By Peter Rutherford
SEOUL (Reuters) - Japan has stoked its sporting rivalry with neighbors South Korea ahead of this month's Asian Games and said it plans to use the multi-sport event in Incheon, west of Seoul, as a springboard to success at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
The 17th Asiad officially opens on Friday with hosts South Korea and Japan expected to be fighting it out for second place on the medals table behind sporting powerhouse China.
The Koreans, who have targeted 90 gold medals in Incheon, have finished runners-up to China at the last four Asian Games, winning 76 golds in Guangzhou four years ago while Japan took 48.
"I hear South Korea is aiming for 90 gold medals. I don't think they have ever achieved that before," Kyodo news agency quoted Japan delegation official Yuji Takada as saying at a news conference on Sunday.
"We, of course, in Japan would like to do the same."
South Korea have actually breached the 90 gold medal mark on two occasions, both times on home soil, winning 93 in Seoul (1986) and 96 in Busan (2002).
"There are a lot of political issues, not among the athletes themselves, but the reality is our rivalry isn't with China but with South Korea," added Takada at a ceremony to mark the launch of the team's campaign at the Sept. 19 to Oct. 4 Games.
Japan heads to the Asian Games with the team's top two symbolic leadership roles filled by women for the first time.
Weightlifter Hiromi Miyake, who won silver at the 2012 London Olympics, has been named captain while the flagbearer is archer Kaori Kawanaka.
Once an Asian Games powerhouse, Japan dominated the medals table from the inaugural Games in New Delhi in 1951 through the 1978 Bangkok Asiad. China took control at New Delhi in 1982 and Japan has battled neighbors Korea for second place ever since.
Japan's delegation to Incheon includes a powerful swim team who delivered a strong performance at the Pan Pacific Championships last month in Australia.
Kosuke Hagino laid down his claim as the world's best all-round swimmer at present when he scored a stunning win over Michael Phelps to win the 200m individual medley after beating Tyler Clary in the 400m medley.
"Our goal is to get around 50 gold medals," Takada added.
"I think at the Asian Games we historically had a strong contingent in swimming, and also if the athletes in athletics perform well, this is target we can definitely achieve."
Japan chef de mission Tsuyoshi Aoki said the main aim was for the team to improve on their performance four years ago.
"Looking toward the 2020 Games, we can see that we are on a strong trajectory after the London Olympics and Sochi Games," said Aoki.
"Our biggest goal for these Games is to surpass what we did at the previous tournament."
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)