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Sunday, July 7, 2002


We love Korea (we just love Beckham more)

According to an Internet survey conducted by an Osaka polling service, 57 percent of Japanese people ages 18 to 49 feel that the recent World Cup tournament helped improve relations between the two co-hosting countries, Japan and the Republic of Korea. The media, both here and abroad, and FIFA, are making a lot of noise about what a success the tournament was, and how both countries were gracious, well-organized hosts.

But if the event added anything to the Japan-Korea relationship, it simply clarified each country's own complicated view of that relationship. Co-hosting was never an idea that either country embraced unreservedly. The idea, which has been traced back to Yohei Kono when he was the foreign minister in 1994, was more or less a means of ensuring that neither country would lose face in the competition to be Asia's first World Cup host.

Korea deserved the job more than Japan did. Soccer is, after all, Korea's national sport. More important, when the country was a colony of Japan, the Koreans were forbidden to play it, since Japan couldn't stand the idea that their subjects were better at something than they were. And though they'd never won a game in the World Cup, Korea had played in three, Japan only in one.

In any case, all Japan really wanted was an excuse to build all those white-elephant stadiums, so the co-hosting gig at least gave them that. Despite the rah-rah posturing of the sports newspapers and TV commentators, Japanese fans were never as rabidly nationalistic about their team as most soccer country's populations are, including Korea's.

Japanese supporters were niwaka (for-the-moment) fans, happy to cheer their boys in blue while they were winning, but just as happy to redirect their loyalties somewhere else when they stopped. Thus, the insane popularity of David Beckham and the confusion of foreign media people when confronted with Japanese fans wearing the colors of Cameroon or Senegal or Spain or Germany or England or Brazil.

Or even Korea, but support for the successful national team across the Japan Sea entailed a mixed bag of emotions: part obligatory guilt trip, part real neighborly enthusiasm. The problem was that whatever signals Japan was trying to send Korea's way, they were receiving quite different ones.

In a round-table discussion in last week's Asahi Shimbun, a group of reporters discussed the "historical significance" of the co-hosting exercise and found it perplexing. A Seoul correspondent admitted that he rarely met any Koreans who "cheered Japan" the way Japan cheered the Korean team; and, in fact, he witnessed Koreans celebrating openly when Japan was defeated by Turkey. While admitting somewhat cryptically that "a feeling of rivalry is actually healthy," the reporter also said that Japan "must accept [the Korean] attitude as our fate."

A lot of the Japanese media hinted that Japan was perhaps being overly solicitous toward Korea since Korea wasn't responding in kind. Korean fans are, in a real sense, more attuned to the nationalist sentiments that are central to the World Cup experience, while Japanese fans are more or less uncomfortable with it. If you watched Japanese TV, it seemed obvious that in Korea all the citizens were supporters, while in Japan all citizens were simply interested in having a good time. If Korea deserved to win, it was not only because of their team's sokojikara (latent power), but because their supporters were genuine soccer fans.

Some of the Japanese media were naturally suspicious. The weekly magazine Shukan Shincho ran an article filled with quotes from unnamed sources disparaging Korea for their over-zealousness: a "thirtyish" salaryman, the wife of an anonymous sportswriter, a friend's 20-year-old daughter, that sort of thing. "But nobody in the media talks about this," the writer says, as if such unsubstantiated underbelly reporting really had any meaning.

TV tarento Ai Iijima reportedly became a hero in Internet chat rooms after she complained that the officiating of the Korea-Italy match was obviously biased toward Korea. "It's unfair," she said on the TBS variety show "Sunday Japon," "I'll never eat kimchi again." The media picked it up as a refreshing bit of candor and a clue into the average Japanese person's unexpressed "frustration," but TBS told the magazine Josei Jishin that they didn't receive any complaints from Korea and, in any case, Iijima is famous for such careless comments.

Comedian Sanma Akashiya appeared as a guest commentator on Nihon TV for Korea's ill-fated semi-final match wearing a German team uniform. The media hinted that Sanma was sending a message to Korea, despite the fact that Sanma was wearing a West German uniform (in other words, a souvenir he picked up a long time ago). It's fairly well-known that Sanma has been a Germany fan for many years. When he made a joke about Korean player Ahn Jung Hwan's new hairstyle, saying it looked like "something you'd see on a middle-aged woman," the media prepared itself for the inevitable Korean backlash. It never came. In fact, a Korean reporter told Josei Jishin, "We don't get angry at such little things."

In other words, they get angry at the big things, like the prime minister's visits to Yasukuni Shrine and history textbooks that paper over Japan's imperialist past. Koreans still feel they have a right to express whatever bitterness they feel about Japan, while the Japanese are still very careful about betraying even the slightest negative feeling they may have about Korea. In that regard, nothing has changed.

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