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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (August 10, 2004)

Asian Cup: Why Japan Shouldn't Criticise Chinese Fans

Philip Yeung (Director, Hong Kong Society for the Promotion of English)

That the Asian Cup final between China and Japan was more than just a game of football is self-evident. To those quick to condemn the Chinese fans' behaviour, however, I say, look not at the symptoms, but at the cause - the unfinished historical agenda that overshadows and underlines it.

Ideally, sport should be divorced from politics. But sportsmanship presupposes the existence of a moral equilibrium. Where it is absent, it has led to boycotts in the past. For millions of unindemnified Chinese war victims, how do you applaud the Japanese team when, in their eyes, the blood on Japan's hands - while it has dried - is still unwashed?

Germany, similarly guilty of war crimes, has apologised humbly, profusely and repeatedly - augmenting its apologies with generous compensation for its victims. In its latest act of contrition, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder attended the Warsaw memorial service to deliver a heartfelt apology to the Polish people. These acts of penance help close the final chapter on a tragic past.

Japan, in stark contrast, has refused to help the healing process. To date, all Chinese victims remain uncompensated. Forced to seek expensive individual redress through the Japanese courts, nearly every one of the lawsuits has been slapped down. None of the "comfort women" forced into sexual slavery or human guinea pigs in Japan's wartime biological experiments have received a single dollar in compensation. Japan underlines its contempt for its neighbours through Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine to honour convicted war criminals.

Last week, the controversial Tokyo mayor, Shintaro Ishihara, implored the emperor to visit the shrine to spite its Asian neighbours on August 15, the day of surrender. Guilty of sins of commission during the war, Japan is guilty of sins of omission after it.

As if the shrine visits were not enough, it has tried to alter the facts of history by deleting all textbook references to the Rape of Nanking, the scene of more than 300,000 murders and indiscriminate rape. Some even proclaim that it was a hoax. A nation incapable of admitting its past misdeeds is doomed to repeat them.

As long as Japan lives in denial, there can be no closure. The game may have ended, but its bitter aftermath - anger and mutual mistrust - remains. Unresolved resentment sows the seeds of future conflicts. Against the enormity of crimes against humanity, unsporting behaviour is a trifling matter.

For its own reasons, the Chinese government does not otherwise permit anti-Japanese demonstrations. Stifled at home and thwarted in Japan, the sports stadium becomes the Chinese people's only safe court of international appeal.

Sportsmanship is an ideal of gentility, not a moral absolute. Morality trumps decorum, any day. As long as the war wounds remain untreated, they will continue to fester. Lecturing China on sporting behaviour is, thus, an inversion of logic. Defusing the issue is not a matter of diplomatic arm-wrestling, but of righting past wrongs.

If Japanese officials need a reminder of what their nation did to China, I recommend Iris Chang's sorrowful book, The Rape of Nanking. It is an easy way to realign your logic - and come to grips with reality.

(Originally appeared in the August 10, 2004 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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