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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:31 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (July 29, 2002)

Japan-Korea Relations After the World Cup

J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)

This article originally appeared in the "Japan-U.S. Discussion Fourm" ( on July 26, 2002: posted here with the author's permission.

Prof. J. Sean CurtinSoccer 3 Academics 0

Allan Song dismisses the entire co-hosting of the World Cup by Korea and Japan as hoopla in his article History 1, Soccer 0 (link below). Allan believes that the historical animosity between the two nations is so strong that the World Cup has no chance of helping improve bilateral relations. While I agree with his historical analysis of Japan-Korea relations, I offer an opposing interpretation on the potential value of the World Cup.

There are three basic counter-arguments to Allan's position on the World Cup. These are (1) opinion polls in both countries clearly show that the tournament had a good influence on mutual perceptions; (2) the real dynamics of international soccer and national pride are neglected in the analysis; and (3) young people in both countries were the most enthusiastic about the event, which is a positive sign for the future.

Allan acknowledges that opinion polls in South Korea and Japan show that some 70 percent of South Korean and about 60 percent of Japanese felt bilateral relationship had improved as a result of the World Cup tournament. Instead of seeing this as a great accomplishment in itself, Allan views it as a momentary blip. Yet, fostering a sense of good will between former adversaries is a notoriously difficult process and I feel Allan dismisses this achievement all too lightly.

The following paragraph is worth quoting in full as it shows that Allan misunderstands the dynamics of soccer, which influences his interpretation of the tournament. He writes:

"Occasionally, true colors actually broke through the veneer of the carefully orchestrated and choreographed "friendship," like the time when the Koreans spontaneously broke out into an uncontrolled cheer when Japan was defeated by Turkey, a scene that was, incidentally, repeatedly shown on Japanese television. It was not surprising, then, that despite Prime Minister Koizumi's lip service following Japan's exit from the tournament that all of Japan would now be cheering Korea to win for "both of them," there was no such passion forthcoming from the Japanese."

The World Cup is a win or lose event, it is not some sanitized navel-kissing pursuit based on brotherly love. The English shed no tears when France was eliminated and nobody expected France to passionately support England once their own team was knocked out. The Koreans can hardly be expected to meet patterns of behavior that do not exist anywhere else. Furthermore, it is only natural that Koreans should cheer about Japan losing. One would hardly expect them to cry or declare a day of national mourning. There was no American sorrow when Mexico was knocked out of the World Cup, why should the Koreans feel sorry for Japan?

Allan also misses a key point about the value of Korean success. Bettering Japan in front of the world was a fantastic boost for the national ego. Soccer prowess makes Koreans feel prouder and more confident about their country and relationship with Japan. This is a fantastic bonus for both countries.

The dynamics of the World Cup are highly complex, but in a nutshell beating your former colonial master is always a great way of venting some post-colonial tensions. It is extremely cathartic for the victor. This is a very important aspect of international soccer and it should not be overlooked. Korean ascendancy over Japan probably explains why seventy percent of Koreans feel that relations improved after the World Cup. The Senegalese were dancing in the streets after they beat their former colonial master France, while the poor Mexicans were reduced to tears after America knocked them out. World Cup success has a huge influence on the national psyche.

Furthermore, if pictures of Korean fans cheering when Japan was eliminated were continually shown on TV, they did not influence Japanese public opinion much. After the tournament, about sixty percent of Japanese people thought that the World Cup improved relations between the two countries. This is probably a sign for a maturing relationship. Anyone who experienced the World Cup in Japan will tell you that the majority of Japanese were genuinely happy for Korea. They might not have been passionate in their support, but many were cheering Korea on.

Another important benefit of the World Cup was the big impact it had on youth in both countries. Many young Japanese got a very favourable impression of Korea from the tournament. Young Koreans now feel more confident and proud about their country. This is a good basis upon which to build better youth ties and understanding between both countries.

Allan points out that Japan-Korea relations are continually held hostage by opportunistic politicians beating the drum of nationalism. Nevertheless, national moods are never static and sentiment is always gradually changing. Obviously, it would be ridiculous to suggest that the World Cup is a turning point in bilateral relations. What we can say is that the World Cup has created an extremely good opportunity to build on the good will it generated. Whether Korean and Japanese leaders will use this opportunity to do so is another matter. If the chance is utilized, then co-hosting the World Cup might be seen as having made a great contribution to improving long-term bilateral ties. It is far too premature to dismiss it out of hand. In the global age, international soccer is much more than a mere game.


History 1, Soccer 0
by Allan Song
PacNet Newsletter, #28A July 19, 2002

A Bleak Assessment of Japan-Korea relations
By Stanley Chan
NBR'S JAPAN FORUM, Tuesday 23 July 2002

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