Events at the East Asian Cup demonstrated that Japan-Korea relations are still far from rosy. Are such incidents inevitable, or can football provide a refuge from political tensions…?
I sensed as soon as I got to Sports Complex station and saw the Korean fans sporting “Visit Dokdo: The Beautiful Island of Korea” flags that the match wasn’t going to pass off without incident.
The huge banners looming across the front of the top tier in the home end promised more controversy ahead of kick-off, and sure enough once the national anthems were finished An Jeung-gun and Yi Sun-sin were unfurled, followed a short while later by the now infamous message: “No future if you forget your country’s history”.
Each of these statements were clearly premeditated to provoke a response, which duly came when a fan in the Japan end – who is apparently banned from attending games of the J.League team he supports – waved the naval ensign.
While neither the Korean banners nor rising sun motif had any place inside a football stadium, you can’t expect a game between countries with as complex a history as Japan and South Korea to pass off without nationalistic expression.
The series of ambiguous statements and apologies – or lack of – from a succession of Japanese governments on a range of issues have not helped matters, but unfortunately politicians from both countries will continue to use events from the past to serve their own aims.
Again though, that should have nothing to do with a football match.
Yong-hun Lee, Chief Editor of Goal.com Korea, was disappointed with the display by the Taeguk Warriors fans, but pointed out that a clear apology from the Japanese government was vital if sporting events were to stand any chance of being contested without political animosity.
“First of all, personally I think the banners that ‘Red Devils’ showed were totally over the line,” he told me three days after the match, with the dust still to settle. “Football stadiums are there to play football, not to debate about the past or show political messages.
“[However] not even 100 years have passed since Korea became an independent country after Japan’s invasion. You cannot expect both countries make peace like nothing happened. It takes time and a sincere apology for Koreans’ wounds to heal.
“I’m sure that individual Japanese people feel sorry if they know [the full details of] the invasion but some politicians have apologized insincerely and still visited Yasukuni Shrine. In that way, Koreans cannot think Japan showed a sincere apology.”
In the days after the game the cycle showed no signs of a sensible conclusion, with all apologies qualified to shift the bulk of the blame to the other side.
The KFA said they warned the fans not to display the banners before the game, but that the rising sun flag provoked the “Red Devils” to ignore such orders. “Ultra Nippon” leaders criticized the use of the naval ensign but said it was an isolated incident and not a co-ordinated performance like that of the Korean fans.
It is an incredibly thorny issue and one which is far beyond my remit to try and solve. One suggestion I do have, however, is to increase the frequency of the games between the two countries. Ignorance breeds distrust and narrow-mindedness; if you try to ignore or avoid the problem then no resolution will be achieved.
Things will undoubtedly rumble on in parliament for years to come, but the fans in the stadium needn’t act so churlishly. Post-game I saw Japanese and Korean supporters posing for pictures with each other and Lee pointed out that the previous day an even greater scene had been witnessed at the very same stadium.
“Ironically, just a day before, Korea had shown the great power of football” he recalled. “No political message was uttered but the South and North Korea Women’s teams celebrating together showed the most powerful and peaceful political message. It was really uncomfortable to see the opposite scene right the next day.
“Now is the time to stop that. Supporters should not react to provocative and political messages, they should enjoy football. In fact, Korean fans actually applauded Japan’s great performance in Confederations Cup. The rivalry between Korea and Japan in football can be constructive if we manage it well.”
A yearly game and increased opportunities to understand the other side’s perspective may well help in that aim.