EXTEND YOUR SYMPATHIES to those people who innocently believe that, having read articles or seen television reports about Japan, they thereby have any real knowledge of the country or its people.
It’s not unusual for journalists to get it wrong—we’ve come to expect it–but it’s unfathomable how they can be so wrong about Japan so often. Even when they manage to get the facts right, there are exaggerations that would make a vaudeville comic wince and an eagerness to accentuate the negative that makes informed media consumers wonder about their real agenda.
But enough of words: pictures are worth thousands of them, and here is one worth several thousand. It is the perfect expression of what Japan and its people are really like:
The women are holding a banner with a message that reads “Thank you China” in three languages: Romanized Japanese (arigato), Chinese (xie xie), and English. These are members of the Japanese women’s soccer team, and the photo shows their behavior just after they were eliminated from the Women’s World Cup held in China last month.
A gracious act to be sure, you might be thinking, but nothing extraordinary in the world of sports.
Well, gracious acts in this age are not so commonplace that we should overlook them, but this was a rare form of grace under pressure. The women are standing on a soccer pitch in front of a crowd of 40,000 Chinese in a Hangzhou stadium who had just spent the entire match booing every move the Japanese team made, cheering wildly for their opponents, and waving a large national flag when the other team scored a goal.
No, the opposing team wasn’t China—it was Germany, who won the match 2-0.
The Chinese behavior should come as no surprise. During soccer’s Asian Cup in China in 2004, a 60,000-strong crowd attending the final between China and Japan started booing with the Japanese national anthem. The players and Japanese fans were pelted with trash, and the fans were seated in a special section with extra security. After Japan won, angry Chinese crowds demonstrated outside the stadium. Keeping order required a police and military presence of 5,000.
This year, FIFA moved up the Japan-Germany match to 17 September from the originally scheduled 18th because the latter was the 76th anniversary of the Mukden Incident (also known as the Manchuria Incident), which led to war between the countries six years later. The Chinese government asked FIFA for the change because they were concerned about their ability to provide security for the Japanese team.
The incident during the Women’s World Cup ignited a fiery debate in China, as well it might with the 2008 Beijing Olympics less than a year away. Some Chinese were impressed by the Japanese women’s courage and thought their countrymen would do well to follow their example, as described in this Japanese-language report from Supootsu Hochi, published by Yomiuri. Others disagreed, claiming that it would be disgraceful for Chinese to be swayed by what they claimed was PR from Japan, a country that won’t recognize its wartime misdeeds.
The report says the controversy intensified on the 18th when the online edition of the Chengdu Business Newspaper based in Szechwan Province published an account of the incident and included a photograph. In an editorial, the paper asserted that the match’s biggest losers were not the Japanese team, but the spectators. Others countered that it was perfectly natural to boo the Japanese, who deserved no consideration whatsoever. This touched off the usual e-mail and Internet free-for-all.
The debate continued when a Chinese weekly hit the newsstands on the 20th, which declared that even while recognizing the importance of the Sino-Japanese historical problems, “China needs a forward-looking attitude and the sound awareness (of itself) as a great power.”
Little of this information has appeared in English. A quick sweep of the Internet turned up only one mention in a sports blog, which got the information from the EastSouthWestNorth website. The latter were in the camp of those unhappy with the crowd’s behavior.
One might find this lack of coverage curious, but perhaps we should consider the context. The IOC has to be legitimately concerned about the potential for violence against Japanese athletes and fans during next year’s Games, and might have wished to downplay the incident in the media. They’re stuck with their choice of the Chinese as hosts.
As it is, China is having enough trouble trying to keep the anti-pollution promises it made when it bid for the Games. They probably will not succeed, and this recent report indicates the extent of the problem. (Note the photo.) The article does not mention Chinese excuses that the pollution is caused mostly by sand and dust storms.
It does, however, quote a UN official saying that people should remember it is the first time a developing nation has hosted the Olympics. Perhaps that’s what the Chinese need to keep in mind rather than an awareness of itself as a great power. Indeed, the Women’s World Cup was originally scheduled to be held in China in 2003, but had to be moved to the U.S. because of the SARS epidemic, caused and spread by Third World levels of sanitation and public health standards. Also, the International Ice Hockey Federation cancelled the 2003 IIHF Women’s World Championship that was to be held in Beijing that year.
And of course the Chinese have to be alarmed about the behavior of the soccer spectators last month because they realize how damaging a similar or more serious incident would be to the nation’s image worldwide. If people were injured—or worse—during the Olympics, it would be no consolation for anyone if the Chinese were to realize they had brought it on themselves.
The country’s rulers have chosen to deflect domestic dissatisfaction by creating a sense of national unity that incorporates outrageous anti-Japanese propaganda. This policy has created a citizenry so boorish the army is required to guarantee security at an international athletic event. How else to control crowds that boo a national anthem, dump trash on innocent athletes, think courtesy and politeness is PR (damned if they do and damned if they don’t), and suffer from the delusion that Japanese deny invading China 76 years ago, before anyone in that stadium was born?
Of course their reputation would be harmed. People still remember the incident that occurred during a boxing match in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. When a South Korean boxer was declared the loser in one fight, two Korean coaches jumped into the ring and pummeled one of the judges. A volunteer security staffer removed his identifying jacket and started punching the judge as well. Ringside officials threw trash and two folding chairs into the ring. Other Korean officials then turned out lights in the hall.
Here’s the New York Times account of the incident. Note the excuses they make for Korean behavior in the first paragraph and last sentence. Given that paper’s attitude toward Japan, try to imagine how they would have covered the story had the venue been Tokyo instead of Seoul.
Meanwhile, Japan has hosted the Olympics in exemplary fashion three times. It is beyond the realm of imagination that the incidents in Seoul and Hangzou could have happened anywhere in Japan. It is inconceivable that a Japanese crowd would boo another country’s national anthem, boo a national team throughout a sporting event, throw garbage on players and fans, and behave so badly the army is required to keep them in line. International sporting events in Japan have never been cancelled due to public health concerns. And no Japanese officials have ever thrashed a judge from another country because they were unhappy with the decision.
How do the Japanese behave?
We already have the example of the Olympics.
Another example is the Japanese soccer diplomacy as described in this article. Twenty-three members of the Japanese Diet traveled to Dalian, China, earlier this month to play a friendly soccer match with members of the National People’s Congress. The match was organized by the Japanese, and according to the People’s Daily, the Chinese participants loved it. The Japanese hope to do it again and include South Korea the next time.
And then there’s the photo above.
It’s time to recognize that Japanese behavior is still the gold standard in Northeast Asia—and not only for the Olympics. Of all the countries in this part of the world, they are without question the least nationalistic and the one most actively promoting harmonious regional relations.
It’s also time for the media to say it.