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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (August 11, 2004)

Beijing and Tokyo Both Losers after Asia Cup

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)

As if the litany of territorial, economical and political disputes that frequently blight Sino-Japanese relations were not already long enough, soccer must now be added to the list. In the latest installment of an unpredictable bilateral saga, Saturday's final of the Asia Cup soccer tournament in Beijing became the latest flashpoint in a new bout of Sino-Japanese friction. Japan won 3-1, a galling reminder of that country's brutal wartime occupation of China.

An explosive cocktail of Chinese nationalism and a Japanese soccer victory led to Chinese rampaging in Beijing, the culmination of ugly protests during the matches running up to the final. Although the disturbances were minor by international standards of soccer hooliganism - no one was reported injured - they did reignite tensions between the two neighbors, further complicating their relationship, politically troubled but economically powerful. Ironically, people-to-people exchanges have been expanding and are largely positive.

While Japan emerged the victor on the soccer pitch, both Beijing and Tokyo came out of the affair as political losers. Unless relations markedly improve in the next few years, long-term economic ties, which are currently growing at an astronomical pace, will probably suffer.

Despite the presence of 10,000 troops and riot police, China's inability to quell the disturbances raised questions about the effectiveness of Beijing's security measures and the country's ability to handle the 2008 Summer Olympics. Despite China's urging and warnings, it could not control its own people - and that must be deeply worrying in a nation of 1.3 billion people, with high unemployment and a widening gap between rich and poor.

The quirks of soccer conspired to turn the normally innocuous Asia Cup final into a diplomatic worst-case scenario that pitted two quarreling neighbors against each other. Thousands of zealous and deeply patriotic Chinese fans - many term them hooligans - swarmed into Beijing's Workers' Stadium to cheer their national side to victory, only to witness a controversial Japanese win. Pandemonium reigned on the streets of the capital afterward, but by European and Latin American standards, "riot" is too strong a word.

Commentators had predicted trouble, especially if China lost on its own turf. In all Japan's pre-final matches, the team had encountered hostile, jeering Chinese fans who were angry over a whole host of issues ranging from a perceived lack of regret about Japan's wartime atrocities in China to a string of territorial disputes.

Some elements of the Japanese media blame the trouble on official Chinese state propaganda that they claim has long promoted anti-Japanese sentiment as a way of encouraging patriotic fervor.

In an editorial in the influential Chinese language newspaper Renmin Ribao (People's Daily), Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to the war-tainted Yasukuni Shrine were singled out as a cause for heightened anti-Japanese sentiment in the country.

Many Chinese interpret prime-ministerial pilgrimages to a shrine which is strongly associated with the worst of Japan's militaristic past as a sign that the country is not repentant for the terrible atrocities it committed during the last war.

In an open editorial in the South China Morning Post, Philip Yeung wrote, "Japan underlines its contempt for its neighbors through Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine to honor convicted war criminals."

Despite such criticism, on Tuesday Koizumi reaffirmed his intention to visit the controversial shrine again.

Tense match atmosphere
The final started with loud hisses and boos accompanying the playing of the Japanese national anthem, a familiar scene in all of Japan's earlier games in China. Once the ball was kicked into play, Japan began to dominate the field. A 65,000-seat stadium was noisy but tense.

Japan got the first goal. Initially it was greeted by shocked silence, then a burst of angry howls. A few people hurled food at the Japanese players and fans. The security forces stood by, looking tense. Fortunately, the home side quickly scored and shouts of joy erupted around Beijing as Chinese national pride was temporarily restored.

The second Japanese goal, however, caused extraordinary uproar, which soon turned to bitter anger as video replays clearly showed that a Japanese player's hand had unintentionally touched the ball before it went into the net. Chinese sports commentators were outraged by the foul.

In the closing minutes of the match, Japan slammed in another ball to secure a 3-1 victory. However, many Chinese fans were infuriated by what they considered an illegal second goal, believing Japan did not deserve to win because of it.

