Pride binds Japan's ethnic Koreans

They are only 5000 strong, but it is impossible to hear the 55,000 Japanese supporters surrounding us at the Saitama 2002 stadium, north of Tokyo, for this World Cup 2006 qualifying match.

    Japanese of Korean origin cheer the North Korean football team

    As the two teams emerge on the field - one in the blue of Japan and their opponents in the white and red of North Korea - the visitors' fans erupt.

    Standing at the very heart of the "away" fans, the noise is nearly deafening. A high school brass band is belting out marching tune, teams of drummers are keeping the beat on tall, traditionally shaped drums, and a man leaning over the stadium wall to get closer to the football pitch is blowing on what looks like a long hunting horn.

    Yet for all the fervent patriotism on display and support for "their" team, there is an undercurrent of confusion among some of the younger fans around me.

    They may be wearing the traditional red of North Korea, but they shout to each other in Japanese, take photos with the same fervour, send text messages on their mobile phones and are, to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from Japanese of the same age and generation.

    Mixed sentiments

    "I'm so excited to be here for this game," Cha-mi Ko, 24, said shortly before the game kicks off.  "My favourite player is An Yong-hak because he's so energetic in the midfield, but we support all the players who are in the team."

    Turning to her friend, Om Ah-yu, they discuss in quick-fire Japanese the different players' relative merits and speculate on the score. A huge North Korean flag - red, white and blue stripes with a red star - is passed over our heads and officials wearing arm-bands with Korean hangul characters on them exhort the 5000 to louder cheers.

    Loyalty to North Korea runs deep
    despite the passage of time

    "My father is Japanese but my mother is North Korean," says Om, who has visited Pyongyang twice. "I went to North Korean High School here and most of my friends have the same background, but in most ways we're just the same as young people anywhere."

    She laughs when I ask whether her parentage makes her feel more Japanese or mostly North Korea. "Here, today, definitely North Korean," she says, pointing at the football pitch.

    Her timing is unfortunate, however. In the third minute, North Korea concede a goal in front of their own supporters. There is a brief silence - during which the roar of the Japanese fans envelops this enclave of red shirts and scarves - before the drums start beating again.

    Among the red shirts of North Korean university football teams, as well as a smattering of the red of Liverpool, Arsenal and Bayen Munich, is the lighter colour of a South Korean national team shirt.

    Divided loyalties

    "I feel very sad that my country is divided and I think many of the people here feel the same," Hyong-gyun Lee, a 24-year-old from the South Korean city of Daejon who is on a one-year student exchange programme in Japan, said.

    "I wanted to come to the game today to give my support to North Korea because, really, we're from the same country," he said.

    The divided loyalties run even deeper in others. "My family are all from the south of Korea and I'm a third-generation resident of Japan, but I study art at a North Korean university and I'm here today to support the North Korean team as a sign of my respect for Kim Jong-il," 20-year-old Mi-Ae Kwon says.

    "I feel very sad that my country is divided and I think many of the people here feel the same"

    Hyong-gyun Lee, 24,
    South Korean exchange student in Japan

    Security around the North Korean contingent is tight; a buffer zone of empty seats on both sides of their section keeps the Japanese fans at arms' length, while police and private security guards keep a close watch on both sets of supporters.

    Nearly 3500 security officials are on duty in and around the stadium out of concern that the political problems that exist between the two countries could spill out into the sporting arena.

    In polite, diplomatic parlance, the two nations are at odds over a number of issues.

    Ask a Japanese about North Korea, however, and they paint a  picture of a regime that sanctions kidnappings of Japanese nationals, is developing nuclear weapons and is content for its own people to starve.

    Forcibly brought

    To many North Koreans, the Japanese are militarists who hark back to their empire of the 1930s and would like nothing more than to again subjugate the nations of East Asia.

    It was therefore inevitable that the two would be drawn in the same group after the preliminary round of qualifiers for Germany 2006. The return leg is scheduled for Pyongyang on 8 June. The other two teams in the group are Iran and Bahrain.

    Organisations such as Chongryon
    represent Japan's ethnic Koreans

    The visiting team's supporters are members of Chongryon, which represents around 200,000 ethnic North Koreans in Japan - many of whose relatives were forcibly brought to Japan when the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese occupation.

    An official of the organisation said that no fans had made the trip from Pyongyang. And although Japanese fans have a reputation for being impeccably behaved, tensions were raised in the media in the days running up to the match.

    Posters on Japanese trains advertising the match showed the Japanese and North Korean flags side by side, and police said they were prepared for protesters who believed the vast TV audience might be an opportunity to get their message across.

    Banners with a political message would be confiscated, although one elderly man outside the station was waving a Japanese flag and shouting anti-Korean slogans.

    Axe to grind

    There are plenty of people in Japan who feel they do have an axe to grind.

    Public pressure is mounting on the Japanese government to impose sanctions on North Korea to force Kim Jong-il's government to come clean on people it is widely believed to have kidnapped to train its spies.

    "We have fantastic support and we could easily have filled

    10,000 seats instead of the 5000 that were
    allocated to us"

    So Chong-on,
    Chongryon official

    Five Japanese have been allowed to return home in recent years, while Pyongyang claims another eight died of natural causes after being snatched.

    And while North Korea says it had nothing to do with other disappearances, human-rights groups in Japan have lists of more than 100 Japanese nationals who disappeared in suspicious circumstances.

    Pyongyang also raised the temperature by requesting that Japan not play its national anthem or raise the Japanese flag before the game.

    This was apparently an effort to avoid being obliged to do the same in the return leg of the tie in Pyongyang. The North Koreans also wrote 

    to the Japan Football Association demanding that it intervene with the Japanese media covering the North Korean team in training at a camp in China.

    Both requests were turned down.

    Fantastic support

    Divided loyalties of Japanese of
    Korean origin are all too obvious

    "Look around you," says So Chong-on, a Chongryon official who is off duty for the duration of the game. "We have fantastic support and we could easily have filled

    10,000 seats instead of the 5000 that were allocated to us."

    Delight at the equalising goal scored by Nam Song-chol turns to tears on the terraces as Japan's Masashi Oguro scores the winning goal two minutes into injury time, but So is optimistic in defeat.

    "The Japanese papers were saying that the score was going to be three or four to nil before the game, so this shows how far North Korean football has progressed," he said.

    "Of course we are disappointed to lose, especially when we believed we were going to get a fantastic result, but it shows we are strong enough to beat the best team in Asia and I think we can be confident about winning in Pyongyang in June."

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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