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Football Diplomacy, Post-colonialism and Japan’s Quest for Normal State Status

Football Diplomacy, Post-colonialism and Japan’s Quest for Normal State Status

Over the past decades, football has become a powerful cultural resource for representation purposes among Far East countries (especially Japan, Korea and China). This recent shift of perception is explained by the peripheral status of Asian football that prevailed for many years. Football had been introduced by British military forces and commercial communities in the late 19th century. Nevertheless, European colonialism was on the decline and American influence was rising. At that time, baseball gained more success and remained the most popular game in the North Pacific region even after World War II. As a result, football did not acquire any meaning for the redefinition of post-colonial relations between peripheries and Europe / the U.S., as in other cases of nation-building in other parts of the world. However, Far East countries used football in the last decades to express their identity, power and status in regional and international relations. This evolution also partially stems from the Japanese dominance over Korea and Manchuria (Northeast China).

Under the Japanese rule, the colonial power – following the example of Western empires – has mobilized sports to increase international recognition and foster internal cohesion. For instance, Japan forced athletes from the colonies into Japanese delegations to competitions. Korean marathon runners won the gold and bronze medals at the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936. Japan also hosted the Oriental Games in 1940 to celebrate 2,600 years of Imperial rule. After World War II, Japan lost all its possessions in continental Asia and nations regained their independence. During the following period, the situation remained strained on the geopolitical level due to the Cold War. Indeed, China was ruled by the communist party, while Japan and South Korea belonged to the Western bloc. Moreover, collective memory were still sensitive regarding Japan’s imperialistic behavior in the first half of the 20th century. Few diplomatic channels existed, but football played a role in easing the tensions in 1961, when Seoul hosted a game between Korea and Japan (qualifiers for the 1962 World Cup).

Two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is still a high level of distrust and hostility between countries of the region, especially in the case of the Sino-Japanese rivalry. Sports in general can make it possible for people to express feelings of resentment and football is no exception to the rule. During the 2004 Asian Cup held in China, the Japanese national team had to face hostile crowds in their matches. These “supporters” brandished offending banners, calling for the return of Japanese islands to China and requiring Japanese governement and people to apologize for their militaristic past. A year after, North Korea and Japan had to play a game in Bangkok that was originally planned to be held in Pyongyang. Risks of aggression were real and FIFA were so concerned that they decided to move the match to Thailand.

Despite continous tensions in the whole region, South Korea and Japan managed to co-host the 2002 World Cup. This event marked a new start for both countries, as they agreed to play down the disputes. Prior to the competition, the “sunshine policy” promoted by South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung had already helped to warm the relationship with Tokyo. The joint organization of the World Cup increased travel, money transfer and communication exchange in a significant way. Therefore, both Japan and South Korea needed to cooperate on security, visas, flight schedules and telecommunications. Meetings were also set up at the regional level between governors and mayors from host cities. As a result, partnerships were established, including sports exchange programs and goodwill projects. Cultural proximity and mutual understanding rose to unprecedented heights.

In conclusion, one should note that football played a role in improving trust between Japan and South Korea before and during the 2002 FIFA World Cup. The influence on football in this case (and sports in general) should not be underappreciated. However, there are two key factors that must be mentionned here and remind us that the power of football in foreign policy remains relatively weak. Firstly, other reasons have brought Japan and South Korea together. The sunshine policy has been mentionned above, but opportunities offered by the neo-liberal approach of football have also led both countries to take the chance to host the World Cup together. Secondly, it seems that Japan and South Korea have failed to capitalize on momentum. Their relationship have soured in recent years over geopolitical disputes and differing views on history. Finally, one may argue that if football has not improved the situation on a regional scale, nations have nevertheless mobilized it as a foreign policy tool to acquire a higher status and reaffirm their authority within the international community. For instance, East Asian states have used football to enhance national prestige. This was particularly true for Japan and South Korea during the preparations for the World Cup. Tokyo has also seized the opportunity to gain credibility as a “normal state” and a responsible stakeholder on the international stage.

For more information: Manzenreiter, W. (2008), “Football Diplomacy, Post-colonialism and Japan’s Quest for Normal State Status”, Sport in Society, 11:4, pp. 414-428



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