Soccer, flags and nationalism

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — All over England, on houses, cars and vans, you will see the cross of St. George waving in the wind. Prime Minister Tony Blair has been persuaded that the English flag should be flown at his residence on days when the English team are playing in the World Cup.

The British media every day carry numerous stories about the British team and its chances. Retailers of soccer memorabilia, more often than not made in China, are profiting. The recovery of the fractured metatarsal bone of Wayne Rooney, one of the leading players in the English team, has been the subject of daily speculation, although most people had probably never heard of this foot bone in the spring of this year. The activities and the affairs of the Swedish coach of the English team are always in the news.

This is all good fun, and the current soccer mania means that when the matches are being played, the roads will be relatively empty as fans are glued to their television screens. Pubs with wide screens will do a roaring trade.

Unfortunately, the propensity of fans to drink too much also means that the police will have much to do in preventing mayhem after the British lose a game. There is, sadly, a hooligan element among the fans and the English police have had to send a contingent to Germany to help their continental colleagues to keep order where the matches are being held. English hooligans are not unique, and there will inevitably be more than a few cracked heads before the championship is settled.

Soccer flag-waving and sporting nationalism is, however, generally pretty harmless, and is much preferred to political nationalism, which can lead to extremism and violence. In Europe in recent decades, the growth in nationalism has been primarily at the local level within existing states. Local nationalism can be extreme and violent. It can even lead to civil war but not generally to interstate conflicts.

Britain has had its share of such troubles, especially in Northern Ireland, but the British government has managed so far to appease Scottish and Welsh nationalists through devolution of powers to a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. The Scots have won more local power than the Welsh, but for the time being there is little likelihood of Scottish and Welsh nationalists achieving independence through democratic elections. The extremists among Scottish and Welsh nationalists constitute a tiny fringe.

There are, of course, anomalies as a result of devolution. One of these is that some of the most important posts in the British government are filled by Scotsmen despite the fact that the population of Scotland is less than one-tenth of England’s, but this has not been unusual in British history. Another is that members of Parliament at Westminster can vote on matters that affect England only.

The country that faces perhaps the greatest pressure from local nationalism in continental Europe is Spain. Catalonia, centering on Barcelona, has its own language and traditions, and seeks greater autonomy. The Basques, who are also a minority in France, have used murderous tactics in their campaign for independence. Spain is a large country with a mixed population and the regions have different histories and traditions despite the fact that the country was unified many centuries ago.

In other European countries, such as Germany and Italy, unification was not achieved until the 19th century. Germany was long divided between Protestants and Catholics and later by the split into Western and Eastern parts during the Cold War. The German states have different cultures and dialects, but under Germany’s federal constitution the pressures of local nationalism have been kept in check.

Italy has tried hard to cope with the north/south economic split, but there are still separatist tendencies in the north. Yugoslavia was an anomalous collection of ministates with differing languages and cultures. The split into the small states of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina Serbia and Macedonia was inevitable. They will soon to be joined by the ministate of Montenegro, which has opted for independence from Serbia.

The fate of the last remaining part of Yugoslavia, namely Kosovo with its Albanian majority, has yet to be settled, but the concept of a greater Serbia is long past despite the aspirations of Serbian nationalists.

The three Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, despite continuing ethnic problems largely caused by Russian minorities, have all joined the European Union and have shown that small states can continue to exist and thrive so long as they are able and willing to work closely with their neighbors in an international community.

It is natural for people everywhere to have an affection for the place where they were born and brought up. It is also understandable that they should admire first the literature in their own language and the culture that they see around them. But the wish of Japanese politicians to force young people to be patriotic by revering the flag does not stem from a desire for better and a more widespread appreciation of Japanese culture, but instead from nostalgia for a past age they think was “glorious.”

It should be more than ever apparent to Japanese politicians that Japan can survive and flourish only by working with its neighbors and the rest of the world. Japan cannot do without imports of food and energy. Like it or not, its defense depends on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. It is right and proper that young Japanese learn to understand and respect Japanese cultural achievements, but they can do this properly only if they know something about other cultures and people and recognize that Japan’s future depends on international interdependence.

I don’t think Japanese politicians have a proper sense of history or understand its relevance to the current age. There is no harm in hoisting the Japanese flag if that is an entirely voluntary act, such as in support of a Japanese sports team, but to try to make it compulsory smacks of outdated state-sponsored nationalism.

The United States has made a fetish of its flag, but that’s because the U.S. is a young country of mixed origins and races, and it needed a symbol of unity. Japan does not have to emulate the U.S. Its culture is an ancient one that compares with other advanced cultures.

Japanese politicians should put more emphasis on teaching and understanding Japanese literature and art. Kowtowing to the flag seems to be a sign of their immaturity and suggests they do not understood what the famous English 18th-century sage Samuel Johnson meant when he declared that patriotism was the last refuge of a scoundrel. I think he was referring to people who called for patriotism when their country’s cause was not a good one and who were generally bereft of constructive ideas.