A Grudge Match for Japan and Korea

There's not even a sporting chance that co-hosting this year's World Cup soccer games will see these traditional enemies forgive and forget

By Brian Bremner

Like males the world over, I like sitting in front of the TV with a beer in hand, watching overhyped sporting events. So I'm quite looking forward to the Winter Olympics, which kick off in a couple of weeks in Salt Lake City, Utah, and to this spring's World Cup soccer games, which will be co-hosted by South Korea and Japan.

The World Cup is very big news in this part of the world. It'll be the first international soccer championship to be held in Asia -- at a time when the sport is gaining lots of traction in the region. Attendance is up, and the sports-marketing opportunities are endless. Then you have the most unlikely collaboration between joint hosts Japan and Korea.


  These two countries have been knocking heads ever since Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi thought it would be an adventure to conquer Korea in 1592. The invasion was unsuccessful. (For those keeping score, Hideyoshi tried again in 1597, and his troops were whipped again -- big-time.)

In 1910, Japan finally managed to annex Korea. And during World War II, 2 million Koreans were forced to work in Japanese coal and gold mines while thousands of Korean women were forced into sexual servitude for Japanese troops as so-called "comfort women." Koreans haven't forgotten these indignities -- and won't anytime soon.

Since World Cup officials gave the nod for co-hosting, the governments of both Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung have issued plenty of pious nonsense. When the billions of soccer fans tune in to the big event, they'll see a Japan and South Korea putting aside unfortunate historical and recent diplomatic spats to work together harmoniously -- or so the countries say.


  Never mind that Koreans were incensed last year over Koizumi visiting a Shinto shrine for Japan's war dead and the continuing controversy over the veracity of Japanese history books dealing with Japan's treatment of Korea and the Koreans.

There's talk of Koizumi visiting Seoul ahead of the games and perhaps even a visit from Japanese Emperor Akihito himself. Scores of cultural exchanges between both countries will take place this year, and soccer-loving fans traveling between the nations will find visa restrictions lifted.

Who would have thought that hosting the World Cup could melt away all the unpleasantness? Well, not me. I don't mean to be a killjoy, and I hope the World Cup is a smashing success all around. It's just that, to butcher an old Elvis Costello lyric, there's something funny about peace, love, and the World Cup.


  Let's be real. Global sporting events don't heal ancient grievances. By and large, Japanese and Korean societies don't care for each other very much, and that's not going to change when -- here's my prediction -- the Nigerians walk away with the World Cup.

The games will certainly be good news for South Korea and Japan, with billions of dollars pouring in from tourism, merchandising, and the like. Both economies, especially Japan's, need a bit of a jolt. And, yes, by all means let's hope the twentysomething Korean soccer fanatics in Pusan have a great time at the after-match drinking sessions with their Japanese counterparts from Nagoya.

When all is said and done, I doubt the World Cup will have much lasting impact on South Korean-Japanese relations. The real world, as opposed to the sporting world, just doesn't work that way. Count on Seoul and Tokyo to maintain their perfunctory but essentially frosty relationship for many years to come. Too much stuff from the past keeps getting in the way.

Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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