If only I had a nickel for every time someone would be sure I spoke Chinese when I told them that I had grown up in Japan…
Though I don’t blame people for occasionally lumping the two countries together, sometimes even alongside South Korea. Japanese culture has been most strongly influenced by the Chinese – the Japanese Kanji that are essentially Chinese characters, the introduction of Buddhism in Japan, various foods that came from China (most notably the “Ramen” noodles), and much more. Japan has incorporated bits of Korean culture as well (see post on Yakiniku).
With their similar cultures, it is natural for these East Asian countries to share a sense of comradeship and solidarity, and they do. At the same time, however, it is mixed with a deep-rooted rivalry that once led Japan in the 1990s, for example, to accuse the Korean government of augmenting the rivalry of Korean citizens towards Japan in order to sustain its legality. It is a love-hate relationship that, much like the way democracy works only when there is a distinct homogeneous majority, is sustainable as long as the Japanese see themselves at the leader position. Up until recently the world’s second and third biggest economies have been playing quite nicely. The demands for exports in China have boosted fiscal recovery in Japan and the leaders of both nations have prioritized economic development and partnership, despite all the historical tensions originating from the Second Sino-Japanese War, aggravated further by Japan’s Prime Minister’s tour to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, developments in the off-shore gas field in the East China Sea, and independence disputes on the Senkaku Islands. It has been convenient for the Japanese to ride the wave of Chinese and Korean development as long as they were still years behind Japan, but now Japanese industrialists are feeling a strong blow to their pride as they slowly but surely fall behind.
What will happen when China, as expected, snatches Japan’s world’s #2 economy status next year, with South Korea at its tail? Japan’s only hope of maintaining its older brother role in the three-way relationship may lie in the upcoming World Cup. In 2002, when Japan and South Korea co-hosted the soccer events, the rivalry was intense. The Japanese expressed satisfaction in how East Asia was becoming a world power in football, while at the same time dreading the fact that their own team fell short of significant achievement. That time it was bearable for Japan, as it was still the undisputed overall leader in the area. However, it will have to do much better in general, and specifically outperform South Korea on the soccer field this time around if it wishes to hold on to the little dominance it has left in the East Asian love triangle.