A controversial defeat at the hands of the wartime foe was just too much for many overzealous Chinese fans, more than their national pride could endure. Despite a massive deployment of security forces, disturbances immediately broke out around the stadium as outraged Chinese supporters rejected the result. Japanese flags were burned outside the stadium, and some diehard supporters protested until the early hours of the morning.

The raw anger of the Chinese crowd made it impossible for the small contingent of Japanese fans inside the stadium to leave without risking their lives. Police were forced to detain them inside the venue for well over an hour before it was deemed safe to transport them out by bus under heavy police guard.

The crowd smashed the windows of a Japanese diplomat's car as it drove away. The Chinese government fully apologized for the incident, but the violence raised questions about the effectiveness of Chinese security measures and the country's ability to provide adequate protection for athletes and fans at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Before the final, Beijing had tried to promote the event as a friendly encounter. Its chaotic ending must have come as a humiliating blow. Kong Quan, a Chinese government spokesman, had optimistically predicted, "We hope Chinese and Japanese soccer fans will enjoy a wonderful match on 7 August with good behavior."

A bad result for Beijing
For the Chinese government the sight of unruly crowds thronging the streets of the capital is a deep embarrassment, denting the carefully crafted image of social order and harmony that it has been so desperately seeking to project.

More seriously for China, the soccer rampage clearly highlights the limits of the state's power to control its own people. On previous occasions Beijing has also been unable to contain riots sparked by anti-Japanese sentiment, such as the three-day, large-scale anti-Japanese protests that broke out in the city of Xi'an last November after Japanese students staged a raunchy skit interpreted as being anti-Chinese.

If such raw anger were to manifest itself in a domestic issue such as unemployment, China could be struck by a massive wave of social unrest. While the present level of anti-Japanese feeling is alarming, the possibility of public anger shifting into the domestic realm must deeply trouble Beijing's rulers.

Concerns over 2008 Olympics
The post-match riots have led some commentators in Japan as well as in Europe and the United States to question Beijing's ability to stage the 2008 Olympics. Sunday's main evening Japanese news devoted several minutes to reporting foreign criticisms of China.

However, considering the fact that no Japanese was reported injured, and the relatively minor scale of the trouble, these criticisms seemed too severe, if not unfair. In reality, the general problems associated with the policing of such a difficult international soccer match in Europe or Latin America would have been far more serious than they were in Beijing. Indeed, by the standards of international soccer, the post-match unrest was nothing particularly unusual. Compared with scenes often witnessed in Europe and Latin America, Beijing's disturbances were insignificant.

Hitoshi Urabe, a commentator at the Japanese Institute for Global Communications, said, "Soccer fans are known for their barbarian behavior in almost every part of the world. The most notorious might be the hooligans of the UK." He added, "The news of disorder over a soccer game itself is not uncommon in various parts of the world."

Mr. Urabe was not surprised by the reaction of Chinese fans. He thought their actions would be fairly well understood in most soccer-playing nations, except the United States, which lacks a strong soccer tradition. He commented, "Perhaps the only part of the world where soccer is treated in a very minor way is North America, especially the US, which seems to believe in unilateralism in the field of sports, too."

For Japan a soccer triumph but a political disaster
For Japan, even though its soccer squad returned home victorious with the gleaming Asia Cup trophy and golden smiles, this latest crisis in Sino-Japanese relations is a very worrying sign. It once again exposes the disturbing depths to which political relations with China have sunk under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Koizumi's premiership is now widely acknowledged to have seriously harmed once-good political ties and to have greatly intensified anti-Japanese sentiment in China. This latest incident is just another concrete manifestation of the chronic problems he has caused. A strong contributory factor to nearly all the recent bilateral trouble stems from Koizumi's annual high-profile visits to the war-tainted Yasukuni Shrine, which is dedicated to Japan's war dead but also honors 14 Class A war criminals enshrined in the 1970s, making the monument a political hotspot.

