far as Tadanari's own sentiments are concerned, he diplomatically posted on his blog that his winning kick had been propelled by "the expectations of everyone."© Japan Today