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An Yong Hak champions identity amidst Japan’s ethnic Korean community

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In anticipation of the World Cup qualifier match between Japan and North Korea set to unfold in Tokyo on Thursday, An Yong Hak, a former midfielder who proudly represented North Korea, is poised to support his former team despite his upbringing in Japan.

An is among the approximately 300,000 ethnic Koreans residing in Japan, a demographic historically subjected to discrimination in various aspects including employment and social welfare.

Having attended a pro-Pyongyang school in Japan and having donned the North Korean jersey 40 times, including facing off against football luminaries like Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, and Yaya Toure during the 2010 World Cup, An’s allegiance remains steadfast.

For ethnic Koreans in Japan, the upcoming qualifier holds a deeper significance beyond the sport, offering a platform to assert their identity. Reflecting on past encounters, An reminisced about the camaraderie transcending the game’s outcome, hoping for a similar spirit this time around.

Rooted in the complex history of Japan’s colonization of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, ethnic Koreans in Japan, including third-generation individuals like An, often find themselves navigating cultural and national identities. While Japan and North Korea lack formal diplomatic ties, the existence of pro-North Korean schools underscores a nuanced relationship, albeit devoid of governmental subsidies.

Recalling his journey, An, who kickstarted his career in Japan’s J-League, expressed the naturalness of representing North Korea, citing his ethnic heritage.

Despite initial differences among international teammates, An emphasized the transformative power of mutual respect and communication, forging bonds akin to family.

An’s tenure with the North Korean squad culminated in the 2010 World Cup, marking the country’s last qualification to date. Alongside fellow Japan-born ethnic Koreans like Jong Tae Se, An became a trailblazer, fostering dreams within Japan’s Korean community.

Today, as Korean school enrollments dwindle, An endeavors to nurture the next generation of North Korean football talents through his football schools in Tokyo and Yokohama. Having coached an ethnic Korean team in an alternative World Cup for unrecognized nations post-retirement, An continues to defy barriers, notably becoming the first active North Korean international to play in South Korea’s K League in 2006.

In the face of enduring discrimination, An sees football as a catalyst for pride and empowerment within Japan’s Korean community.

His message to future generations echoes a sentiment of resilience and possibility, urging them to embrace their heritage as a source of strength and inspiration.

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