Strained relations between South Korea and Japan took another hit on Monday when South Korean President Moon Jae-in canceled his visit to the Tokyo Olympics and a planned meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide because a Japanese diplomat made “unacceptable” remarks comparing Moon’s diplomatic outreach to masturbation.
South Korea summoned the Japanese ambassador on Saturday to complain about “undiplomatic” remarks by a senior Japanese diplomat, later identified as Deputy Ambassador Soma Hirohisa, who said President Moon was “masturbating with himself” by attempting to meet with Suga during the Olympics.
Soma said during an interview with a South Korean cable network that Moon was locked in a “tug of war only with himself” because Japan has “no space to pay attention to Seoul-Tokyo relations.”
On Saturday, Aiboshi Koichi, Japanese ambassador to South Korea, “sternly warned” his deputy for making “extremely inappropriate” remarks after the South Korean government lodged a formal complaint about Soma’s language.
“While it is true that such terms were used during the conversation it was not directed at President Moon,” Aiboshi added, essentially suggesting that Soma’s comments were misunderstood in some way.
South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun did not appear satisfied with Aiboshi’s apology, demanding “appropriate action” against the offending deputy. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato Katsunobu said on Monday that Soma has been “cautioned” over his “regrettable” remarks but declined comment about Japanese newspaper reports that Soma might lose his job.
Moon’s office announced on Monday morning that the president will not travel to Tokyo for the Olympics, scuttling hopes for the first summit between South Korean and Japanese chief executives since 2019. Relations have grown increasingly tense over the past few years over lingering issues from Japan’s occupation of Korea in World War II.
Moon’s press secretary, Park Soo-hyun, insisted discussions with the Japanese have been “held amicably and made considerable progress,” but after taking “other circumstances into account,” Moon decided against visiting Tokyo. Other sources within Moon’s office were more frank about the Soma controversy playing a major role in the president’s decision.
Another bit of Olympic-related trouble between South Korea and Japan occurred over the weekend when South Korea’s athletes hung banners over their quarters in Tokyo that quoted the feisty words of 16th-century South Korean Admiral Yi Sun-sin, who is revered because he soundly defeated a much larger Japanese fleet that was trying to invade Korea at the time.
On Saturday, the South Korean Olympic Committee directed their country’s athletes to take down the banners paraphrasing Yi after some Japanese complained their message was provocative. (In essence, the banners suggested South Koreans are still ready and willing to attack Japan 500 years later. Imagine the American team showing up for games in London a few decades after the Revolutionary War and festooning their apartments with posters of John Paul Jones declaring, “I have not yet begun to fight!”)
In return, the International Olympic Committee promised that Japan’s famous – and in much of Asia, infamous – “rising sun” imperial flag would not be displayed at Olympic venues in Tokyo.