Playing football for nobody

Urawa Red Diamonds are one of Japan’s biggest teams but no one watched them play Shimizu S-Pulse. The 63,000 capacity Saitama Stadium was closed as a result of a banner erected at the last home match which read: “Japanese Only”.

That message reverberated around Japanese football.

Football is a sport on the rise in the Land of the Rising Sun. The days of aging Europeans such as Gary Lineker and Pierre Littbarski seeing out the end of their careers in Japan are over and J-League – 20 years into a 100 year plan to create a league to rival anything in the world – is a respectable competition boasting a new third division and a charter that demands standard in professionalism, in supporter engagement and in financial stability.

It is not a perfect model, but it is a typically Japanese attempt to create one. Take by way of example the Urawa chairman taking a 20% pay cut in response to the racist banner. Very Japanese.

Football in Japan it attempts to rival Baseball – the nation’s leading game – for the hearts of a country who have seen the national sport of Sumo rocked by scandal that football was proud to avoid.

Until now football had been largely seen positively in Japan and was supported because of that. The role of honour in Japanese society is not to be understated and the effects that the Black Mist match fixing scandal had on baseball is coloured in that socio-context. After twenty years Japan had created football that was proudly Japanese in its off the field organisation while importing parts of worldwide football culture into its rich bricolage.

Racism had previously not been a factor although it is a part of Japanese society although not one that isdiscussed. The country has no laws around hate speech but public protest against it is not uncommon and that was the form of protest that reverberated around the J-League.

Clubs included anti-racism banners and messages to the impressive display of flags they carry and a unity was achieved that racism was to be called wrong.

The rules of the J-League which allow for only four non-Japanese players in a match day squad and only three non-Asians. In every J-League game fourteen of the players are Japanese. This idea of teams which reflect the environments they play in used to be a concern for English fans (and may still be, although it is rarely verbalised these days for want of the spark of debate) and it is suggested in how players like Alan Shearer and Steven Gerrard are lauded by their clubs that that affinity is still strong.

The supporters respond to the way teams are constructed in Japan too although there are many other factors in play. The players are paid less and are more involved in the people though clubs which embrace a community based ethos. The culture of Japan would seem to exclude Tweeting players to swear at them after an away loss.

On the whole I would characterise as a more healthy relationship between supporters and players but its a relationship which was visible broken as Urawa and Shimizu played out a 1-1 draw in a silent stadium.