China crisis

"No one likes them" – Justin McCurry reports on Japan, Asia's answer to Millwall, and their trip to China for this year's Asian Cup

The impeccable behaviour of Japan fans at France 98 and their hospitality at Korea/Japan 2002 earned them a deserved reputation as one of the most popular sets of supporters in the world. That is until they arrived in China last month to follow their team at the Asian Cup.

By the end of two weeks of sustained jeering, intimidation and state-sanctioned political vitriol at the hands of their Chinese coun­terparts, they must have felt like the Far East’s answer to Millwall. They were Japanese. No one liked them. But they did care.

XFor football followers raised on the tabloid-fuelled xenophobia that accompanies every encounter between England and Germany, the recent spat in China will appear tame by com­parison. But the anti-Japanese sentiment, which began with the booing of the Kimigayo, the national anthem, in Japan’s first group game in Chongqing and ended with scuffles with riot police on the streets of Beijing after Japan’s 3-1 victory over China in the final, was as unpleasant as any anti-Teutonic slur conjured by the British tabloids.

Japan were the team just about everyone wan­ted to see lose. While other group games were played in front of near-empty stadiums, tens of thousands of Chinese fans turned up to Japan’s games with the sole intention of cheering on their opponents. Every Japanese touch of the ball was accompanied by jeering, the team bus was surrounded, Japan’s national flag was set alight and the small groups of travelling fans were pelted with rub­bish.

In the days before the final on August 7, the Chinese authorities, wary of ruining the country’s image just four years ahead of the Beijing Olympics, made a half-hearted plea to its citizens to put aside their hatred of the Japanese in the name of sport. For once, the citizens chose to ignore them. Extra security guards had to be brought in to escort Japanese fans from the Workers’ Stadium after the final and the Japan team bus was forced to turn back after being surrounded by angry locals, who also smashed the rear window of the Japanese ambassador’s car.

The reaction back home to the champions’ treatment dripped with indignation. The foreign minister, Yoriko Kawa­guchi, suggested that the jeering could damage ever-closer bilateral economic ties, undermining in one statement the official Japanese line that sport and politics shouldn’t mix. The rightwing press, which had been haughtily critical of its Chinese counterparts, built mountains out of molehills. “If [the Chinese government] cannot control the unruly, bad-man­nered jeering seen during the current tournament, Beijing’s ability to host the Olympics will be questioned,” the Yomiuri newspaper thundered.

True, the Japanese fans who travelled to Chong­qing, Jinan and Beijing in the spirit of goodwill deserved better, but the Chinese, too, have reason to feel aggrieved. Bitter memories of Japan’s wartime conduct linger throughout Asia, but the wounds run deepest in China, where Japan’s occupation from 1931 to 1945 left mil­lions of civilians dead.

Tokyo’s refusal to apologise for its wartime misdeeds, coupled with annual visits by Jap­anese political leaders to a Shinto shrine in Tokyo honouring the country’s war dead – including several Class A war criminals – have added insult to injury. Both countries are happy to play the nationalism card when it suits them.

Chongqing itself was bombarded by Jap­anese warplanes in the final days of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government, resulting in an estimated 26,000 deaths between 1938 and 1943. “Japan bombed Chongqing several de­cades ago – of course we hate them,” read one soccer fan’s submission to an anti-Japanese internet message board.

The animosity is not just historical. Tokyo and Beijing are at loggerheads over ownership of a chain of islands in the East China Sea and relations took a pounding last year following allegations that hundreds of Japanese men cavorted with local prostitutes at a Chinese resort hotel.

Not even the footballing rivalry between Japan and Korea – another former Japanese col­ony – has reached the levels seen at the Asian Cup. In fact, the people of those countries have achieved a level of understanding that has eluded their leaders through an interest in each other’s language, cuisine and popular culture that began with the 2002 World Cup.

Yet Japanese and Chinese football fans should take heart from the ugly scenes at the Asian Cup. The abuse was allowed to peak only because both teams reached the final, China for the first time. This was about more than political posturing – the result mattered, too. When was the last time that an international fixture between Japan and China was greeted with anything but stifled yawns in the rest of the football world?

The result will matter, too, when the teams meet next, possibly in the latter stages of the qualifying tournament for Germany 2006. For the boo-boys of Chongqing and their Japanese victims, the Asian Cup could prove to have been the start of a beautiful relationship.X

From WSC 212 October 2004. What was happening this month