Welcome to Part I of our special editorial series! As the match between Korea and Japan on October 12th nears, the third match this year between the East Asian giants, FootKorean has decided to collaborate with longstanding Japanese football website The Rising Sun News to provide our readers with insightful look at the storied rivalry of the two neighbors. In Part I, FootKorean and the Rising Sun Neews looks out at the history and the political and geographical context underlying the rivalry in addition to looking at the events leading up to this year’s World Cup in South Africa and how the rivalry continues to take shape with this year’s friendly matches.
Tracing the “roots” of the rivalry between the Red Devils and the Samurai Blue is not as easy as it might seem, because it is a bit difficult to say exactly when the “history” of the Japan-Korea football rivalry began. Naturally the two countries have a relationship of rivalry that dates back – at the very least – to the states of Yamato, Silla and Paechike, nearly two millennia ago. And since both countries have been FIFA members since the mid-1950s, when the US occupation ended, they have been playing football matches against one another for more than half a century. However, for most of that period it would be rather difficult to describe the relationship between Japan’s national football team and that of Korea as a “rivalry”. It was more a case of Korea giving Japan a lesson in humility, about once or twice a year.
Whereas Korea has been one of Asia’s top football teams from the beginning of the postwar period, the sport did not really catch on in Japan until recently. It wasn’t until 1993 that Japan had a professional league that could develop players who were capable of taking the pitch against the Koreans and not looking a bit foolish. 1993 also marked the first time that Japan defeated Korea in a “meaningful” match, and therefore it could be viewed as something of a watershed year, in terms of how the rivalry between Japan and Korea was viewed by people in Japan.
Between 1960 and the creation of the J.League, in 1992, the two teams met 40 times in FIFA-sanctioned matches and Japan managed to win just four of those contests. While Korean fans no doubt enjoyed the opportunity to beat Japan at something, regardless of how one-sided the competition, for people in Japan it was not really a big deal. Only a handful of people even followed the sport of football, and those who did recognized that they had to set their sights on beating teams that were closer to their own level . . . like Thailand, Hong Kong or Singapore. Of course the competitive – and sometimes angry – relationship between the two countries in general was something that coloured all aspects of relations between Japan and Korea. Sometimes, it spilled over onto the football pitch.
But at least for Japanese fans, there was no true sense of rivalry, since most were well aware of who was the better team. A rare victory – such as the one in Doha in October 1993 – was an occasion for euphoric celebration in Japan, but losses were considered a matter of course, and barely noticed by anyone except the hardcore football devotees. In fact, though much has been written about the so-called “Agony in Doha”, hardly anyone in Japan would have even been paying attention to the events that transpired on October 28, 1993, if it had not been for a remarkable upset three days earlier. The tournament in Doha, which was played to select Asian teams for the World Cup in the US, seemed to be following the usual script, when Japan managed a win (over North Korea) a draw (vs Saudi Arabia) and a loss (to Iran).
[Kazu Miura: A key figure of the 90s' rivalry]
This set up a match against South Korea, which nobody thought Japan could win. The Japanese – playing in blue uniforms for the first time ever (prior to the 1994WC qualification round Japan wore red, like all other East Asian teams) – were expected to bow out with heads high, but still without any glory. To everyone’s surprise, a valiant defensive effort and a second-half goal by Kazu Miura gave Japan a 1-0 victory over a more savvy and skillful Korean squad. The outpouring of joy and celebration suddenly captured the imagination of the public, and earned nationwide TV coverage for the sport of football (the timing could not have been better for the fledgling J.League). But after overcoming their biggest foe, Japan failed to clear the final hurdle. After leading 2-1 for most of the second half, they conceded an injury time goal to Iraq and were knocked out of the World Cup qualifiers. The heartbreak and drama – with televised scenes of the players breaking down in tears – earned this tournament its historic Japanese nickname: “Doha-no-Higeki”. But this “Agony” never would have taken place at all, if not for the upset win over Korea three days earlier. Clearly, football in Japan was moving into a new era.
