SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s Olympic committee said Saturday it removed banners at the Olympic athletes’ village in Tokyo that referred to a 16th-century war between Korea and Japan after the International Olympic Committee ruled they were provocative.
In agreeing to take down the banners, the South Koreans said they received a promise from the IOC that the displaying of the Japanese “rising sun” flag will be banned at stadiums and other Olympic venues. The flag, portraying a red sun with 16 rays extending outward, is resented by many people in South Korea and other parts of Asia who see it as a symbol of Japan’s wartime past.
The South Korean banners, which drew protests from some Japanese far-right groups, had been hung at the balconies of South Korean athletes’ rooms and collectively spelled out a message that read: “I still have the support of 50 million Korean people.”
This borrowed from the famous words of 16th-century Korean naval admiral Yi Sun-sin, who according to historical lore told King Seonjo of Korea’s Joseon Kingdom “I still have 12 battleships left” before pulling off a crucial victory against a larger Japanese fleet during the 1592-1598 Japanese invasions of Korea.
South Korea’s Olympic Committee said it was told by the IOC that the banners invoked images of war and went against Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which says “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
The committee said it agreed to remove the banners after the IOC promised to also apply the same rules to the rising sun flags and ban them at all Olympic venues.
“Under the agreement, the committee will not raise any further debate to allow athletes to fully focus on competition, while the IOC will ban the displaying of the rising sun flag at all Olympic venues so that no political problems would arise,” the South Korean committee said in a statement.
Toshiro Muto, the CEO of Tokyo’s organizing committee, said the IOC thought the South Korean banners were “not appropriate” and asked them to be taken down.
Seiko Hashimoto, president of the organizing committee, acknowledged there “may be many ways of thinking” over the issue.
“If the message is regarded as political, it goes against the message of the Olympics and the Paralympics to bring the world together as one,” she said.
The Japanese officials made no comments about the South Korean announcement that the IOC also banned the rising sun flag at the games.
South Korea in 2019 had first formally asked the IOC to ban the rising sun flag at the Olympics, comparing it to the Nazi swastika. South Korean Olympic officials then said Tokyo’s organizing committee rejected their demands for the flag to be banned, saying it was widely used in Japan and was not considered a political statement.
Many South Koreans still harbor animosity over Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, and the countries have seen their relations sink to new post-war lows in recent years with disputes over history, trade and military cooperation.
The countries have been trying to improve relations since the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden, who has called for stronger three-way cooperation with the traditional U.S. allies in the face of the North Korean nuclear threats and challenges posed by China. But progress has been slow.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry on Saturday summoned Japanese Ambassador Koichi Aiboshi to protest remarks made by another senior Japanese diplomat who, according to a local broadcaster, used lewd language to ridicule South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s efforts to improve bilateral ties while meeting with its reporters.
The countries had been discussing the possibility of Moon visiting Tokyo to participate in the Olympics’ opening ceremony and having talks with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga over improving relations.