Fifa World Cup: Chinese football fans supporting Japan? Stranger things have happened

Some supporters will cheer Asian neighbours on as fandom is as complicated as every other aspect of life on the mainland

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 July, 2018, 5:49pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 July, 2018, 7:26pm

“China hates Japan.” That’s the reductive message that you are given by many, inside and outside China, when it comes to Sino-Japanese relations. It was certainly something that came up when I was at university in England studying that very subject.

In 11 years living in the mainland it came up a few times, particularly when relations were strained between the two nations on the world stage – such as when the Japanese embassy in Beijing was besieged by thousands of protesters in 2012, outraged at the ongoing island disputes.

Chinese fans riot after Japan win 2004 Asian Cup in Beijing

Eight years earlier it was football that was the reason for the public airing of grievances.

Fans rioted outside the capital’s Workers’ Stadium after Japan had beaten their hosts in the AFC Asian Cup. Flags were burned and missiles were thrown at the Japan team bus after Japan triumphed 3-1 in the final.

Zico and his team were trapped inside until things calmed down.

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Things have calmed down again now, to the point where Chinese fans can openly support Japan at the World Cup.

Local football fans in Shanghai were doing just that at the city’s Found 158 complex of bars and restaurants where videos have emerged of them leading the cheering for the Japanese against Poland.

That may come as a surprise to those who see China in black and white. But as with everything in a nation of over a billion individual humans that spans thousands of miles and as many different social and economic circumstances, it’s anything but.

Like all great love stories, it’s complicated.

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Talking to Chinese friends in Beijing they still think that Chinese fans would not “openly support Japan or Korea” and that they “would never do that”. They would go so far as to say that the majority of football supporters would prefer Japan to lose to Belgium, in fact “most still want them always to lose”. When I showed them the videos from Shanghai, the response was simple: “Crazy.”

There has been evidence of Chinese fans in Russia supporting Japan’s opponents, as we reported from the Senegal game where one fan waved his China flag and cheered for the Africans. While Chinese media, social and traditional, has offered mixed messages of support and condemnation, as reported on Inkstone.

I recently met a young Shanghainese man on a plane who spoke at length about football, his disappointment with the Chinese football on the domestic and international level and how he would be supporting the East Asian teams at the World Cup.

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Japan and South Korea, he argued, both offer a model for how China can eventually succeed at international level because of the similarities in physique and technique.

Some social media users have begrudgingly agreed since Japan made it through the group stage to face Belgium in the last 16.

That’s not to say this is the reason why other fans support Japan – or indeed cheered for South Korea before they went out – but it is as valid as any other.

Many Chinese live and work with Japanese and South Koreans, especially in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou where there are hundreds of thousands of expats.

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In popular culture, South Korean dramas are popular as are the boy and girl bands that the country churns out at the same volume they do cars and televisions. As for Japan’s cultural exports, young Chinese men seem to know an awful lot about Japan’s AV stars.

There was a reason why Letou had then Guangzhou Evergrande midfielder Paulinho pose with Japanese AV model Tsukasi Aoi to promote their gambling services to Chinese consumers back in April last year.

 

There is ever more interaction, be it business or tourism.

Travel to Japan and South Korea is booming, with reports suggesting that Japan had overtaken the US as the preferred destination for China’s middle class travellers.

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More than 7 million Chinese tourists visited Japan in 2017, according to the Japan National Tourism Association, while in 2016 more than half of South Korea’s 17 million incoming tourists came from China.

Both countries love the spending power of Chinese visitors, to the point where the Japanese even have a word for it – bakugai, or explosive spending, the buzzword of 2015.

Germany is regarded as the de facto team for Chinese football fans to support in the absence of China but the holders are out of the tournament after their loss to South Korea so those fans need to support someone. Also, it’s not a rule that everyone supports Germany.

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Chinese fans support all kinds of teams but with star players Messi and Ronaldo out and big names like Italy never even in, many will be looking for a team to hang their support on

Beat Belgium and maybe more Chinese fans will warm to the Japan team.