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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 February, 2005, 15:26 GMT
Asian clash fails to settle old scores
By Jamie Miyazaki
In Tokyo

Given Japan's bitter colonial legacy on the Korean peninsula, an ongoing crisis over North Korea's nuclear programme, and a dispute over the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea, their World Cup qualifier was always going to be about more than football.

Japan won Wednesday's match 2-1, but both teams, it seemed, had bigger scores to settle.

Japanese riot police stand guard in front of Saitama Stadium, north of Tokyo, 08 February
Tensions were high ahead of the game

In the lead up to the game, Japan's media gave near daily coverage of North Korea's national team in training.

For ethnic Koreans who live in Japan, such blanket coverage was unnerving.

"The mass media have picked this up as politics," said Akina Kurosawa, one of the 600,000-strong community.

While most Japanese North Koreans were supporting the North Korean team, some were not too sure who they were supporting

The media glare has been a boon for some North Korean businesses, however.

"We've had lots of Japanese reporters coming in here buying North Korean football strips and stuff - we've been busy," said Jun Miyagawa, president of Rainbow Trading, a Japanese company specialising in trade with North Korea.

He showed off a collection of North Korean football paraphernalia, including "Made in North Korea" football shirts which were selling for more than Real Madrid strips.

Hanging on the wall was a North Korean football propaganda poster telling its citizens to make their mark on the world stage for the honour of their country.

North Korean football shirts on sale in Japan
There was a run on North Korean football shirts ahead of the game

Once the game got under way, the two sides appeared reasonably well matched - which is more than can be said for the crowd.

Indeed, with the exception of the North Korean players, there were no resident North Koreans in the stadium.

Secretive North Korea had requested 5,000 seats for the match, but rather than let its own people travel abroad to cheer on their team, all the seats were occupied by ethnic North Koreans who now live in Japan.

More than 3,500 police and security officials were also on hand in case of any violence, though in the end none was reported.

The risk was not deemed to come from football hooligans, but from ordinary Japanese incensed by North Korea's recent admission that it kidnapped Japanese citizens in the 1980s to help train its spies.

Confused identity

With North Korea's standing at an all-time low in Japan due to the kidnapping dispute, the loyalties of many of the 150,000 or so North Korean-Japanese are also under pressure.

Minami Hidekazu, a North Korean Japanese resident of Kyoto, explained that while most Japanese North Koreans were supporting the North Korean team, some were not too sure who they were supporting.

"I was born in Japan, grew up in Japan, and will probably die in Japan. I'm a Korean, but Korea isn't my country," he said.

And it's not just North Korean Japanese who have been questioning their loyalties and cultural heritage.

North Korean football propaganda poster
Football matches are not just about sport for North Korea

When asked who he would be supporting in the match, one South Korean Japanese lamented, "By blood, North Korea, but the best thing would be for the game to finish as a tie. If it is South Korea, of course I'd support South Korea, but this time, North Korea is doing wrong with politics."

For a while, a draw looked a possibility, but it was not to be.

However, Simon Cockerell and Nicholas Bonner of Koryo Tours, a tour group that specialises in trips to North Korea, thought the result was better than expected.

"[North Korea] are far from being at the top of the game in Asia but are improving gradually," they said.

With a rematch scheduled in Pyongyang this summer, the North Koreans still have a chance to defeat their former colonial masters. And Japan's North Koreans will get another chance to puzzle over their cultural identities.

Still, Simon Cockerell and Nicholas Bonner say football fans should not hold their breath for a dazzling re-match.

"We have been to several games in North Korea, including World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers. The atmosphere tends to be muted to say the least."

Football clash for Asian rivals
09 Feb 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Japan fury over abductee remains
08 Dec 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Heartbreak over Japan's missing
11 Aug 04 |  Asia-Pacific

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