SEOUL - Political banners and a military flag displayed at a football match between South Korea and Japan have dragged top government officials from both countries into a diplomatic spat.
The Korea Football Association (KFA) issued a statement Wednesday insisting that Japanese fans waving a large "rising sun" Japanese military flag had incited South Korean supporters at Sunday's East Asia Cup tie in Seoul.
The home fans had unfurled a giant banner in the first half that read:
"There is no future for a people that have forgotten history" - a reference to Japan's 1910-45 occupation of South Korea.
Many South Koreans believe Japan has failed to atone for abuses during the colonial period which remains a constant source of tension between the two countries.
The banner was taken down at half-time, but Japan's football association still lodged an official complaint and demanded an explanation from the KFA.
Two other banners displayed before the game bore portraits of a Korean independence activist who assassinated a top Tokyo official in 1909, and the admiral who fought off a Japanese invasion in the 16th century.
On Monday, Japan's chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga said the banners were "extremely regrettable" and violated a FIFA ban on political statements.
Sports Minister Hakubun Shimomura went further on Tuesday, saying the style of the banners called into question "the nature of the people" in South Korea.
The South Korean foreign ministry then responded with a statement deploring Shimomura's "rude comments."
Although the size of the South Korean banners suggested the protest was pre-planned, Wednesday's KFA statement argued it had been triggered by the away supporters' military flag-waving.
"The flag evokes painful memories for Koreans. Yet the Japanese fans waved a giant flag right after the match kicked off, greatly provoking South Korean fans and triggering the whole incident," it said.
"Japan should stop highlighting the act by South Korean fans while ignoring the fact some Japanese waved the giant Rising Sun flag in the middle of the South Korean capital," the KFA said.
A similar incident occurred when the two football teams met during the London Olympics last year.
South Korea's Park Jong-Woo was banned for two games by FIFA and fined after he displayed a sign referring to a territorial dispute between the two countries.