A war of words is always preferable to any other kind of war, and for what it’s worth the recent controversy over the behavior of Chinese soccer fans toward the Japanese national team at the Asian Cup tournament did offer an opportunity for the governments of the countries involved to express their views on lingering anti-Japan sentiments in China. Whether or not they gained anything from the opportunity is another matter.

The Chinese authorities agreed that the behavior was out of place, but accused the Japanese media of unnecessarily politicizing the controversy (“Come on. It was just a game a soccer,” cried the English language version of the People’s Daily Online).

The Japanese government did almost the same thing, demanding that Beijing protect Japan’s players and spectators during the final, but downplaying any political dimension to the heckling even after it lodged a formal protest with the Chinese government.

To say the matter was not political is denying the obvious. While Japanese editorial writers pondered the meaning of the heckling from the safety of their air-conditioned cubicles, Japanese reporters neglected to ask the hard questions. When they quizzed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi about the booing of the Japanese team in Chongqin they didn’t ask him if he thought his visits to Yasukuni Shrine had contributed to Chinese bitterness, even though everyone assumed they had.

Instead, they put the question to Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda, who wasn’t any help. “I don’t know,” he replied. Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara is always good for an eyebrow-raising comment when it comes to nationalism — anybody’s nationalism — and he didn’t disappoint. After wondering out loud if the behavior of the Chinese spectators had something to do with their being poor hicks, he said that Beijing benefited from anti-Japan sentiments. “Such a dictatorial system needs a ‘virtual enemy’ to maintain it’s authority,” he told reporters.

A similar idea has been put forward in the Japanese media, which said that the Chinese government equates the booing with letting off steam. While the authorities keep a lid on anti-Japanese sentiments in the press (the tightened security at the tournament was not covered on Chinese TV), they know that anger against the Japanese team is a sort of substitute for unexpressed antigovernment feelings and therefore allow it to a certain extent.

For years, Japan could brush aside these sentiments because it was providing China with development aid. Japan assuaged whatever guilt it felt about the sins it committed in China in the past with a feeling of economic superiority. But the gap is narrowing.

The resurgent nationalism that bolsters anti-Japanese feelings is fueled by patriotic education inaugurated in the ’90s to replace ideological education that was no longer valid given China’s turn toward capitalism.

Chinese people know that their country is now a real economic force in the world, which is why they are able to host international sports competitions like the Asian Cup and the 2008 Olympics. Money makes the relationship more complicated.

Activists try to get their countrymen to boycott Japanese products, ignoring the fact that an increasing amount of those products are made in China. Japan is currently experiencing acute nostalgia for the Russo-Japanese War, which Japan won. Japanese tourists flock to the sites in China where many of the battles of that conflict were fought. Local merchants are only too happy to have them. One man’s nationalism is another man’s daily bread.

The ongoing controversy over the Diaoyu (Senkaku, in Japanese) islands, which both China and Japan claim, is ostensibly about national pride, but it’s also about money: There’s natural gas under those useless rocks.

The rational solution, as put forth by economist Takuro Morinaga on TV Asahi talk show “TV Tackle” last Monday, would be for both countries to share such resources, but the refusal to acknowledge each other’s position makes that impossible.

Conservative pundits on the same show argued that it was Japan’s refusal to be tough (the “surrender mentality,” as one put it) that created the Diaoyu standoff. This attitude follows the unofficial but de facto Japanese line, which says that China only cites Japan’s wartime actions in order to get its own way.

In a recent Shukan Asahi article, a Japanese soccer player who once played on a Chinese team said that, at first, his teammates resented his presence and confronted him about Japan’s atrocities. “You have to start by understanding why they feel that way about you,” he said, explaining how he gradually got the team to accept him. This sounds like common sense, but the adversarial model has become the accepted standard for diplomatic dialogue.

However, the adversary of my adversary can also be my friend, as suggested by an Asahi Shimbun news story about how Japan emerged from the Asian Cup controversy with an unexpected ally: South Korea. Following UNESCO’s recent designation of the ancient kingdom of Koguryo as a World Heritage Site for both China and North Korea, South Korea accused China of plans to “distort” the history of Koguryo in its upcoming textbook revisions.

Koreans claim Koguryo as the cradle of their civilization. The disagreement has received a lot of press on the peninsula, so Korean soccer fans watched the Asian Cup final with even more interest, and cheered each Japanese goal with fervor. See? Soccer really does bring countries together.