The first postwar visit to South Korea by a Japanese Emperor is still up in the air due to a combination of politics, soccer bureaucracy, national sensibilities and a dispute over television broadcast rights.
The latest episode in Imperial soccer diplomacy was the cancellation by Prince Takamado — the Emperor’s cousin — of a trip to Seoul scheduled to begin April 26.
Prince Takamado is the honorary president of the Football Association of Japan, and during the planned three-day visit he was to have seen a South Korea-Japan soccer match and viewed venues for the 2002 World Cup finals.
The 46-year-old prince had also planned to meet officials from South Korean soccer associations.
The opening match in the final series — the first time a World Cup championship will be cohosted — will be held in the Seoul Olympic Stadium and the final match will be held in Yokohama’s new 128,000-seat stadium.
Given the popularity of soccer worldwide, television audiences are expected to number in the hundreds of millions, perhaps billions.
Sources said the cancellation was made to avoid giving the impression that the Emperor will visit South Korea in the near future. Support for such a visit is ambivalent, with ramifications extending to North Korea.
Most Japanese, according to polls, agree that an eventual Imperial visit is likely to help cool entrenched animosities dating back to the 35 years — from 1910 to 1945 — of Japan’s colonial rule of Korea.
Seoul has invited the Emperor — the eldest son of the late Emperor Showa — to visit South Korea before the international soccer tournament.
The Emperor and Empress were scheduled to visit South Korea on behalf of Emperor Showa in October 1986, but the trip was canceled in August that year, reportedly because the Empress was suffering from an illness.
Some observers believe that the latest trip was called off because opposition political parties and Christian groups in South Korea were against it. In Japan, certain factions in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party expressed opposition, as did nationalists and ultrarightists.
Such a visit is seen by some diplomatic analysts as a complicating factor in negotiations toward normalization of relations between Japan and North Korea, now under way.
Finally, there was disagreement between Seoul and Tokyo over television broadcast rights on the prince’s and, later, the Emperor’s visit, both of which are seen in Asia as extremely important events.
Seoul and Tokyo have long discussed visits to South Korea by Emperor Showa’s relatives as a means of improving ties, but little progress has been made.
Critics say an Imperial visit is part of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s grand script — the North-South summit and eventual Seoul-Pyongyang rapprochement are others — toward his winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
Kim’s wish is that he and the Japanese Emperor attend both the opening match in Seoul and the final in Yokohama. Such a plan has been discussed, but not finalized.
One of Emperor Showa’s nephews, Prince Tomohito of Mikasa, became the only member of the Imperial family to visit South Korea for a postwar friendship event when he traveled to Seoul in October 1990.
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