[Agony in Doha]
The creation of the J.League changed football, and the nature of the Korea-Japan rivalry,in far reaching ways. Once Japan had a professional infrastructure and the public support required to begin building a competitive national team, the rivalry began to take off. Indeed, Japan probably owes a debt of gratitude to the KFA, since one of the most inspirational challenges for the Samurai Blue in those early years was to try to defeat – or at the very least, manage a draw against – their Korean neighbors. By the time the qualification matches for the 1998 World Cup began, Japan’s national team had reached the point where they could legitimately hope to defeat Korea in a full international match, and aspirations of doing so were stoked by intense media hype (some of it, quite unrealistic). If we want to identify the exact point at which the football matches between Japan and Korea became a true “rivalry”, it is hard choose a clearer turning point than the two matches that the teams played against one another in the second round of AFC qualification for France 1998.
Japan had fallen just one minute shy of qualifying for the 1994 World Cup in the US, and now that the J.League was becoming popular (if not faddish) and top players were nationally recognized, the public was eager to see Japan finally make it to the big party. But even though the Japan NT had a fair amount of individual talent by 1997, it still was not a particularly good “team”. There was a strong generational split between those who had been international players before there was a league to play in, and those who had emerged along with the J.League, and were the first generation of true “professionals”. This split was exacerbated by poor coaching and organization, and as the second round of qualification began, there were clear indications that Japan might not be good enough AS A TEAM to make it to the World Cup.
[J.League: The foundation of Japan's emergence in the 1990s]
In early 1997, those who followed the sport closely were already aware that qualifying would be a bigger challenge for Japan than the television and print media would admit. But for the average Japanese citizen, hopes were sky high. It would take a serious jolt of “reality” before Japan’s true predicament became clear to the average citizen. And that jolt would be provided by the Korean national team on September 28, at Tokyo’s National Stadium.
Japan approached this contest as they had always done when playing Korea in the past. The team lined up with a stacked defense – five defenders and two deep midfielders, with only Kazu Miura, Hidetoshi Nakata and Wagner Lopes showing any inclination to attack. They did their best to frustrate Korea, keep the match scoreless, and hope for a lucky break that might earn them a goal. For 80 minutes this strategy seemed to be working. Not only was the anti-football strategy effective at keeping Korea off the board, but Motohiro Yamaguchi managed to put Japan ahead with 20 minutes to play, stealing the ball just outside the Korean box and flicking a high lob over the keeper, who was well off his line. But the Koreans recovered their focus, threw several tall and speedy players into the attack, and in the 84 minute Seo Jung-Won headed home a cross from the right corner to level the scores. This seemed to shatter the concentration of the Japanese defense, and just moments later Lee Min-Sung popped up to score the winner. As the final minutes ticked away, coach Shu Kamo stood frozen in disbelief on the sideline, with a look of complete befuddlement on his face. That helpless expression seemed to epitomize the lack of intensity and emotion that had prevailed throughout the qualification process, and when replayed over and over on the nightly newscasts, it became a video epitaph for his entire coaching career.
[1997.9.28: Japan's 2-1 loss to Korea in final rounds of the WCQ]
The axe did not actually fall on coach Kamo until six days later, when Japan was held to a 1-1 draw in Alma-Aty, Kazakhstan. However, his fate was clearly sealed by the loss to Korea. The decision to wait until after the Kazakhstan match before replacing Kamo with his assistant, Takeshi Okada, was simply a question of timing. Many in the JFA were already resigned to failure, and the bureaucrats were occupied mainly with issues such as finger-pointing and blame-allocation. But Okada recognized the underlying quality of the players he had available, and believed that a better, more team-oriented approach might still rescue Japan’s hopes of going to France. One factor in his favour was the fact that Korea sealed their ticket to France several days before the two teams would meet again, on November 1, in Seoul. The 80,000 people who turned out to Jamsil Stadium on that Saturday were in a celebratory mood, and had every reason to hope that they could add some frosting to their World Cup cake by confirming Japan’s exit from the qualification battle.
