Japanese officials fear that South Korea is targeting next year’s Tokyo Olympics as a new front in the bitter bilateral dispute between the two countries over wartime forced labour.
Ruling party politicians in South Korea have recently launched a campaign against Olympic events in Fukushima prefecture, where three nuclear reactors melted down in 2011, while their government is asking the International Olympic Committee to ban the Rising Sun flag from Tokyo Olympic venues.
The series of actions has raised fears in Japan of a concerted campaign to undermine Tokyo 2020, which could not only drag the Olympics into a political dispute, but also destroy the little remaining trust between Seoul and Tokyo.
Attacks on the struggling Fukushima disaster area have particularly infuriated Japan, with Yoshihide Suga, chief cabinet secretary, warning against what he called “harmful rumour-mongering”.
Tensions between Japan and South Korea flared last November when the South Korean supreme court awarded damages against Japanese companies for forced labour during the second world war.
Japan says compensation was already paid in a 1965 treaty and has sought international arbitration. South Korea says the 1965 treaty does not block individual claims and declines to appoint arbitrators.
In July, Japan imposed controls on exports vital to South Korea’s semiconductor industry and Seoul responded by withdrawing from an intelligence-sharing agreement, taking relations to their lowest ebb in years. The original dispute remains unresolved amid mass boycotts of Japanese products by Korean consumers.
Late last month, a task force created by South Korea’s ruling party released a map showing alleged radiation contamination across much of northern Japan, with five Olympic stadiums and the starting point for the torch relay in Fukushima marked within the contaminated zone.
“This is the basis for taking possible measures to protect our people’s lives and safety,” said Choi Jae-sung, a ruling party lawmaker, at a news conference. He said letting Olympic athletes and tourists eat Japanese fish would affect their health.
South Korean civic groups have launched a global campaign against potential radiation risks during the Tokyo Games, demanding that Japan’s Olympics organisers ban food produced near Fukushima, cancel events in the city and reroute the torch relay.
“We’ve kicked off this international campaign to protect thousands of athletes and visitors at the Tokyo Olympics from radiation risks and to stop Tokyo from using the Olympics as a tool to promote Fukushima,” seven civic groups said in a joint statement.
Japan, which says there is no health risk, has been returning people to their homes near the Fukushima plant and asking countries to rescind their bans on food from the area. It hopes to use the Olympics to show the recovery of areas affected by the 2011 tsunami and nuclear meltdowns.
South Korea has also called for a ban on spectators flying the Rising Sun flag at Olympics events, with Seoul writing to the IOC last month. In its letter, the culture ministry said the Rising Sun flag reminds Japan’s neighbours of historical wounds because it was used by the Imperial Japanese Army.
The flag is often flown by Japanese nationalists but is also a common design incorporated in many commercial products, as well as being the ensign of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.