Asian rivalry on display at soccer cup

China and Japan will meet Saturday in the Asian Cup.

In a clash of history and emotions that date at least to World War II, Chinese soccer fans have been at odds with Japanese soccer players since the Asian Cup soccer games started on July 17.

Chinese fans have booed loudly in stadiums across the country as Japanese stars took the field against teams from Thailand and Jordan, and at one point rushed the team. Local fans sat stonily during the Japanese national anthem, waved banners about war crimes, and shouted down at Japanese fans cheering on their team.

Yet now in an unexpected twist, the two ancient Asian rivals will actually meet each other in the finals for the first time ever this Saturday in Beijing. The event, which is expected to move past mere sports passion and into the realm of high-level national pride and emotion, comes at a time of competitive tensions between the two premier powers of Asia.

Analysts are concerned that the games not exacerbate further nationalist sentiments that have been well documented in both nations.

Concerns have already prompted Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to urge Chinese not to boo his nation's players, but to treat the games as a "festival of friendship." Mr. Koizumi is criticized in China, where he has never traveled as head of state, for his frequent trips to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Buried there are a number of war criminals who conducted atrocities in China during the 1938-1945 "anti-Japanese war," as it is known here.

"Chinese [leaders] want to keep the anti-Japanese sentiment within some boundaries, and don't want to see it disrupting the relationship with Japan," says Ken Lieberthal, a China expert at the University of Michigan.

The Asian Cup games, involving 16 national teams and 32 matches are held every four years. In this summer's games neither China nor Japan dominated their opponents, and both emerged as finalists after emotional come-from-behind victories. Japan won in an extra period against Bahrain, and China took a 1-1 draw against Iran - both on Wednesday evening.

Almost immediately the Chinese public heard unusually raw statements about Japan. In the minutes after the Chinese team piled on each other to celebrate making the finals, Chinese goalie Liu Yunfei, the hero of the evening, told a sports reporter on live national TV that it would be no trouble for the Chinese team to handle "xiao Riben," or "little Japanese." The comment was unusually frank as a public expression in China.

Only $100 seats left

Tickets for Saturday's game at the nearly 60,000-seat Worker's Stadium in Beijing were plentiful on Tuesday. But by mid-afternoon Wednesday, as the magnitude of the China-Japan matchup sank in, the $25 and $50 seats were sold out and only $100 seats were available.

Chinese soccer fans are notoriously rowdy. Even before the Japanese became a target of jeering in Chinese venues ranging from Chongqing to Jinan on the east coast, Asian Cup officials had made a series of censorious statements about Chinese fans. In the opening ceremonies, Chinese fans booed several teams and Cup officials, leading a Cup spokesperson to ask if Beijing was ready in spirit to host the 2008 Olympic Summer Games.

In recent days, Japanese officials and politicians have complained about "unsportsmanlike" booing and heckling of their players in China, and leading Liberal Democratic Party politicians have pushed for a formal protest to be sent to Beijing. Mineichi Iwanaga, an LDP party official, also repeated the Olympics readiness question.

Unlike postwar Germany, postwar Japan was never able to face its brutal wartime record in Asia in any serious, self-reflective manner. Debates are held to this day in Tokyo over whether to include an unsanitized record in school history texts. Japan played four of its Asian Cup 2004 games in Chongqing, for example, which was the site of one of the first ever aerial civilian bombings in history. On May 3 and 4, 1939, as witnessed by journalist Theodore White, the Japanese Air Force pummeled that nonmilitary site with incendiary bombs that burned to death several thousand Chinese.

Beijing, for its part, has long capitalized on Tokyo's inability to face its own history, and Koizumi's visits to the war shrine (done for domestic political reasons at a time when Japan is undergoing a nascent nationalist rise) only compound the issue. It gets raised when there are tensions in the region, and also when Beijing is seeking to unify its domestic patriotic base. In recent years, Japanese wartime mustard gas dump sites have been publicized in north China, as well. Last fall there was a sudden vitriolic anti-Japanese riot in Xian.

Rivalry extends to resources

Deeper in the relationship are current anxieties among Chinese planners over what is felt to be Japanese interference in a deal with Moscow over an oil pipeline from Siberia. It now appears Japan will get at least half that deal. In recent months as well, the Japanese Embassy in Beijing has been a target by so-called Chinese activists who have waved signs asking that Japan relinquish claims to the Diaoyu Islands - which are said to contain oil fields.

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