But Okada had made some significant changes to the team, and perhaps for the first time ever, adopted a formation and a game plan that sought to take the contest to Korea – to treat them as a rival, and an equal, rather than a dominant force that you could only defeat by adopting a totally defence-oriented strategy. Okada switched to a very standard 4-4-2 formation with speedy and attack-oriented wingbacks (Naoki Soma and Akira Narahashi) and a much more flexible and ambitious midfield that was marshaled by the young, ambitious duo of Hide Nakata and Hiroshi Nanami. It was apparent from the outset that the Koreans were not expecting such an aggressive and offence-oriented strategy from Japan, and after Hiroshi Nanami set the tone for the afternoon with a stunning goal in the very first minute of play, they never did manage to recover. Another first-half goal by Wagner Lopes provided the visitors with the cushion they needed to survive an attempted comeback by Korea in the second half. Japan claimed the victory and the chance to eventually earn a place at France 98. But the real winner that day was football in the Far East – for it now had a rivalry that truly deserves to sit at the top of the marquee, and define the East Asians’ unique approach to the Beautiful Game.
Any attempt to describe the nature of the rivalry between Japan and Korea is bound to be inaccurate to some extent, because Japan and Korea disagree on just about everything – even on the question of what this rivalry means. Obviously the modern rivalry between these two countries in football can never be fully disentangled from the political and historical rivalry. This is not unique to East Asia – the same is surely true of the football culture in Europe (England vs Germany, for example) or Latin America (where Honduras and El Salvador actually went to war over a football match). But because Japan and Korea have very different perspectives on their mutual past, the disparity colours their approach to all sorts of things, including their football rivalry.
This may be an overgeneralization, but Koreans tend to approach every competitive event that involves Japan with an intensity of emotion that Japanese citizens may not experience in their entire lives. When the two meet in any sort of sporting event, Korean media can be counted on to include the phrase “against their fiercest rivals, Japan.” When the two national teams play – and even when two club teams face off in the Asian Champions League – Korean fans treat the event as if it is the World Cup final. If their team wins, they celebrate enthusiastically. If they lose, they lie awake at night grinding their teeth and wondering what went wrong.
Most Japanese fans, on the other hand, respond to the event with a much more casual attitude. Oh, there is no question that we view Korea as our biggest rivals, and nobody wants to lose such a contest. But if that’s the way the ball bounces – meh – no big deal. There will be plenty of other matches in the future. No doubt this difference in attitudes is partly a legacy of the two countries’ histories. Koreans feel a strong sense of having been wronged by Japan in the past. And pointing out that Japan’s colonization of the Korean peninsula happened before most people were even born (indeed, for the typical Korean NT football fan, probably before their PARENTS were born) is immaterial, when it comes to that person’s emotional reaction.
[Korean fans surrounded by the Japanese home supporters in Tokyo's National Stadium]
For most Japanese fans, on the other hand, Korea is a football rival because they are nearby, they are a strong opponent, and they clearly WANT to be treated as rivals. History has nothing to do with it. The average Japanese person feels bad about what happened 70-80 years ago, and probably wishes that they could change the past. But there isn’t much they can do about it now, and it certainly isn’t something to get all worked up about. Some would say that this equates to “avoiding the past”. However, Japanese culture is founded on the concept of “sho-ga-nai” – the unemotional acceptance of things that one cannot change. Whether it be the damage caused by earthquakes and typhoons, the restrictiveness of social structures and political institutions, or the attitudes of neighbors resulting from some incident that happened a long time ago: If there is nothing you can do to change it, why get all worked up about it?
