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Soccer Matchup Has Nations Kicking

China and Japan are facing off in the Asian Cup final. The wartime rivals have been arguing over fan behavior and their vexed history.

August 06, 2004|Bruce Wallace and John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writers

BEIJING — The latest Japanese warriors sweeping aside opponents on Chinese soil have come wearing nothing more fearsome than cleats, and they have shown their Asian neighbors nothing more aggressive than an unquenchable thirst for goals.

But the presence of Japan's national soccer team in the 2004 Asian Cup has triggered an anti-Japanese fury among the tournament's Chinese hosts. Chinese crowds have jeered Japanese players, drowned out their anthem with boos, and thrown bottles and garbage at athletes from the country that invaded China more than 70 years ago.

And that was when Japan was playing teams from Thailand, Jordan and Bahrain.

The mood is expected to be even more emotionally charged when China and Japan clash head-on in the tournament's final Saturday night in front of a crowd of 60,000 at Beijing's Workers' Stadium.

Some observers say Chinese hostility to the soccer players shows the lingering rawness from Japan's invasion and occupation, which lasted until the end of World War II.

But in Japan, the vitriol has spawned a mix of indignation and mystification at how a soccer tournament became a surrogate battleground for historical grievances. Some Japanese politicians have said the incidents call into question Beijing's fitness to play host to the 2008 Summer Olympics.

"It's a sports event," Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said this week. "Why can't everyone just enjoy it?"

Chinese security officials have made some effort to control the anti-Japanese demonstrations, wading into crowds to strip fans of insulting signs.

But Japan's government, propelled by public unhappiness over the treatment of the national team, has adopted an indignant tone. Koizumi's government has delivered three formal complaints to Beijing, demanding that it guarantee the safety of the players and the small contingent of Japanese fans at the final.

And the Japanese Embassy in Beijing has warned the 50,000 Japanese nationals living in mainland China not to wear replicas of the national team's jersey on the streets or mingle in large crowds Saturday.

"I want the Chinese soccer fans to think carefully about their anti-Japanese slogans," Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi said. "They are deplorable, and do nothing to advance Japan-China relations."

Those relations are an ever-evolving mixture of partnership and rivalry between two countries with intricately intertwined histories.

For centuries, China had been the greater Asian power, exporting its culture, writing system and technology to Japan. But in the late 19th century, the first Sino-Japanese war ended in victory for Tokyo. In the first half of the 20th century, a modernizing Japan asserted itself across Asia, its Imperial Army cutting a trail of human misery whose scars persist even today.

Millions of Chinese were killed during the 1931 Japanese invasion and subsequent occupation, and thousands of women were systematically abducted and raped by Japanese soldiers.

China maintains that Japan never adequately apologized for its aggression and accuses it of whitewashing atrocities in school textbooks and its collective memory. They point to Koizumi's repeated visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's 2.5 million war dead since the 19th century -- including more than a dozen high-ranking war criminals from World War II.

Today, China and Japan have developed the biggest economies in Asia and become major trading partners, but a war of words continues over the Internet. Numerous Chinese websites contain profane pictures and obscenity-laced diatribes against Japan's military, businesses and citizens.

"The anger extends to the entire Japanese people," said Peter Hays Gries, a political scientist at the University of Colorado who specializes in China. "With Americans, the Chinese can distinguish between people and diplomacy. The Chinese are willing to see good in aspects of America. No one seems to see good in aspects of Japan."

The lingering hostility from the war is stoked by contemporary issues and a rising sense of Chinese pride as the country becomes a global economic power. "The issue of respect is huge with the Chinese today," Gries said.

One example of the nations' ongoing rivalry is their dispute over a string of uninhabited Japanese-held islands in the East China Sea. Known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands and in China as the Diaoyu Islands, they are subject to competing claims of ownership.

In March, a group of Chinese activists landed on the wind-swept rocks, raised the People's Republic flag and stayed for 11 hours until Japanese forces pried them loose.

"They're central to our national character," said Feng Jinhua, a 34-year-old lawyer who was among the activists, referring to the islands. "They represent Japan's arrogance. We want to send Japan a strong message that in the new China we will not tolerate the insults of the past."

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