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Football Appreciation in Japan

Friday 18th May 2018

Having lived in the land of the Rising Sun for some seven months now, I feel I can document the glory and oddities which are bestowed to this nation’s football following.

The idea of football is still a relatively new mainstream concept. The J.League led the way when it was formed in 1993, prior to then, however, there was no such ideology of professional football in Japan. They simply played baseball and gave the occasional nod to the grand tradition of sumo wrestling.

Given the innovation the sport; the sport is attractive to younger people who maybe are not as interested in the sports of yesteryear. Disenchanted with the length of baseball games, the aristocracy of sumo – football offers a new and exciting prospect; and is most certainly the most popular sport for younger people in the country.

Geographically, Japan is pretty isolated. It’s several hours from anywhere else. It’s not like England where yes, we are an island nation too, but we can be in France in 45 minutes – or Ireland in 30. Leaving Japan is a drawn-out affair, and many people here simply have not done it. That’s meant that all parts of the culture have been hot-housed for such a long time; are pretty unique. Sporting aspects are no different.

Japanese football fans largely attend games for a good time. A concept which can be a little muddled within England. When you have to bring banners to the game suggesting your contempt for the club’s management style or ownership, you have to ponder whether you should really be spending your disposable income or free time at an establishment you claim to detest and love so much, worryingly at the same time. In my experience, fans here sing, sing and sing – and are unnerved by the scoreline going against them. I’ve seen this happen countless times now when a set of fans have continued singing despite conceding a goal. After all, it’s just good fun, isn’t it?

That thought brings me nicely to my next point. It’s just good fun. Nobody enters the stadium on a derby day thinking they are going to get their head kicked in because they are wearing a different coloured shirt. There’s no animosity between supporters, we don’t want to lose to our rivals but we all support football. It’s that spirit and trust that has allowed J.League fans privileges that are not seen in Europe. I am of course referring to drinking in the stadium. These days in England you can’t as much look at a John Smith’s can at a professional ground – and when you can you have to drink it in the overbearingly busy aisles – not out in the stands. J.League: pop a cold one where you like, hell, I’ve been allowed to bring my own booze in. Exceptional.

This type of support can present very unusual ideas as well. I’ve spoken to enough supporters to learn about the uncertainty and oddities of support here. For instance, some fans pick a team based on one specific player. One of the best examples of this is Gamba Osaka and Yasuhito Endo.

Whilst yes, we have similar provoking concepts in England, i.e. the Class of ’92 members will have sparked people to support Manchester United, Stevie G will have got non-scousers into Liverpool, etc. But from my research, fans here can completely lose interest in a team or the sport completely when their player hangs up his boots. It’s also incredibly common to switch teams, your player transfers – you transfer. Your favourite striker switches from Urawa Reds to Nagoya Grampus. you now support Nagoya, for the time being of course. How many fans followed Fernando Torres from Liverpool to Chelsea?

You might also change because you want to. If you ever visit Japan, you’ll have heard the word convenient many times. That’s because, in general, it’s a large part of their lives. If it’s not convenient to support your home team anymore (maybe you get transferred) then just support a more local team. I recall speaking to a football fan who was incredibly blunt about why she switched:

I went to see Yokohama F. Marinos play in Kawasaki, I preferred Kawasaki’s ground so I became a Frontale fan.”  

I’d never heard anything like it before. It was a simple as that. Years of time spent supporting Yokohama eradicated because of one afternoon’s trip to Kawasaki. The longer I’ve lived here, the more I’ve adjusted that this just a normal approach to sports support. Unheard of elsewhere, but commonplace here. It’s a product of the geography and nature of the people. Japan has picked up the sport but none of the rules surrounding it in contemporary Europe.

Another interesting point about followings here in Japan is that there is no stereotypical football fan. In England, we think of many images with football fans. Hooligans, overweight men, etc --- they all exist and can be pretty accurate. Here, it’s anyone and everyone. Older people, younger people, and fair gender split which to the eye looks pretty 50/50. Which makes for a more encompassing and inclusive game.

Now, this wouldn’t be a Japanese piece if I didn’t refer to all the overtly Japanese facets that you instantly think of when you hear the country’s name. Kawaii (cute things) does have a place in Japanese football. The biggest example is that every team has a mascot, which plays a major part in the club’s identity. On match day they are often joined by the team’s official cheerleading squad.

Following suit with Japan’s comic culture, you can seemingly collect  J.League merchandise until you’ve spent your very last Yen. Whilst you can argue that this becoming normal everywhere – try trading cards, seven varieties of a teddy bear for each team, 18 styles of the scarf, branded chopstick holders, I can’t actually begin to list everything. Most of which is available at your local nerd or soccer shop; again convenient, if you can afford it!

Something that I think embodies the whole of Japanese football, is the fan appreciation. It’s that the fans are consistently thanked for their support and attendance that keeps people going back. On my last trip to the Nissan Stadium, I was urged by the gate staff to pick up my free gift – as it was unredeemable after kick off. With seconds to go, I was ushered to a small stall where I was given a limited-edition club towel. The friendliness, the service and thought of it all encapsulate the nation's passion, loving and sometimes odd fondness for football.

Warren Smith

Yokohama F•Marinos supporter. Seen it all in the J.League, relegation fights and being crowned champions. Play five-a-side, pretty good too. Once scored an overhead kick.

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