Surely there are other factors involved, but that seems to be one of the main reasons why the Korea-Japan rivalry in football has always been a bit one-sided. Japanese fans and players alike do not approach matches with the same level of intensity, determination and motivation that Korean fans and players do – and they probably never will. But that is NOT to say the rivalry is unimportant to Japan. On the contrary, matches against Korea are almost always extremely influential. When Japan plays Korea it usually has a strong impact on the direction of the team, and on the perceptions of football fans. And regardless of whether Japan wins or loses, the long-term result is usually beneficial, or at the very least, instructive.
Nothing illustrates this point better than the match that the two countries played earlier this year, as a “final preparation” for the World Cup. Those who followed Okada Japan closely were well aware of the problems that the team was having, and the fact that coach Okada’s strategy was not well suited to the players he had available. But so long as Japan was muddling along against mediocre opponents and not actually getting “embarrassed” in its international friendlies, the general public was unconcerned and the JFA was able to convince itself that no major changes were needed.
[Park Ji-Sung's match winning strike in May]
But after getting smacked around by Korea at Saitama Stadium on May 26, it was no longer possible to pretend that all was hunky-dory. Even people with no real knowledge of the game could see that Japan was disorganized, and that the strategy coach Okada was trying to use would never succeed against World-Class opposition. On the evening of the match, my mother-in-law called me up in a panic. Keep in mind that this is a woman who knows almost nothing about football, but who has a fetish for all things Korean. She idolizes Bae Yong-Joon. She began studying the Korean language at age 68 so that she could watch Korean dramas without subtitles, and she travels to Korea 2-3 times a year, usually to do something that will allow her to experience or understand Korean culture better. But when I picked up the phone, she didn’t even bother with the usual aisatsu that is essential when speaking to your son-in-law.
“Was Japan really as bad as it seemed? I don’t understand the sport, but it seemed so terrible! Do people who understand soccer also think Japan stunk like two-week-old sweatsocks? Oh! It’s so embarrassing! When I go to my Korean lesson this week I just KNOW my teacher will have a smug smile on his face! Kuyashii !! (excruciatingly uncomfortable).” As this example illustrates, Japanese fans might try to act blasé when they lose to Korea, but it certainly doesn’t mean they “don’t care”. This was a result that the Japanese public found very hard to accept.
The angry avalanche of criticism that descended on JFA headquarters in the wake of that match forced even the stubborn Okada to accept that changes had to be made. And in retrospect, those changes were the reason why Japan managed to emerge from South Africa with the results they did. At the end of the day, Japan owes their Korean rivals a big “Thank You”, for forcing the team to make much-needed changes in the subsequent match against England, and to then refine those changes in the remaining weeks before the 2010 World Cup kicked off..
Since around 2002, when the two countries jointly hosted the World Cup, Japan has edged slightly in front of Korea in terms of their FIFA ranking. Even the record of wins and losses in head-to-head matches has not been TOO unbalanced. And yet Korea invariably seems to be one of the most difficult opponents for Japan, simply because any time the two countries meet, the Koreans play as if their lives depended on the result, whereas the Japanese seem unable to match the intensity. Even in cases such as the recent U-17 Women’s World Cup, Japan can play technically brilliant football regardless of the opponent, but they don’t seem capable of playing with passion and total commitment, particularly when the opponent is Korea.
Of course, there is a corollary effect which may be a bit more of a concern for Korean fans: Although they still seem to have an edge whenever they face Japan, somehow they find it difficult to generate the same level of effort and intensity when playing other opponents. This is just my own personal opinion, but I have the impression that Koreans may have become TOO obsessed with beating Japan. They often win the head-to-head contests, but then are unable to perform as effectively against the likes of Iran, Saudi Arabia or Qatar. The Japanese players, on the other hand, seem to be able to put personal feelings and private motivations aside, and play with the same level of quality regardless of the opponent. And just as importantly, they seem to use their defeats and disappointments constructively, to improve their game.
