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Japan beat Denmark, but why didn't Asians cheer for the Asian team?

Japan beat Denmark today, though it was unlikely that many Asians rooted for the Asian team in the match. Regional loyalties in Asia are threadbare, say academics, which means there is little 'Asian identity.'

By Staff Writer / June 24, 2010

World Cup fans in Beijing enjoyed themed seats at the New Dongan Plaza. One enthusiast (center) tipped his loyalties with a bright red shirt sporting the logo of the Spanish team, La Furia Roja.

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Beijing

Japan beat Denmark today in a surprising 3-1 route. Few Asians likely cared.

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Watching soccer can provoke profound questions, and one such occurred to me during a previous World Cup match between Cameroon and Japan: Is there such a thing as Asia?

All the Africans in the crowd with me were supporting Cameroon, though none was from there. None of the Asians was supporting Japan. Pan-African solidarity was evident. Pan-Asian solidarity was nonexistent.

Prasenjit Duara, an Indian professor of Asian history in Singapore, says that does not surprise him. "There isn't such a thing as an Asian identity," he says. While Africans have forged a common identity from a common landmass, Asians haven't. That's partly a factor of size and diversity: when the World Cup divides up the globe, "Asia" includes Jordan, India, Cambodia, and Japan, for instance.

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"The idea that there is something shared between these countries is not very plausible," says Daniel Bell, who teaches philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing, which leads him to ponder the relationship of nationalism, Confucianism, and soccer.

The burst of nationalism that fired up Asia in the 20th century – most notably in India, China, and Japan, but also in smaller countries such as Vietnam – also burned itself into people's psyches. When Russia and Japan fought a war in 1904-05, "China was cheering on Japan" as an Asian nation battling a European power, says Tim Brook, a professor at the University of British Columbia. "But a lot has changed in ... 100 years."

Regional loyalties are threadbare, at least in East Asia. Japan has still not lived down bitter memories of its imperial effort in the 1930s and 1940s to conquer Asia. Mistrust runs particularly deep in China. Beijing sees Tokyo as its main Asian rival, and the authorities have kept anti-Japanese sentiment simmering for decades.

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