Tuesday, August 10, 2004

It's Just a Game, Wang!

As I ease back into non-Vegas life (tear cascades slowly down the cheek), I would like to take advantage of a pinch hitter of sorts. In that vein, I offer these insights from TIA's foreign correspondent in Japan, Mr. Alexander St. John:

When the Japanese soccer team played Bahrain last week during the Asia Cup’s semi-finals, the Japanese public was presented with a precursor to the Chinese sentiment that would be on display at the China-Japan Asia Cup final match this past Saturday. Saturday’s Final, at which fans were requested to act “civilized”, bore witness to political banners aplenty and chants of “Kill! Kill! Kill!” that would make even the rowdiest Manchester United hooligans look like choirboys. The booing was so loud, in fact, that it drowned out the Japanese national anthem. Just as at the Bahrain game, Japanese fans were cordoned off in a section of the stadium’s stands out of safety concerns, with Chinese military separating them on either side from unruly and heckling Chinese fans.

The lead-up to Saturday’s game witnessed high-level members of Japan’s government appealing to the Chinese government to ensure the safety of the Japanese soccer team and its fans in attendance at Beijing’s Workers Stadium by taking every effort quell the behavior of the Chinese fans at Saturday night’s match. These talks and the concerns were reported widely in the Japanese press and coverage of the game (or political rally might be a better term?) even made for a story in the New York Times, available

A longstanding soccer rivalry notwithstanding, the nationalist anti-Japanese sentiment among the Chinese runs deep. At a time in which Japan’s popularity is at a seemingly all-time high in the West with a spate of interest in films, cuisine and design, it might surprise some that a country of mild-mannered ‘salarymen’ could spawn such animosity in its largest neighbor, who’s economy will eclipse that of the island-nation in the not so distant future. China is asserting itself on the world and regional stage economically and Japan is still suffering from a decade-plus economic doldrums in spite of economic reforms. Its a tale of a people with a rising level of confidence being provided with an outlet to gladly share its feelings at what it perceives as an economically-depressed neighbor in the midst of an identity crisis (in spite of being an economically first-world country, Japan still plays an insignificant role in world affairs and the criticism of the government for that is reaching new heights).

Looking deeper at the root causes of the anger directed at Japan during the game in China bears witness to a generational gap of sorts. For the older generation of Chinese, those who lived during Japan’s invasion and occupation of China during the 1930’s and 1940’s (what the Chinese refer to as the War of Resistance against Japan), the hatred and ill-feeling towards Japan is longstanding and, if the accounts in Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking are an indication of what went on in those sections of Japanese-occupied China, understandable. It’s the younger generation of Chinese, who know only of Japan’s actions through what’s been passed down from their elders or perceived through the government-controlled media (think Fox News without competition), that provides a more interesting glance of awakened nationalist sentiment in the once sleeping giant.

As Mr. Yardley points out in his NYT article, the Chinese government has not exercised any restraint in terms of stoking the fires of anti-Japanese sentiment. In fact, liberalization on the use of the Internet in China has allowed greater dissemination of nationalist feeling, and in two of the more public examples, resulted in effects on Chinese policy: (i) knocking Japan from the running to provide a high-speed train to link Shanghai and Beijing, and (ii) feeding the flames over control of the tiny Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, an issue that emerged as a flashpoint in China-Japan relations recently.

At the end of the day, the fear on the minds of many Chinese is that in a sphere of the world in which the United States has shown less interest (focusing its attentions on the Middle East) and in which North Korea waves a nuclear sword in the air, Japan is intent on changing its cuckolded military position and, in the name of defending itself, substantially re-arming. Japan’s dispatch of its so-called Self-Defense Force personnel to Iraq (albeit with a limited humanitarian mandate) marks the first overseas deployment since World War II ended in 1945. The significance of this event is not lost on the Chinese, who were once at the bayonet’s end of such military excursions. Some feel that the Iraq deployment marked the first step in Japan’s remilitarization (and that the press coverage of the vocal anti-Japanese soccer fans is being over-dramatized in the press to justify Japan’s re-fashioned call to arms) and the question that follows is, Where will it end? In partial answer, some have pointed out that there are those in Japan intent on acquiring nuclear weapons to counter threats from North Korea.

It all provides for ample food for thought, especially as Japan commemorated this past week the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, an annual event that marks a remembrance of Japan’s war past, its adherence to peace and is renunciation of nuclear weapons (of which Prime Minister Koizumi reaffirmed again this year). And, while I have the conch, if there’s anything more to be gleaned from this (yes, history is valueless if nothing is learned from it), it’s the reminder that the scars and memories of war – and bad behavior during war – can have a long-lasting effect (especially when spoon-fed with a dash or two of government propaganda).

Further, in a controlled society such as China, where voicing one’s unhappiness and frustrations against the government will get you imprisoned, venting their frustrations on the Japanese, a ferocious enemy of yester-year, provides a forum for letting off a little steam without the negative repercussions like getting tossed into jail. So too in the Middle East, where the United States presents itself as such a target for years to come. The United States' present occupation of Iraq, its intentions not withstanding, provide those frustrated and disenfranchised persons of the Middle East with a target on which to vent their ire. China’s sentiments toward Japan – some sixty-plus years after the latter occupied the former – are an indication that bad deeds can be hard to live down. Perhaps the United States should step wisely and lively on the soccer fields of the Middle East in years to come.

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?