Monday, September 15, 2014

Samurai Spirit in the Stands: A Look at Japanese Football (Soccer) Culture

It’s only a few months since the FIFA World Cup wrapped up in Brazil, though for Japanese fans it may well seem like an eternity since their beloved “Samurai Blue” were still in the hunt for glory. After much pre-tournament hype, which saw the Japanese media and public alike predict a strong showing for the national team, their hopes were brought crashing down to earth as Honda, Kagawa and co. went out at the group stage with a solitary point. It wasn’t all gloom and doom for Japan at the World Cup, however. For one thing, the Japanese supporters out in Brazil earned rave reviews, in particular for their habit of picking up litter in the stadium after matches. Seeing the widespread attention that this conscientious behaviour drew from the world’s media, I started to think about the many other ways watching football (or "soccer" as it's called here) in Japan contrasts to the usual experience of fans in most western countries, especially my country England. Below are a few of the main aspects that sprang to mind.
Just to be clear, these observations are based on watching J-League (Japanese professional club) games rather than the national team, though there doesn't seem much significant difference between the two.

It’s a family affair
The first time I went to watch my local J-League team Kawasaki Frontale a few years ago, 
one of the things that struck home most was the number of women and kids in the crowd 
around me. Back in England, while the make-up of crowds is more mixed than it used to be, 
men are still in the majority. Family groups are an even rarer sight in English football 
grounds, but in Japan they’re very much the norm. As a result, on match days the area 
around the stadium can often seem more like a funfair than a sports venue. There might not 
be any roller-coasters in sight, but there’s usually a range of kid-friendly activities laid on, 
hours before the match even kicks off. To give you an idea, recent pre-match entertainment 
at Frontale has featured a petting zoo and a meet-and-greet session for the popular cartoon 
character Doraemon. It’s really admirable how much effort Japanese football clubs 
put in to making the match-going experience one that all the family can enjoy. More than 
anything, getting kids to regularly come and support their local team is a great way to 
ensure the long-term health of the game here.

You (don't) only sing when you're winning
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Japanese football spectators who I've mixed with and observed is their unshakable positivity. In an English football ground, you'll often hear moans and outright abuse shouted from disgruntled spectators at players who are having a stinker or at the referee when he makes a call they don't agree with. Not so in super-polite Japan. Even when their team is performing terribly, on the wrong end of a thrashing, the fans' support never seems to waver. Indeed, the communal chanting efforts of Japanese fans can really be a sight and sound to behold. Supporters have quite a repertoire of songs, and the "ultras" section, which usually takes up one side of the ground, rarely lets up with its chanting throughout the game, whatever the score. It's a much more orchestrated affair than the average English game, with a number of appointed leaders standing at the front facing their fellow fans, conducting the chanting through megaphones. It pains me to say it, but even at my beloved Liverpool FC, which has some of the most vocal and passionate fans in England, the match-day atmosphere can be strangely subdued if things aren't going well on the pitch. Some English teams, including Manchester United, have actually started to experiment with specially designated "singing sections" in an attempt to raise the noise level in their stadiums, with mixed results. These teams could certainly do worse than follow the example of their J-league counterparts in this respect.

Match-day gear
When it comes to deciding what to wear to the match, most Japanese fans don't even need to think about it. Replica shirts rule, and not just any old shirts either. As well as being the latest version, it should have the name and number of your favourite player on the back. Compare this to the average English football stadium, where you're likely to see just as many fans in their everyday clothes than sporting the colours of their team. In the eyes of many hard-core, season ticket-holding fans in England (usually middle-aged men), replica shirts are for kids and day-trippers. Now, I personally don't wear a replica kit to the game here myself (for a start, at around ¥12,000/£70, they're even more expensive than in England!) but the sight of virtually a whole stadium of supporters in matching coloured tops is pretty damn impressive!

Small is beautiful
While the English Premier League is a hugely successful global brand, with its top clubs boasting millions of dedicated followers, from New York to Hong Kong, it's fair to say that the J-League is a very modest, local affair in comparison. There are no multi-million TV deals, and few big money overseas signings, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. For instance, the fact that the average J-League player is on a fraction of the wages of their Premier League counterparts has a great deal to do with the lack of over-inflated egos here. I'm consistently struck by how articulate and good-natured most Japanese players come across when interviewed on camera. Admittedly, bad boys and egomaniacs like Zlatan or Ronaldo only add to the attraction of this beautiful game, and we watch players mainly for their skill on the pitch, not their manners off it. However, when the players are approachable and down-to-earth, rather than seemingly living on another planet, it can strengthen the bond between them and the fans. That certainly seems to be the case in the J-League. For example, Kawasaki Frontale hold fan days at the stadium at least a couple of times a year, where fans can come along and meet their favourite players, getting their replica shirts signed and exchanging a few pleasantries in the process. Meanwhile, most fans of Premier League clubs could only dream of getting so close to their heroes.

What about the football?
Never mind how passionate the fans are or how approachable the players are, the thing most people who've never watched J-League football in Japan are probably wondering is "What's the standard like?" Well, for those readers familiar with the English game, I'd say it's a similar standard to the Championship (i.e. one level below the Premier League), although the pace is generally less frenetic and there's more focus on the sort of close passing game favoured in Spain or Italy than the "up and at 'em" style of the English lower leagues. Adding to the entertainment value, there's generally plenty of goals, due just as much to dodgy defending than sparkling attacking. And another plus is the general unpredictability of the competition - in the past decade alone, there have been seven different J-League champions, some of them rising from mid-table obscurity in the course of one or two seasons. So, if you're a football fan living in Japan yet to get a taste of the J-League, why not give it a go and support your local team? You may well find yourself becoming a convert like me!


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