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Far East rivalries reach fever pitch

World Cup stand-off: Atrocities recalled as Seoul and Tokyo await decision on hosting the 2002 tournament
Relations between Japan and South Korea, edgy at the best of times, have never required much to push them into outright hostility.

Last year a Japanese minister resigned after saying that his country achieved "some good things" during its colonisation of Korea. In February Koreans burnt effigies of Tokyo's foreign minister after Japan laid claim to a couple of barren islets between the two countries. But now relations are being jeopardised by an issue of global significance: football.

On 1 June, Fifa, the game's governing body, decides on the venue for the 2002 World Cup. There are two candidates, Japan and South Korea, and, as the contest enters its final stage, the rewards of winning are being overshadowed by the cost of defeat. For five years officials from both countries have been lobbying to convince the Fifa executive committee of the justice of their bid. The Japanese point to such things as their powerful economy and transport and tourist facilities. Korea emphasises its success in hosting the 1988 Olympics and its superior sporting record: five World Cup appearances compared to none by Japan.

Increasingly, concerns are surfacing that the humiliation of defeat could harm relations between the two countries. If Japan lost, the impact would not be great but in Korea, public expectation, fuelled by politicians and football officials, is at fever pitch. The media run daily features counting the hours to "D-Day", when Fifa will announce its decision in Zurich. "We suffered brutal colonisation by the Japanese for 36 years. We are Japan's victims," Chung Mong Joon, head of the Korean Football Association, said. "The relationship cannot be fully comprehended by the word 'rivalry'."

Korean bitterness has affected footballing relations between the two countries before: in 1953 feelings ran so high that Syngman Rhee refused visas to the entire Japanese team.

A Japanese foreign ministry official said: "I doubt that anti-Korean feelings will emerge in Japan if it loses the bid. But if Japan wins there could be a problem."

Until recently, the contest was too close to call, despite the Fifa president, Joao Havelange, championing Japan's selection. But it has been rumoured he may recently have marshalled the 11 votes needed to clinch the nomination.

The Koreans appear to know. Politicians have floated a revolutionary idea: that instead of competing for the tournament, they should split it between them. "The South Korean government and people will accept co- hosting if that is the wish of member-nations of Fifa," said the Prime Minister, Lee Soo Sung, this month. "Soccer should not be allowed to damage the long, friendly relations that have existed between South Korea and Japan."

A joint World Cup would present practical problems: the currency to be used, for instance, and the venue for the final. But the 1994 tournament in the US was played out over a much larger area, after all. More importantly, the idea is attracting support: it has been endorsed by the European, Asian and African governing bodies.

The Japanese Asahi Shimbun paper editorialised: "Given the history of ties between Japan and South Korea, the joint hosting would have immeasurable significance as a forward-looking joint venture. The age of exploiting sport for international prestige has passed."

But the Japanese, perhaps sensing they are ahead, have poured cold water on the idea, pointing to the Fifa regulation that the Cup must be held solely within one country. Time is running out and with it the hopes of mending the sporting fences. "If we didn't get it," said Bryan Matthews, PR consultant to the Korean bidding committee, "the disappointment would be horrendous. The feeling would be that Japan Inc has won, and Korea FC has lost."

Ties bedevilled by a history of occupation and exploitation

Many things considered typically Japanese originated in Korea, and the Japanese rarely acknowledge it, writes Raymond Whitaker. Japan's tradition of exquisite pottery dates from its invasion of Korea in the 16th century - when Japanese forces withdrew, they took many of the peninsula's best potters with them.

Japan returned in 1910 and remained in control until 1945. Japanese settlers tried to suppress the Korean language and culture. Resentment is still strong: for example, Seoul still bans Japanese cars, films and pop songs.

During the Second World War thousands of Koreans were seized for Japanese military brothels or taken to Japan for forced labour. While their children and grandchildren speak fluent Japanese and have often adopted Japanese names, they still suffer social discrimination. Japanese families routinely hire detectives to check the background of a prospective marriage partner and any hint of Korean descent is sufficient grounds for cancelling the wedding.