Anti-Japan boo-boys cause for concern

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2007, 12:00am

313 days to go

When the Japanese women's soccer team unfurled a banner of gratitude at the Hangzhou Huanglong Stadium, it belied what had happened for 90 minutes before.

Japan, trying desperately to get into the knockout phase of the women's World Cup, had to endure not only the onslaught by reigning champions Germany on the pitch, but also a chorus of abuse from the almost 40,000 spectators, who had come not so much to cheer the Europeans but to jeer their Asian neighbours.

In this group A finale in the coastal city of Hangzhou 13 days ago, heckling and booing threatened to bring down the roof whenever the Japanese gained possession. A huge German flag was passed around the stands by a mostly Chinese, 39,817-strong crowd.

The overwhelming partisan support for the Germans - who won 2-0 - coupled with obscenities directed at the Japanese, certainly raised a lot of eyebrows.

'People paid a proper standing tribute to the German national anthem but once the strains of the Japanese anthem set in, most of them sat down and booed,' said a German journalist. 'To be honest, it was really impolite.'

Yet the Japanese women were undaunted. They returned to the pitch after the final whistle, held up a banner reading 'Thank you China' and bowed to the stands in all directions.

The anti-Japanese sentiment once again fuelled concerns the deep-seated animosity between the neighbours could mar next year's Olympics.

The Japanese team offered little insight into the rationale behind their gratitude, but if there was a reason for appreciation it could have been a sense of relief: they were spared the worst. Japan's male footballers were not so lucky three years ago.

The 2004 Asian Cup final was played out to the backdrop of smouldering hatred by Chinese fans right from the opening whistle and culminated in a full-scale riot in Beijing after Japan beat the hosts 3-1 to clinch the title.

Thousands of angry fans blocked the gates to the stadium after the loss, trapping the Japanese supporters inside for hours. They chanted anti-Japan slogans, burned Japanese flags and pelted missiles at cars driven by Japanese diplomats.

The unrest prompted the international community to question China's 'mental readiness' to ensure safety and fair play at the Olympics.

The bitterness stems from Japan's ambiguity over the country's war-time atrocities and is exacerbated by the rising tide of nationalism on the mainland.

Territorial spats over the Diaoyu islands and disputed offshore oil reserves do not help the situation.

Although Sino-Japan ties on the political front have improved somewhat since the Asian Cup turmoil, any Japanese presence at an adrenalin-fuelled sports event on the mainland remains a source of tension.

In August, the Japanese under-23 side found themselves engulfed in a furore at an Olympic test event in Shenyang, one of the four mainland cities designated as a venue for the group-stage matches of the Olympic soccer tournament next year. The tension reached such a level that the Japanese consulate advised visiting supporters to avoid appearing in public places in their national team jersey.

The Chinese authorities, keen to project a good image of the country ahead of the Olympics, have heeded the dangers.

In March, renowned author and former culture minister Wang Meng called for a 'correct' attitude towards Japanese athletes during the Olympics, warning any outpouring of anger could sully the mainland's reputation.

'We should not mix politics with sports,' said Wang, on the sidelines of the annual congress of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the government's top advisory body.

Beijing, though, is preparing for the worst-case scenario.

A source close to the paramilitary armed police said if Emperor Akihito accepted an invitation to attend the opening ceremony next year, large numbers of plain-clothed police officers would be planted in the 90,000-seat National Stadium to stop any jeering.

'It would be a huge embarrassment if the Japanese delegation enters the stadium to the sound of boos in front of their own head of state,' said the source. 'Beijing is working desperately to avert that scenario, even with some unusual tricks.'

Authorities are also carefully studying the Olympic schedule to avoid putting the Japanese in the limelight on some 'sensitive' dates. This strategy was best illustrated by the rescheduling of the Japan-Germany women's World Cup clash. The tie, originally slated for September 18 by Fifa, was moved forward a day at the last minute at the behest of the government, because September 18 marks the 76th anniversary of Japan's invasion of China's northeast provinces.

'There is no doubt that Japanese athletes will have to live with the hostility [at the Beijing Olympics],' said Tong Zeng, a leading activist in the campaign to defend China's sovereignty over the Diaoyu islands. 'The resentment is justified and a natural response towards a sports team representing a former invader that denies its tainted past.'

Asked whether the goodwill banner by the Japanese women conjured any sympathy, Tong replied: 'It's a heart-warming display of kindness, but again I don't think it will do much to put an end to the heckling.'

House of hecklers

The number of spectators who attended the Japan-Germany game in Hangzhou: 39,817