Thursday, February 10, 2005

nippon vs. north korea

I set out two unspoken goals in this blog: 1) no writing about "that wacky stuff in Japan" and 2) no whining about my personal life. Well, I broke up #1 with my last post, so I might as well muck up #2 as best I can.

Tonight was the Japan vs. North Korea World Cup qualifier game, and I was invited out to a night of beer and soccer by an English teacher friend. While North Korea sometimes crops up onto the Op-Ed pages in the US, it is a daily issue in Japan. In addition to all their nukes, the North Korean government has taken dozens of Japanese hostages from the rural Sea of Japan coast, and the relatives of these hostages are a major political and morally righteous force in Japan, appearing almost daily on the local news, pressuring the government to further action against North Korea. There was a man outside my local station today with handdrawn cardboard signs and a petition that called for harder sanctions against North Korea in light of the hostage situation.

On the other hand, North and South Korea were colonized by Japan from 1910-1945: Japanese was made the official language and thousands of Koreans were forced into heavy labor projects, many in Japan. The Japanese postwar "economic miracle" was given a big boost when Japan was the main base and supplier of the US army during the Korean war. To this day many North Koreans who were forced into labor in Japan during the war are stranded here, denied Japanese citizenship, passports, or decent employment prospects.

It was in this context that Japan happened to be randomly selected to face off against North Korea in the first game of the World Cup qualifiers. The game was to be held in Japan, which subsequently chose my good old soccer crazy city of Urawa as the site of the match. Tickets sold out in 10 minutes.

In all fairness, the Japanese media was careful to distinguish between the North Korean government and the soccer team. The team was met with flowers and hordes of North Koreans fans who choose Japan and disenfranchisement over North Korea and dictatorship. But aside from all the expressions of good will, this was more than just another soccer game, these were gladiators in an arena.

There were nine or ten of us out tonight to see the game, about half English teachers living the fantasy life, half Japanese struggling in whatever work they can find and little ole me. The first bar we tried was packed full of fans, but the second had a line of tables just our size. The name of the place hung above the bar in neon, Modern Times: Restaurant and Bar. The staff reflected the modernity of the bar: the bartender had elaborately styled hair, wore a brand name button down shirt, and the only waiter in the place was dressed in a remarkably elaborate cowboy outfit.

I sat next to a Japanese guy about my age who was crazy about reggae and Japanese soccer. Across from me was a massage therapist/unwanted hair remover who was a soccer maniac and a cute and nervous librarian who was not. Japan scored one goal in the first few minutes. The reggae guy and I talked about MC's and clubs. North Korea scored a goal. The librarian and I talked about Japanese mystery writers. In the second half I actually watched the game. Japan scored in the last few minutes and the bar exploded into a round of toasting and drinking.

The soccer march ended with Japan winning 2-1. People trickled off until just five of us were left. The librarian had left me with a list of good authors and no phone number. The bill came out to more than we expected, and the five of us barely coughed it up. I suddenly realized there were two brand new couples and myself. We stumbled home in the bitter February air, brushing past the mahjong dens and massage parlors.

I waved goodbye to the massage therapist and her new boyfriend as I stepped onto the last train home. Sitting across from me was a man in his late 30's with the exact same type of Korean made backpack I used to own, tinted prescription glasses, an entirely waterproof outfit and a real utility belt with two pockets bulging off of his left hip. At one point he saved his seat with the backpack and ran to tell the conductor that someone had boarded without a ticket, who was subsequently booted out, no more trains left to catch. The guy picked his nose for the five minutes before my stop. After I got off I glanced back to see him and my old backpack slide away into the night, me alone on the platform and him strangely content, his index finger probing up his left nostril.

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