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Japan and South Korea Make an Oddly Sporting Pair

Asia: Rivals and unlikely co-hosts find a cultural bridge in the international soccer championships.


SEOUL — Screams echo off the cold stone walls of a basement torture chamber where a snarling Japanese soldier flogs the blood-soaked back of a Korean freedom fighter.

"Confess!" hisses the soldier as the Korean moans in anguish.

The scene plays out at a former Japanese prison here, now a museum dedicated to victims of Japan's 1910-45 occupation of the Korean peninsula. Of course, the victims, their tormentors and even the blood at the popular tourist attraction are made of wax, and the dialogue is recorded, but at times the emotions seem all too real.

Many South Koreans resent that Japan has not done more to make amends for its brutal occupation, while many Japanese still look down on their former colonial subjects.

Now that Japan and South Korea are co-hosting the World Cup soccer championship, however, both will need to make an effort to ensure that any such discordant notes do not ruin the festivities. The games, which opened here Friday and close June 30 in Yokohama, Japan, will be a monthlong test for the sometimes unneighborly neighbors to prove that they can live up to the 21st century spirit of globalization.

With the games broadcast around the world and expected to attract a viewing audience larger than that for the Olympics, Japan and South Korea must be on their best behavior--a little like contestants on reality television locked in a room and forced to get along.

In fact, in 1996 it was viewed as almost a sick joke when the World Cup organizing committee compromised between competing bids from Japan and South Korea by picking both, resulting in the first co-hosted World Cup as well as the first to be held in Asia.

Soccer is widely considered one of the most nationalist of sports, and the pundits foresaw dire consequences.

"World Cup Pairing a Recipe for Disaster!" warned the Australian Financial Review, with the newspaper noting that for people who "spent most of the last 1,000 years on the battlefield cutting each other's heads off ... [to be] forced to wear the same soccer jersey to host the World Cup is bizarre even amid the vagaries of the politics of international sports."

Yet many South Koreans and Japanese believe that this challenge will be good for both countries, forcing them to confront the past. A poll by Japan's Kyodo News and South Korea's Yonhap agency found that 75% of Japanese respondents and 61% of those from South Korea believe that the World Cup will improve bilateral relations.

Even at the Sodaemun Prison History Museum, it was hard to find anybody this week with a cross word to say about the games.

"The World Cup will do good for both countries," said Lee Soo Man, 74, a retired South Korean businessman, as he eyed the graphic exhibits of Japanese brutality. "Globalization is a world trend. We can't get along by ourselves."

The two countries, which have spent an estimated $8 billion on stadiums, infrastructure and other items, have an enormous stake in ensuring that the ghosts of history do not interfere with the show.

Friday's opening spectacle in Seoul was designed around the motif of unity and harmony, with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung going out of his way to play the gallant host to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Prince Takamado, a cousin of Japan's emperor.

"This World Cup will provide new momentum for Korea-Japan relations," Kim said Thursday while welcoming Takamado at the presidential residence here. "No country can be successful if it only clings to the past without making progress."

The prince is making the first official visit to South Korea by a member of the Japanese imperial family since World War II. Although a proposal for Emperor Akihito to attend was shelved for fear it would be incendiary to some elderly South Koreans, the World Cup has prompted a flurry of other official visits and exchanges that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

It was notable that at the opening ceremony, the World Cup theme, "Let's Get Together Now," was sung in the languages of both hosts; South Korean law still limits the playing of some Japanese- language pop songs, as well as Japanese computer games and some films.

Hundreds of cultural exchanges between South Korea and Japan have been taking place in conjunction with the World Cup: art exhibits, musicals, theater performances, tree-planting ceremonies. In Osaka, Japan, the entire contents of a Korean family's apartment, down to the toilet paper, were put on display for an exhibit titled "Seoul Lifestyle 2002." A corresponding exhibit--"Japan, Our Close Neighbor"--ran earlier this year at South Korea's National Folk Museum.

In the neighborly spirit leading up to the World Cup, the two nations signed an extradition treaty--Japan's only other such pact is with the United States--and agreed to work on system standards for mobile telephones.

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