The Japanese national soccer team faces North Korea Tuesday night in a World Cup qualifier played in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang for the first time since 1989 – and 150 Japanese fans will be there to cheer on their team, quietly.
Japan and North Korea have no diplomatic ties and Tokyo has strongly discouraged travel to North Korea since imposing economic sanctions in 2006, following a North Korean missile launch. But the two sides have made an exception, in the name of sports.
Pyongyang granted visas to 200 Japanese ahead of the game – 150 fans, two dozen journalists and diplomats – along with strict rules accompanying their visit. Fans are banned from bringing laptops, cell phones, and cameras with zoom lenses. No drums, vuvuzelas, or Japanese flags are allowed. Supporters can bring digital cameras, so long as the data cards are emptied prior to their entry into the Hermit Kingdom.
Even with all the restrictions, the North Korea match has been a hot ticket. Nishitetsu Travel, the official travel agency for the Japan Football Association, began selling 65 spectator tour packages early this month. They sold out in less than 24 hours.
“The amount of interest in this game absolutely exceeded our expectations,” said Takeshi Kumai, with Nishitetsu Travel. “It’s even more surprising, considering the cost of travel.”
The three-day, two-night tour package costs roughly $3,700 and includes a ticket to the game, along with a sightseeing tour of Pyongyang. Since there are no direct flights to North Korea, fans travel to Beijing first, before taking a charter flight to Pyongyang.
Those who gathered at Haneda Airport to fly out Monday admitted they were a little nervous, traveling to a country shrouded in secrecy, but said the chance to watch their team compete in such a “unique” setting was something they simply could not pass up.
The Japanese government has dispatched diplomats to Pyongyang to ensure fan safety, the first such move since officials accompanied then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on his trip to North Korea in 2004.
The Pyongyang Times has declared “a soccer hurricane is sweeping the country,” according to the Associated Press. Tickets to the match at 50,000 seat Kim Il-Sung stadium are expected to be sold out, though it’s unclear who the seats will be allocated to.
Team Japan, known as Samurai Blue, will be heavily favored. Japan is Asia’s top-ranked team and has already secured a spot in the final round of qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. North Korea, ranked 124th in the world, is out after back-to-back losses to Uzbekistan.
Still, expect emotions to be high, come game time Tuesday.
Japan is home to some 600,000 ethnic Koreans, many of them descendants of Koreans who were forced to relocate to Japan during the colonial occupation. While ethnic Koreans born in Japan are assigned to South Korean citizenship, many have opted to change their loyalty to North Korea, sending their children to schools funded by Pyongyang.
Three players on the North Korean team were born in Japan, while one member of Team Japan is a fourth-generation South Korean, born in Tokyo.