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Hibakusha: Eying a unified Korean Olympic baseball team

Isao Harimoto is pictured talking about North Korea and baseball in Tokyo on Nov. 5, 2018. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Fujii)

TOKYO -- Opening the website of the Baseball Federation of Asia reveals a map of Asia with the flags of 24 member countries and regions. The flag of Japan appears in the Far East. To its west is the flag of South Korea, and to the north of that, the North Korean flag. So does this mean baseball is alive and well in North Korea, too?

When I ask Isao Harimoto, a 78-year-old former professional baseball player in Japan, about this, the latter lifts his body from the couch he's been sitting on.

"I know, right?" he says, excitedly. "There was talk of us going there to offer baseball training about 20 years ago."

Harimoto is a second-generation "Zainichi" Korean national residing in Japan, and has the Korean name Jang Hun. He became a professional baseball player after high school and remained so until he retired at the age of 41 in 1981. He still holds the record for the most career hits -- 3,085 -- in Japanese baseball history.

Shortly after he left Japanese pro baseball, he contributed to the founding of the South Korean professional baseball league. Time passed, and during the regime of North Korea's Kim Jong Il, the current North Korean leader's father, a compatriot asked Harimoto, "Won't you coach (North Korean baseball players) just once?"

The reservations with which his compatriot sought help prompted Harimoto to look for people in the Japanese baseball world who would cooperate to make the request a reality. But in the end, he was unable to gain sufficient support and understanding, and his vision of coaching baseball in North Korea fizzled.

There's a reason why the memory of this unsuccessful attempt resurfaced to Harimoto's consciousness in recent days: the revival of baseball in the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.

Harimoto was born in Hiroshima and survived the U.S. atomic bombing of the city, which took place on Aug. 6, 1945, when Harimoto was 5 years old. He was treated poorly by Japanese society due to his Korean roots. His neighbors, meanwhile, were Korean families who were split on which country they viewed as their motherland -- North Korea or South. In the midst of it all, he devoted his life to baseball. Says Harimoto, "I want a unified (Korean) team to be created without ideology or politics being brought into it."

The right momentum for such a feat is now being cultivated. At the third summit of the two Koreas this September, North Korea, which had hitherto increasingly isolated itself within the international community, announced that it would permanently dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear complex -- albeit on condition that U.S. agree to "corresponding measures." Some have raised questions about North Korea's sincerity, since it had repeatedly conducted nuclear tests until last year. But, Harimoto says, "Even if denuclearization takes a long time, it's still a big step."

As a man born to parents who came to Japan from the Korean peninsula, lives in Japan as an atomic bomb survivor, and has dedicated most of his life to baseball, Harimoto wants to make the step that North Korea has begun to take a sure thing. "I've been thinking about it," he says. "The first thing is interaction. If we can interact freely, we can understand what the other person is thinking. The flow of goods that have stopped will begin moving again. I bet when we no longer have a reason to feud with each other, nuclear weapons will naturally cease to exist."

Six baseball teams will play in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Countries from Asia and Oceania, with the exception of host country Japan, must either win next year's international championship, or come out on top in the intercontinental elimination round.

"It's not about ideology or politics," Harimoto emphasizes. "If players are coming together for baseball to create a single team, I'll support them in any way I can. And when this becomes a reality, I will definitely be at the games."

Harimoto cannot wait to see baseball players playing in a stadium in which the Korean Unification Flag is hoisted proudly above them.

(Japanese original by Tetsuya Hirakawa, Fukui Bureau)

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