Discordant neighbours get another chance for argument

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By the usual standards of football pop, the official theme song of the 2002 World Cup, "Let's Get Together Now", is really not that bad at all.

By the usual standards of football pop, the official theme song of the 2002 World Cup, "Let's Get Together Now", is really not that bad at all.

Compared with such past atrocities as Paul Gascoigne's notorious version of "Fog on the Tyne", it is no more than inoffensively bland, a slickly produced dance track by a group of Korean and Japanese pop idols. "We are two lands apart. But our present love joins us together," declare the Tokyo youngsters. "From everlasting misunderstandings and struggles, let us wake up," sing the girl and boy from Seoul. The worst you can say, in Japan at least, is that few people have taken to it.

In this week's chart, it languishes at No 31; in my local Tokyo record shop, it sits ignored on a table by the window. "I'm not really bothered about Korea," says one boy, who passes by with half a glance.

Eventually, another young man picks up the attached headphones, and has a listen. "Not too bad," he says. "I don't know why, because we are so nearby, but here the newspapers and the TV never seem to talk much about Korea."

When the World Cup comes to an end in late June, its success will be judged in several ways. As a sporting event, it cannot fail to generate tension and excitement; as a feat of security and crowd control, there are predictable worries over hooligans and terrorism. But, unlike any World Cup before it, this one is also a diplomatic exercise.

The tournament was divided between Japan and Korea not for the sake of football, but as a political gesture, intended to bring amity between two of the most quarrelsome neighbours in the world. Repeatedly over the centuries, and most recently between 1910 and 1945, Japan brutally occupied Korea. Since last year, the two co-hosts have been struggling to promote what is known as "mutual understanding". But try as they might, they cannot seem to avoid getting on oneanother's nerves.

Time after time, well-meaning undertakings have degenerated into bickering. The Seoul and Tokyo National Museums were to have exchanged ancient artefacts to mark the joint tournament – but then the Koreans complained that the Japanese were sending them inferior treasure and the whole thing was called off. Japanese and Korean cities were to have held a series of exchanges between schoolchildren – but then there was a row about a Japanese school textbook that soft-pedalled Japan's brutal colonisation of Korea, and many of the school trips were called off.

The most amazing attempt at Korean-Japanese detente came last December at what is normally one of the most uninformative events of the year: the Emperor's birthday press conference. After centuries of evolution, the Japanese imperial family has adapted itself perfectly for survival in the modern world: it is so boring that no one could ever be bothered to abolish it. At his press conference, the Emperor generally does no more than cheer good things (peace, sport), deplore bad things (war, earthquakes) and smile that strange anxious smile of his.

Last year, however, saw an imperial bombshell. In response to a question about the World Cup, the Emperor spoke of feeling "a certain kinship with Korea". He cited an ancient chronicle in which the mother of a historic emperor is said to be descended from the Kingdom of Paekche.

In other words, he was admitting what historians and archaeologists have only whispered: that the Japanese imperial family descended from Koreans. Historically, there is no doubt of this, but an unspoken taboo means it is known to few ordinary Japanese. The best evidence comes from ancient burial mounds that dot the Japanese heartland. Many of those that have been excavated show an unmistakable Korean influence. But the most important tombs, those of the emperors, are owned by the conservative Imperial Household Agency (IHA), which refuses permission for any archaeological investigation.

There are other practical reasons why the Emperor's Koreanness is little discussed, as Professor Otsuka knows to his cost: a few years ago he was put under police protection after threats by right-wingers upset over his theories about the imperial tombs.

The imperial statement was reported jubilantly and gratefully in Seoul. But in Japan, only one left-wing newspaper made anything of it. Whatever the Emperor might have thought, the IHA, it seems, had instructed its accredited reporters not to draw attention to the remarks about Korea.

So how much goodwill will linger after the World Cup is difficult to say. Even the release of the theme song says as much about the enmity as it does about the new understanding between the two. For although "Let's Get Together Now" will be broadcast in Korea, all other songs on the World Cup album are banned there – as is all Japanese-language pop music. "The moment has come to forget all those sad days," run the Korean lyrics to "Let's Get Together Now" – which is easier sung than done.