Only one previous servicing Prime Ninister, Yusuhiro Nakasone, dared to visit the shrine back in 1985. The howls of protest that greeted this visit convinced him never to do it again. Not so Koizumi, who has paid homage at the shrine an unprecedented four times since taking office, making his most recent excursion on New Year's Day.

Despite the massive waves of Asian protests that have greeted each visit, Koizumi has repeatedly insisted that he does not think his pilgrimages cause any harm to relations with Japan's neighbors and that all he is doing is honoring the country's war dead. He has also pledged to visit the shrine once every year.

Koizumi's shrine forays have made him a persona non grata in China, which he has not been allowed to visit since the early days of his premiership. Under his leadership high-level political exchanges have been extremely limited despite the fact that economic ties between the two countries are at all time highs.

While the liberal elements see the shrine visits as provocative, conservative media blame China for bilateral problems. An article in the leading daily Yomiuri Shimbun said, "Undoubtedly this behavior is partly caused by the anti-Japanese propaganda long promoted by the Chinese authorities and efforts to arouse patriotic sentiment in China by encouraging every member of society to join patriotic movements. In addition, Chinese society condones insulting Japan."

To many ordinary Chinese, Koizumi's Yasukuni homage is equivalent to a Germany leader visiting the graves of leading Nazi war-criminals and wondering why Israelis might be offended by such actions.

In an article in the South China Morning Post Philip Yeung observes, "Germany, similarly guilty of war crimes, has apologized humbly, profusely and repeatedly - augmenting its apologies with generous compensation for its victims."

Kunio Sasaki, a politician for the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) who recently returned from an official visit to China, said, "Since Koizumi became prime minister, relations with China have suffered a meltdown. His visits to the Yasukuni Shrine have ignited dangerous passions in many Chinese." If the DPJ wins the Lower House election, the party will change the dynamics of the current situation and repair bilateral relations, he said.

Given Koizumi's avowed determination to continue his Yasukuni pilgrimages, Sino-Japanese political bonds seem unlikely to improve until he leaves office in about two years' time.

Will Sino-Japanese ties improve?
The future, however, is probably not as grim as it appears at this moment. Economic ties are extremely strong and rapidly growing. People-to-people exchanges are also at all-time highs, with huge numbers of Chinese students in Japan.

Dr Linda Yueh, a highly regarded expert on the Chinese economy at the London School of Economics, told Asia Times Online, "Relations between Chinese and Japanese at the personal level are already much better than what it had been 20 or 30 years ago, in my experience. The opportunities afforded to Chinese workers by Japanese employers have changed opinions in urban China as well as the fading of the impact of the last World War among the younger generations."

She added, "At a nationalistic level, the rivalry such as seen in sports will likely exist for some time, but the day-to-day relations will probably become better as the Chinese become more globalized and the Japanese more keen in gaining from trade with China."

(A shorter version of this article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 9 August 2004,, and the republished sections appear with permission. Copyright Asia Times Online Ltd.)

Related Articles

War and Remembrance
Tim Hornyak, Japan Today, 7 August 2004

At the Shrine: Koizumi's Dangerous Game
J. Sean Curtin, Asia Times, Tuesday 6 January 2004

Soccer: Japan easily tops China in Asia Cup
Hitoshi Urabe, News Review #238, 9 August 2004

China, Japan face off in uneasy final
Hitoshi Urabe, News Review #237, 6 August 2004

Asian Cup: Why Japan Shouldn't Criticise Chinese Fans
Philip Yeung, GLOCOM Debates, 10 August 2004

New Sino-Japanese Strain over Disputed Islands
J. Sean Curtin, Asia Times, 27 March 2004

China May Block Japan Deals over Shrine Visits
J. Sean Curtin, Asia Times, 27 February 2004

Only Koizumi cannot go to China
J. Sean Curtin, Asia Times, 16 October 2003

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications