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Thursday, 30 May, 2002, 00:03 GMT 01:03 UK
World Cup's uneasy team-mates
Rehearsal for the opening ceremony in Seoul
There were rows about the games and the name

When Fifa awarded the World Cup tournament jointly to South Korea and Japan, the hope was that it would bring the two historical rivals closer together.

But has it worked?

Difficult past
Japan ruled Korea as a colony between 1910 and 1945
Normal relations not established until 1965
Only 15,000 Japanese live in South Korea, while more than 600,000 Koreans live in Japan
South Korea banned Japanese music and film until 1998

The early start did not augur well. There were arguments about who would get the opening and closing matches, and rows about which country's name should come first in the official title of the event.

If Japan had known beforehand that it would have to co-host the World Cup with South Korea then it would probably not have bothered applying.

"Japan's representative nearly dropped dead, he never expected it", said Peter Velappan, General Secretary of the Asian Football Confederation, who came up with the idea of co-hosting.

There was good reason for alarm. Japan considers South Korea to be a prickly and sometimes truculent neighbour who has never forgiven Japan for its brutal colonisation from 1910 to 1945.

World Cup poster
This year's is the first ever joint World Cup competition

"It was bickering all the way for the first two years," said Mr Velappan.

"There were petty squabbles about every aspect of the competition, national pride was getting the better of common sense."

Bilateral relations on the wider political level have also gone through some stormy periods over the past two years, with furious rows over the approval of nationalistic history textbooks in Japan, and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's equally controversial visits to the Yasukuni war shrine, which honours Japanese war criminals among other war dead.

But the issues could have proved even more damaging if it had not been for the World Cup.

It has acted as a sort of sticking plaster, papering over the cracks, with both countries determined that the first World Cup in Asia will be the most successful ever.

Progress

Japan, for example, has offered an unusually profuse apology for its imperial rule, and has agreed to ease travel and currency restrictions for Korean visitors.

An effigy of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is burned during an anti-Japan rally, Seoul, May 2001
Bitterness over Japan's colonisation of Korea is rife

"I think holding this event has played a restraining role for the two countries," said South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim Euy-Taek.

That view was echoed by officials at Japan's embassy in Seoul. "The image that Japan has in Korea - which was often twisted or skewed - has changed as there are more contacts between the two peoples," an official said.

"Koreans are finding out for themselves what Japanese people are like... the true Japanese, rather than the second-hand image. Huge numbers are travelling to each other's country and I believe that is really helping to promote better understanding."

Cultural interest

In Japan, too, ordinary Japanese have begun to look at South Korea in a new light.

They used to show little interest in a dynamic but unstable neighbour that was battling its way into the ranks of the developed nations.

There was a stereotypical view of Korea as poor and backward. Its people were often seen as rough and uncultured. Some Japanese felt guilty about what had happened during the colonial period but were fed up with the constant demand for apologies.

But the World Cup has helped spark a new interest. There is a Korean language boom, Korean food is prominently displayed in supermarkets, and Korean pop music and films are all the rage.

There is surprise at how far South Korea has come. There is a youthful energy and buzz about the country that is attractive to Japanese frustrated by economic and political paralysis at home.

A start has been made in both countries, but the deep mistrust of the past will not be so easily put aside.

While Japan and South Korea are co-operating over travel, security and other arrangements, this still looks like two World Cups running in parallel, rather than a unified tournament.

See also:

22 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
22 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
09 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
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