[VIEWPOINT]Soccer sometimes can hurt amity

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[VIEWPOINT]Soccer sometimes can hurt amity

The closer the countries, the worse their relations, goes an old saying. That is in part, of course, because neighbors tend to have more complex historical ties of old grudges.

Korea and Japan are good examples. There are many people in both countries, including myself, who hope that the joint hosting of the World Cup soccer tournament this year will improve Korea-Japan ties, which have deteriorated recently.

But I must say that I have my concerns about the World Cup. Feelings between Korea and Japan could grow worse should displays of nationalism from one of the hosts during the World Cup provoke the other host.

Japan and Korea met in a preliminary match for the 1994 World Cup, which the United States hosted, at Doha, Qatar, on Oct. 25, 1993. At that game, in a spirit of goodwill, a group of Japanese spectators held up cards that were meant to read "KOREA" but read "KEROA" by mistake. The uproar caused by this mix-up of letters was beyond belief.

The Korean media reported that "KEROA" was read ke-ro in Japanese, a word that means "servant," and that the cards were meant to degrade Koreans and their country. In a letter to the editor of a newspaper at the end of 1993, a reader called for a diplomatic apology from Japan for the incident.

Of course the Japanese spectators who held the cards up wrong made an embarrassing mistake. But "KEROA" could not possibly be read as "ke-ro" in Japanese, and it is overwhelmingly likely that the card holders did not have the faintest idea of the uproar that they would cause. But in the win-or-lose fervor of the soccer match, great conspiracies were found in the smallest details.

An uncannily similar thing happened at another soccer game four years later - but this time it was the Koreans who held up cards for the Japanese to misread. On Nov. 1, 1997, Korea and Japan met again in the World Cup preliminaries, this time for the 1998 tournament in France. At the soccer stadium in Seoul where the game took place, a group of Koreans held up a placard that read, "Japan is Korea's food." As in similar English expressions, the term means that Korea was going to trounce Japan on the soccer field.

But the card was written in Japanese and meshida, the Japanese word for "food," was misspelled to read meshita. In Japanese, "meshita" means, coincidentally, a subordinate. With this mistake, a youthful boast of athletic superiority was turned into a chauvinistic statement of national domination.

A Japanese writer wrote the following in "Bunkeisyunshu," a popular monthly magazine in Japan. "It was written on the placard that Japan is Korea's subordinate. However, if Koreans truly thought that the Japanese were their subordinates, they would have never written it.

"Should Korean youths inherit the chafed and warped feelings that their elders feel toward a Japan with a superior economy and better soccer skills, the two countries will never improve their relations."

Again, that was a total misunderstanding of the writing on the placard due to the mix-up in the letters. As was the case in 1993, the misunderstanding came easily as emotions ran high over a soccer match. With the atmosphere so heated, there was a willingness to suspect hidden meanings behind subtle differences. In fact, this writer was cautious in his allegations about the placard by comparison with the earlier Korean writer. In a 1998 survey of university students in Japan, a surprising number replied that the thing they most disliked about Korea was "the way they cheered for their soccer team." This again is the result of prejudice bred on the soccer field, the hotbed of nationalism. The rooting crowd in an international soccer game should hardly be the determinant of a country's image.

In the 2002 Korea/Japan World Cup, the two co-hosts will probably not meet each other, because they are not in the same group and neither expects to advance far up into their brackets. However, should one advance to the second round while the other does not, this could also provoke ill feelings that could lead to further ugly nationalism between the two.

What good would co-hosting the World Cup do if the two countries are to end up in worse discord than before? In order to make sure that this does not happen, we should not be too reckless in connecting nationalism with the national spirit of rooting for the national soccer team to do well in the World Cup.

I hope that there is only one kind of competition in this year's World Cup between Korea and Japan: fair competition in who will give the most mature performance on the soccer field and in the grandstands.


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The writer is a professor of Japanese language and literature at Chonnam National University.

by Mizuno Shunpei

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