Japan gives itself permission to get patriotic

Japan beats Russia, and World Cup fans get instructions on how to sing the national anthem.

JAPAN reveled unashamedly in nationalist euphoria last night after a 1-0 World Cup win over Russia in a match filled with historical and political overtones.

Long associated with the militarism of the World War II, displays of patriotism have been frowned upon by several generations of Japanese. Such are the tensions raised by the subject that a teacher committed suicide a few years ago after being ordered to introduce singing of the national anthem in his school.

Yesterday, however, a mostly young crowd at the Yokohama international stadium gave a goose-bump rendering rendition of that song, a prayer for the emperor to live 10,000 years, while the nation gave every sign of being at one in supporting its team against a country with which it is still technically at war.

Tokyo and Moscow have never signed a peace treaty because they continue to dispute ownership of the Kuril Islands, which were occupied by Russia in the waning days of the World War II.

A huge banner in downtown Tokyo makes it clear how dear this issue is to Japan's politicians: "The day the four islands are returned is the day of peace," it says in six-foot high characters.

Right-wing politicians have wasted no opportunity in trying to capitalize on the soccer match to stir up national pride and interest in the issue.

The nationalist governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, said last week that a victory for Japan's soccer team would boost chances of regaining the disputed islands.

"They say politics should not be brought into sports, but a big win would have an influence on the negotiations over the northern territories," he told reporters. "It sounds unlikely, but that is the way it goes with international politics."

Inside the stadium yesterday, fans were given a sheet of paper with a hinomaru (rising sun) national flag on one side and the words of the national anthem on the back. To educate a generation not used to the formalities of patriotism, it also included instructions on how to behave. "Stand up straight, look smart, take your hat off, and concentrate on the flag while you are singing," it read.

The supporters, however, joined in with a mixture of pride and self-consciousness. "I don't really like the anthem and all its overtones, but I sang it because I am so excited," said Kaz Miwa.

In contrast to the 1998 World Cup, this was definitely a crowd that was more interested in winning than being remembered as the nice boys who lost every game. Japanese fans in France were famous for picking up their garbage after each match and applauding the opposition. Yesterday, however, they booed and gave a thumbs-down sign when the Russian team's names were read out.

Yet on the whole this was a new display of soccer-centered soft patriotism rather than traditional political nationalism of the past, despite the efforts of some right-wingers to combine the two.

Japan has been preparing for this event for almost 10 years. The professional J-League was formed in 1993 with the express purpose of raising the level of soccer and boosting the country's bid to host the World Cup.

During that time there has been a significant culture shift among the young, who have put the traditional passion for baseball to one side in order to track the progress of foreign soccer players such as England's David Beckham and France's Zinedine Zidane, who enjoy pop-star status.

After Japan's stirring first game against Belgium sent the population abuzz, the national team coach – Frenchman Philippe Troussier – marveled at the transformation.

"We saw an image today of a new Japan," said the coach, whose confrontations with Japanese cultural norms have prompted frequent clashes with soccer authorities, the media, and even his own players.

Endorsement has came from some unlikely sources. After England's victory against Argentina, a yakuza gangster – normally associated with traditional nationalism – was almost weeping with joy as he joined in the singing.

"The World Cup is fantastic. Japan is great. And I love Troussier," he said, declaring himself a member of the local mafia.

"I'd rather have these three points from Russia than four islands," enthused Hiroshi Tanaka after yesterday's win.

This tournament is changing or at least revealing a new Japan – that for all the show of nationalism is also embracing the global soccer culture and standards. And perhaps that - more than anything – is the best hope yet for a resolution of territorial disputes.

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