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Becoming a Member of the Japanese National Football Team as a Korean: The 1936 Berlin Olympic Trials and Colonial Korea

Seok Lee (University of Pennsylvania)


Under the iron-fisted Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945, sports in colonial Korea enjoyed much freedom compared to other fields and was recognized as a useful tool for building national morale by competing against the colonizer.

However, did sports in colonial Korea always hold Koreans together in front of their colonizer? At this juncture, as the Korean independence movement was split into many factions by ideology, gender, class, and other divisions, sports more often than not played a major role in dividing Korean society. We can see so many disputes among Koreans in sports events such as intercollegiate athletics and the national sports festival in which most Koreans expected to see a harmonious Korean nation.

In this paper, I would like to discuss the internal conflict in Korea in terms of an episode, the 1936 Berlin Olympic football trials. Japanese discrimination against Korean football athletes was a given due to the status of Koreans as second-class citizens. Only one player, Kim Yongsik, was permitted to set foot in Berlin, leaving all his teammates in Seoul. But this is not the whole story. During the trials, there was a feud not only between Korea and Japan, but also between Kyŏngsŏng (present-day Seoul) and P’yŏngyang, the two leading cities in Korean football, over the question who should represent Korea in the trials held in Tokyo, and what Koreans should do when facing blatant Japanese discrimination. Both the Korean sports community and some of Korea’s national leaders debated these questions but could not come up with fundamental countermeasure.