Textbook finish

Justin McCurry reports on how the rising political tensions in South Korea and Japan should not affect the 2002 World Cup

Logistically, awarding the 2002 World Cup to Japan and South Korea was a classic FIFA fudge, but it did raise hopes that the countries would put aside their historical differences and co-operate to make the tournament a success. With kick-off less than a year away, however, “football diplomacy” is proving no match for emotions stirred up by events of more than half a century ago.

At the centre of the storm raging in Seoul and Tokyo are eight school history textbooks ap­proved by the Japanese government in April. Korean ire is directed at one book in particular, which critics say ignores atrocities committed during Japan’s colonisation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

Wrangling over history textbooks is nothing new, but this year it has become a cause célèbre, and one Koreans evidently do not intend to abandon for the sake of appearances next summer. When Japan refused to make more than minor changes to the books in June, Seoul responded by cancelling joint naval exercises and reconsidering plans to further liberalise imports of Japanese films, pop music and manga comics, which were banned until 1998.

South Korean president Kim Dae Jung, whose visit to Japan three years ago paved the way for closer ties, has cautioned against an overreaction. But even he is rattled, professing to be “shocked” that “all the efforts I have made to build a truly friendly relationship with Japan may have to go back to square one”.

In the past month, towns and cities in South Korea have cancelled more than 100 exchange events with their Japanese counterparts. The victims include dozens of children’s football tournaments and family home stays, precisely the kind of grassroots contact co-hosting was supposed to encourage. Chung Mong-Joon, chairman of Korea’s World Cup organising committee and a FIFA vice president, said it was “regrettable and unfortunate” that the row might harm preparations for the tournament.

There is no evidence that the matches themselves will be affected – both countries have too much at stake to allow that to happen. But visiting fans may lose out if arrangements for extra flights and ferry services between the two countries are affected by the textbook dispute. Fans of teams who go beyond the group stage might find it impossible to follow them further.

Despite pleas for calm from Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, his visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine – where the war dead, including seven Class-A war criminals, are enshrined – to mark the anniversary of Japan’s defeat on August 15, is bound to fan the flames.

The omens, though, are not all bad. Several Japanese local education authorities have refused to use the most controversial textbook. Tourism, already booming, will continue to bring people closer together, even as their respective governments drift apart. In 1965, when diplomatic ties were established, 10,000 Japanese and Koreans visited each other’s country. That many people now make the trip every day. A recent survey found that of the more than 500,000 ethnic Koreans living in Japan, more than half will support the home side or both countries at next year’s finals.

Nevertheless, the political leaders appear determined to turn the World Cup from being a genuinely united effort into a tournament of two, mutually exclusive, halves.

From WSC 175 September 2001. What was happening this month