Boxing Officials Rope Rising Korean Star

By BRIAN COVERT
REGIONAL CORRESPONDENT

OSAKA — Li Hen Chi, an 18-year-old bantamweight boxer, this year punched and jabbed his way to the top of his division and was poised to fight in the prestigious All-Japan Boxing Tournament.

But in November, the Japan Amateur Boxing Federation delivered its own knockout blow, disqualifying Li and two other fighters of the Osaka Korean High School’s boxing club from the meet reportedly because they were not “working men.”

Li, like many in Japan’s Korean community, charge the federation with blatant discrimination against Koreans.

“We were allowed to participate in the eliminations, but we couldn’t make it to the actual tournament. So I was really upset,” said Li, a senior at the high school in Higashi Osaka.

Ironically, while Li and his two fellow fighters are restricted from further amateur competition in Japan, they have been selected to represent Japan in January at the international Stockholm Boxing Open in Sweden.

“I am really pleased to participate both as the meet’s representative and as a boxer,” Li said in an interview. “I’ll be fighting at the (Stockholm) meet with all my might.”

Li’s defeat at the hands of Japanese boxing officials is more than just a case of one athlete’s struggle: Critics say it illustrates the depth of modern-day Japanese intolerance toward Koreans born and raised in Japan — even in the field of sports.

“It’s not just a sports problem,” says Cho Kum Suk, an English teacher at the high school. “Behind this, there is a very difficult and deep historical background between Japan and Korea.

“But from the (Korean) students’ point of view,” she adds, “they just want to play against other students and compete to the best of their abilities.”

The Ministry of Education classifies the 12 Korean high schools in Japan as “vocational” or “other” types of institutions, thereby automatically disqualifying such schools from the annual nationwide sports events.

Prefectural athletic associations have long followed suit, barring Korean high school players from regional games.

But athletes from the 900-student Osaka Korean High School have started to change things.

In May, the school’s female volleyball team won the first round of the Kinki regional eliminations. The team was dropped from further play by the Osaka High School Sports Federation. After dozens of federation meetings and countless complaints from both Korean and Japanese teachers’ unions — including a 14,000-signature petition — the sports federation in late November set a precedent by agreeing to allow the Osaka Korean High School to compete on the prefectural level from next April.

The high school athletic federations of Kyoto, Hyogo, Hiroshima and Hokkaido prefectures also recently announced plans to consider allowing Korean schools to play in future nonnational eliminations.

Li Yong Min, head teacher of first-year students at the Osaka Korean High School, is excited about the changes.

“I’m rather optimistic,” the social studies teacher said. “One reason for my optimism is that there was no such sports-reform movement in 1955, when a winning Korean high school soccer team from Tokyo was stripped of its third-place title in the national meet.

“The times are changing, and now we have such a campaign.”

Li Yong Min compares these reforms with the 1960s civil rights movement in the United States.

“It’s starting to happen here in Japan now,” he said. “Only good can come from such a movement, I believe. Japan is now reaching the point that the U.S. faced 30 years ago.”

Both staff and students of the Korean high school recognize their victory is a limited one, however, since Korean schools throughout the country will still be excluded from the all-Japan games.

The recent controversy over Korean athletes playing in prefectural games demonstrates how even the most basic human rights in Japan are violated, according to English instructor Cho.

“We were born and raised in Japan. There is no difference between Japanese students and Korean students living in Japan,” she said. “I think we have the right to join the prefectural games, and the students want it.”

And beyond the Stockholm meet, the boxing world in Japan has not seen the last of Li Hen Chi, whose dreams of boxing on the amateur level were KO’d by Japanese sports officials.

“After graduation I’ll be working,” said Li. “But I want to stop by when I have time to guide my friends and fellow fighters in the boxing club.”