Perhaps that the best way to conclude this discussion – by understanding that Japan approaches its football rivalry with Korea as a problem to be solved, or a question to be answered, and not so much as a “battle” to be “fought”. In some ways this may put Japan at a disadvantage. My impression is that Korea will always have a psychological and emotional edge when they play Japan. The intensity of emotion they bring with them to the matches is always going to benefit them on the field of play, and while Japanese players might TRY to match that intensity, you can’t fake an emotion that you don’t feel. Japan can only win such matches by trying to play a smarter and more calculated game – by keeping their cool and trying to overcome Korea’s passion with planning, technique, and execution. For Japan at least, the value of these matches lies not in winning or losing, but in what we learn from them. Many people, including the Rising Sun News, have noted the merits that Korean football teams (and players) derive from their energy, commitment and emotional intensity. This has always been one of the strengths of Korean football. But Japan has some strengths as well.
The reason why the Japan NT has been able to rise from absolute pusillanimity to a world-class level of competitiveness in a mere two decades is that the players, coaches, JFA officials, and even the fans have been able to see the broader context. Sure – winning or losing a particular match is important – but it isn’t the MOST important thing. What is MOST important is that you take some lesson away from every match, and use it to make yourself better. Teams and players alike should be looking for ways to improve on their performances, even when they win. And when they lose, the important thing is to understand why, and to make sure that they don’t make the same mistakes next time. From that perspective, Korea should be viewed not only as Japan’s greatest rival on the football pitch, but also our greatest supporter, teacher, and teammate. By constantly battling, and striving to overcome such a talented, passionate and determined rival, the Japan national team will only become better and better.
Over the years, there has been a great deal of discussion and analysis about the “typical characteristics” of Japanese football, relative to Korean football. While some of these stereotypes have an element of truth to them, individual examples suggest that they have less to do with the skills or characteristics of the players than with the style of play that is promoted in both countries. For example, one common stereotype holds that Japanese players are poor finishers, and that Koreans are much better at finishing. Another suggests that Japanese players are unselfish, pass off when teammates are open rather than shooting themselves, and prefer to be viewed as “team players” rather than “individual stars”.
Some would say that the evidence supports this stereotype. However, there are concrete examples that suggest the problem is more closely linked to the style of football played by their team, rather than the player’s individual strengths and weaknesses. For example, in his last two years with the Urawa Reds, Naohiro Takahara couldn’t score a packet of tissue paper on the street in front of Akihabara train station. But after moving to Suwon, this year, Takahara has suddenly rediscovered his scoring touch. Conversely, Korean ace Lee Keun-Ho joined Gamba Osaka, and suddenly came down with a serious case of Shoji Jo disease – that dreadful ailment that causes a player to miss shots as frequently as Paris Hilton misses appointments with her rehab counselor. On the other hand, many of the Koreans who have plied their trade in the J.League have proven to be extremely unselfish, technically brilliant, team-oriented players who not only fit in extremely well on the pitch, but can sound almost “Japanese” in their post-match comments. After being selected as Man of the Match in a recent contest, Albirex Niigata winger Cho Young-Cheol was asked three times how he felt about scoring the winning goal, but insistently responded with the stock phrases that Japanese players usually offer, such as “my teammates did all the hard work” and “I simply repeated what we trained for in practice”.
These examples, and many others, suggest that Japanese players are just as capable of using a quick, counterattacking style with balls played into space, lung-bursting runs toward goal and strikers charging into the box for the finish. Similarly, Korean players seem to be just as well suited to the style of patient offensive pressure that Japan usually employs, with short balls played directly to a teammate’s feet, and incisive through passes or dribbling runs when the pressure finally opens up a gap in the opponent’s defense. Nevertheless, regardless of their reasons for doing so, Japanese and Korean teams do tend to adopt strategies and styles of play which match the stereotypes described above.
[Japan's new Italian boss Alberto Zaccheroni]
On the other hand, both teams have recently named new coaches – Alberto Zaccheroni for Japan, and Cho Kwang-Rae for Korea – so it will be interesting to see what sort of style each one adopts for his new team. Japanese fans will recognize a large number of the players on the opposing team, since so many are current or former J.Leaguers, or else play overseas where they earn international attention. Japan also has called up a lot of Europe-based players, but as usual, over half of the squad is composed of J.Leaguers.
