The recent heckling of Japanese by Chinese fans at the Asian Cup soccer tournament should not be linked to political issues between the two nations, the government said Tuesday, trying to calm tempers in Tokyo.

Japan’s national team was booed when the players took to the pitch for games in Chongqing, China, and Japanese fans were also verbally abused.

But on Tuesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda told a regular afternoon news conference, “It’s premature to associate soccer games with political issues between Japan and China.”

His response came after some senior members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, of which Hosoda is a member, demanded earlier in the day that the government lodge a protest with Beijing over the heckling.

Mineichi Iwanaga, one of the party’s vice secretaries general, said he was concerned by the increase in anti-Japanese sentiment and questioned whether the Olympic Games should be held in Beijing in 2008.

Kyoko Nishikawa, director of the party’s Women’s Affairs Division, claimed the booing was “the result of anti-Japanese education in China.”

Hosoda would only say that Tokyo “will start considering how to deal with the issue.”

“The original purpose of sports is the promotion of friendship,” he said. “We have to be careful so we don’t do things that run counter to that purpose.”

Observers say one reason behind the anti-Japanese sentiment is Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which served as the spiritual pillar of Japan’s wartime militarism.

But when asked whether Koizumi’s visits to the shrine have hurt bilateral relations and cooled Chinese attitudes toward Japan, Hosoda replied, “I don’t know.”

“We must closely analyze” the feelings of the people in Chongqing before drawing any conclusions, he said.

Koizumi said Tuesday, “I don’t think (the visits) are the only reason” behind anti-Japanese sentiment in China.

He said political issues should not be brought into sports.

“Sports (games) are a festival of friendship,” he said. “I’d like people to warmly welcome both Japanese and non-Japanese players.”

Information from Kyodo added

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