Asia's Biggest Rivalries: Japan vs South Korea. Need we say more?

When you think of powerhouse nations in Asia, the first names that likely spring to mind are these two. Their rivalry dates back generations and is about more than just football...


March 3, 1954: Japan 1 South Korea 5. FIFA World Cup qualifier, Tokyo, Japan


Biggest achievements: Four-time Asian Cup champion (1992, 2000, 2004, 2011); Olympic Games Bronze Medal (1968)


January 25, 2011: Japan 2 South Korea 2 (Japan win 3-0 on penalties, 2011 Asian Cup semi-finals, Doha Qatar

It’s amazing to think, given both are tournament mainstays, that Japan and Korea have met just three times at the Asian Cup finals, but none was bigger than the 2011 edition in Qatar.

With the scores locked at 1-1 at the end of regulation time, Japan were awarded a highly controversial penalty that Jung Sung-ryong (now playing in the J.League) saved, only for Hajime Hosogai to sweep in the parried effort.

Hwang Jae-won then bobbed up with a dramatic 120th-minute equaliser. The Koreans then fell apart in the shootout as Eiji Kawashima saved the first two spot kicks and Hong Jeong-ho missed the third, allowing Yasuyuki Konno to slot home his effort and send Japan into the final.

January 11, 1982: Japan 2 South Korea 1. Asian Games, New Delhi, India

This was just the fourth time that Japan had defeated Korea at either a tournament or in a qualification match and it came as something of a shock.

In a side that contained Takeshi Okada, coach of the national team at the 2010 World Cup, former JFA Technical Director Hiromi Hara and current Nagoya Grampus boss Yahiro Kazama, Japan grabbed two second-half goals as they eliminated Korea from the tournament en route to reaching the quarter-finals.

June 3, 1956: Japan 2 South Korea 0.1956 Olympic Games qualifier, Tokyo, Japan

Two years after an inglorious 5-1 defeat in a highly charged qualification match for the 1954 World Cup — the first official match between the nations — Japan recorded their first win over Korea with a 2-0 victory at what’s now entertainment complex the Tokyo Dome.

A week after this match, Korea won the second leg (both were played in Tokyo) to see the tie end 2-2 on aggregate with fortune falling the way of the Japanese as lots were drawn and they qualified for just their second Olympics.

South Korea and Japan have been huge rivals long before the 2002 World Cup


Yuji Nakazawa: Still going strong for Yokohama at the age of 39, the man known as ‘Bomber’ has been a central figure in numerous matches between Japan and Korea.

The towering central defender was a key part of the Japan teams that played against Korea in each of the 2003, 2005, 2008 and 2010 East Asian Championships, scoring in 2005 and captaining his nation in the 2010 edition, where the match against Korea saw him earn his 100th national cap, just the third player to have reached that milestone.

Kazuyoshi Miura: A full 24 years after he scored his first goal in this derby clash, it’s astonishing to think that ‘King Kazu’ is still playing regularly – and scoring - in the J.League.

No Japanese player has scored more goals than the now 50-year-old in the history of Japan/Korea clashes and with some important strikes in both qualification for the 1994 World Cup and the 1994 Asian Games, it’s little wonder he’s such a revered part of Japanese football folklore.

Kazuyoshi Miura is still going strong despite his age


The history between the two nations – both politically and in football terms – is a long and often conflicted one, with Japan even going so far as to conscript Korean players into their ‘national’ team during colonial rule, including two in the side that competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

It’s that background that makes this contest more than just a football match, but rather one that both have a deep avidity to win. That’s often led to flashpoint moments, starting with the iconic qualifiers for the 1954 World Cup where Korea refused to allow Japan to play on their land whilst being coached by a man who was a former member of the Japanese team.

Two recent events though are seared into the memory; the first after the bronze medal match at the London Olympics, won by Korea, where midfielder Park Jong-woo displayed a sign that read ‘Dokdo is our territory’, referring to a disputed islet that the Japanese call Takeshima and which led to his medal being withheld by the International Olympic Committee.

The second came at a match I was at in 2013 in Seoul where Japan’s 2-1 victory to claim the East Asian Cup was overshadowed by a massive banner unfurled by the home supporters that read ‘there is no future for a race that has forgotten history’.

More than the football, this is a clash where both nations are looking to assert their dominance over the other in a bid to further causes that often go beyond the sport and that’s what makes it such a charged affair, even if that sentiment is certainly stronger from the Korean side of things than that of Japan.

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