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.'

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.

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

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.

Countries such as Korea and Vietnam, meanwhile, have also suffered Japanese and Chinese invasions. Chinese fans, though ashamed of their soccer team's pitiful record (ranked 84th, and not at the World Cup), do tend to share a general Chinese sense of regional superiority as the cradle of Eastern civilization. "There's no jumping up and down in the stands when Cambodia or Vietnam score," says Professor Brook.

That might also have something to do with the fact that underdogs are not popular in China: the David and Goliath myth is absent here.

"Nationalism is all about success," says Professor Duara. "Chinese nationalism has been whipped up, and success is so near at hand for China it is a dominant motive. The Chinese identify more with the top dogs."

Sure enough, most Chinese fans support likely winners such as Spain, Brazil, Italy, and Argentina. But that did not stop a lot of them from going online to express admiration for North Korea's dogged display against Brazil, who managed only a 2-1 victory in their opening game June 15.

North Koreans, meanwhile, have been supporting their own team and South Korea's, despite strained ties and the South's refusal to give free broadcasts as in the past. The Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union stepped in with free coverage, though Pyongyang appears to be censoring it.

[Editor's Note: This article was updated to include the outcome of the Japan-Denmark match.]

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