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Last Updated: Monday, 16 February, 2004, 00:15 GMT
Sumo returns to Seoul

Charles Scanlon
BBC correspondent in South Korea

Sumos in Seoul
The return of sumo raised hopes of an end to animosities
Japanese sumo wrestlers have been competing in South Korea for the first time since the country was liberated from Japanese colonial rule.

Forty top wrestlers, including the grand champion, Asahoryu, received enthusiastic applause as they paraded into the ring in a central Seoul gymnasium.

It was a highly symbolic moment following the lifting of a ban on the import of Japanese popular culture - a legacy of bitter memories from the years of Japanese colonial rule.

It is an understatement to say that Japan has had an image problem in Korea.

Generations of school children have been brought up with stories of Japanese atrocities.

Past not forgotten

At the old Japanese prison in Seoul - now a museum - old hatreds are kept alive for future generations.

I've overcome my hard feelings towards Japan - it's often the younger people who are more hostile
Lee Byoeng-chon, spectator
School groups are ushered past a series of grisly displays that show the former colonial masters in the worst popular light.

The cells echo with screams as Japanese guards in the form of animated mannequins take delight in torturing Korean prisoners.

The return of sumo wrestlers to Seoul after half a century gives hope that old animosities are finally beginning to fade.

Full house

Thousands of Koreans turned out on the first day - some drawn by curiosity, others by nostalgia.

Sumos in Seoul
The first bouts have attracted big crowds
"I last saw sumo here in 1942," said Lee Byoeng-chon, who like many Koreans of his generation was educated in Japanese.

"I've overcome my hard feelings towards Japan. It's often the younger people who are more hostile. They've been fed only the worst stories about the colonial period but they don't know the reality the way we do."

Mrs Kwak Mi-jung in her 40s came with her family. Like many Koreans, she knows little about sumo.

"It's not that I have positive feelings about Japan but I was very curious. This is the first big event since the ban on Japanese culture was lifted. I think we should know more about each other - only then will relations improve."

Building bridges

Sumo is the quintessential Japanese sport - heavy on ritual and shinto symbolism - the native religion once forced on the emperor's Korean subjects.

But at the stadium there was a cordial atmosphere. Boys from local junior schools lined up to do battle with the titanic wrestlers.

The new contacts go beyond large men in loincloths. Japanese pop music and videos were also legalised at the beginning of the year and have been selling well.

Some say the ban on Japanese culture had degenerated over the decades into little more than trade protectionism.

"Unfortunately in the past Korean artists would rip off Japanese music because they thought no-one would notice," says Bernie Cho of MTV.

But he says the internet and increased foreign travel put a stop to such plagiarism. He says Korean music is now strong enough to compete with Japanese imports.

Historical disputes will linger and resentments are deeply rooted. But South Korea and Japan are getting to know each other again - and as often as not they like what they see.


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