The Yomiuri ShimbunJapan intends to carry out “soccer diplomacy” to improve relations with China this year, which will mark the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Japan-China Peace and Friendship Treaty. The Japan Football Association (JFA) plans to support this movement through such measures as dispatching coaches to China.
The government hopes to hold a Japan-China-South Korea summit meeting around this spring in Japan by successfully realizing Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s first visit to Japan. The government hopes these trilateral talks will in turn lead to reciprocal visits between Japan and China’s leaders, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visiting China this year followed by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Japan.
To help bring about the reciprocal visits, the government has turned its eyes to soccer. Known as an avid soccer fan, Xi promotes a national policy of making his country a great soccer power, and aims to someday host the finals of the World Cup. The government has started to study the possibility of a friendly match between Japan and China and other related events when Xi visits Japan, and to have Abe and Xi attend those occasions.
One example of sports exchange helping improve bilateral relations is the “ping pong diplomacy” that brought the United States and China closer together.
Japan’s methods well regarded
The Chinese side also has expectations for Japan’s moves. “Sports diplomacy can prime the pump for improving relations,” a Chinese government source said.
Despite Xi’s directives, the Chinese men’s national soccer team has not made it to the World Cup since appearing in the 2002 finals cohosted by Japan and South Korea. So it is an urgent task for China to improve its team’s abilities.
Japan’s player training system, mainly fostered by the JFA, is well regarded in China, and the country wants to invite good Japanese coaches through this diplomatic exchange.
The JFA sees advantages in participating in this and plans to support the dispatch of coaches. “If China becomes strong, and Japan and China have a good rivalry with each other, that will strengthen Japan’s national team,” JFA President Kozo Tashima said.
Enthusiasm for connecting Japan and China through soccer is growing at various levels. The bipartisan parliamentary group for promoting soccer diplomacy, headed by Liberal Democratic Party veteran lawmaker Seishiro Eto, is also aiming to play a friendly game with top members of the National People’s Congress. This kind of exchange has been held only once before, in 2007. Speech