The Europe-based players are relatively well known, as most of them featured in Japan’s 2010 World Cup squad. Eiji Kawashima (Lierse – Belgium) will almost certainly get the call as starting keeper. Both Seigo Narazaki and Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi have retired from international play, so the other likely squad members are relatively untested – albeit talented – youngsters like Shusaku Nishikawa (Sanfrecce Hiroshima) and Shuichi Gonda (FC Tokyo). The two wingbacks will also probably be drawn from European teams, with AC Cesena (Italy)’s Yuto Nagatomo fairly certain to start on the left and Atsuto Uchida of Schalke 04 (Germany) the top prospect on the right. However, Uchida is still not fully recovered from a broken toe and may give way to Yuichi Komano (Jubilo Iwata).
[Dortmund sensation Shinji Kagawa]
Nothing is certain about the centre back pairing, apart from the fact that all candidates are from the J.League. Marcus Tulio Tanaka (Nagoya Grampus) is a leading candidate, as is Tomoaki Makino (Sanfrecce Hiroshima) It is at least theoretically possible that Japan could name an all-European midfield quartet: Makoto Hasebe (Vfl Wolfsburg – Germany), Keisuke Honda (CSKA Moscow – Russia), Daisuke Matsui (Tom’ Tomsk – Russia) and Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund – Germany). But a great deal will depend on coach Zaccheroni’s overall strategy and formation. Based on the fact that they were listed as “FW”, Honda and Kagawa (and even Matsui) may actually be viewed as better candidates to play in the front line, especially if Zack Japan opts for the 4-3-3 formation that the coach used most often in Italy. There are many other prospects to fill spots in the midfield, though, and it looks like Zack is planning to focus on defensive-type players in these positions Yuki Abe (Leicester City) and Hajime Hosogai (Urawa Reds) are likely prospects.
[Japanese ace Keisuke Honda]
Even if we assume that Honda and/or Kagawa gets the call up front, there should be at least one spot open for a domestic-based striker. Shinji Okazaki (Shimizu S-Pulse) probably has the best claim on a starting spot, though it was interesting to see that Zacheroni decided to call up Ryoichi Maeda (Jubilo Iwata), who was controversially left out of Okada’s squads throughout his reign. Three players have received their first NT call-ups for these matches: Masahiko Inoha (Kashima Antlers), Takuya Honda (Shimizu S-Pulse) and Kunimitsu Sekiguchi (Vegalta Sendai)
Here is the full lineup of players that will take part in Japan’s match against Korea:
GK: Eiji Kawashima (Lierse), Shusaku Nishikawa (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Shuichi Gonda (FC Tokyo)
DF: Yuto Nagatomo (AC Cesena), Atsuto Uchida (Schalke04), Marcus Tulio Tanaka (Nagoya Grampus), Yuichi Komano (Jubilo Iwata), Yuzo Kurihara (Yokohama Marinos), Masahiko Inoha (Kashima Antlers), Tomoaki Makino (Sanfrecce Hiroshima)
MF: Makoto Hasebe (Wolfsburg), Yuki Abe (Leicester City), Yasuhito Endo (Gamba Osaka), Kengo Nakamura (Kawasaki Frontale), Yasuyuki Konno (FC Tokyo), Takuya Honda (Shimizu S-Pulse), Hajime Hosogai (Urawa Reds),
FW: Keisuke Honda (CSKA Moscow), Shinji Kagawa (Dortmund), Takayuki Morimoto (Catania), Daisuke Matsui (Tom Tomsk), Ryoichi Maeda (Jubilo Iwata), Kunimitsu Sekiguchi (Vegalta Sendai), Shinji Okazaki (Shimizu S-Pulse), Mu Kanazaki (Nagoya Grampus)
by Ken Matsushima (The Rising Sun News / firstname.lastname@example.org)
Please stay tuned for player and team previews in Part II…