Much has been written in English about the impact of professional football in Japan. The media’s interest reached its peak in the run up to the 2002 FIFA World Cup, when two books in the form of Johnathan Birchall’s “Ultra Nippon,” and Sebastian Moffett’s “Japanese Rules” hit the shelves. Birchall’s account of Shimizu S-Pulse’s excruciating 1999 Championship Series playoff defeat to local rivals Júbilo Iwata is riveting. Yet his incredulous tone ultimately patronises S-Pulse fans and hints at the fact that Birchall is an interloper, with no prior knowledge of Japan and its culture. Moffett’s excellent “Japanese Rules” is a far more measured account, but the problem with both is that the books end with Japan co-hosting the World Cup in 2002. Coincidentally that’s about the time that the English-speaking world ceased to take an interest in the J. League, but much has changed since then.
Step into any Japanese top flight stadium as an uninitiated fan and the first thing that hits you is a wall of sound. Noisy support is de rigueur, and those who insist that J. League supporters are simply mimicking their counterparts in Europe and South America have clearly never attended a baseball game in Japan. From the multitude of unofficial fan clubs that crowd the terraces to the carefully choreographed chants that ring out for ninety minutes, J. League fans have arguably borrowed as heavily from their native baseball league as they have from European and South American football culture.
While baseball retains its image as a somewhat staid past-time in what is a relentlessly conservative country, football supporters in Japan broke the mould early, with Kashiwa Reysol fans setting the earliest trends for excessively passionate support. Kashima Antlers’ InFight were arguably the first well-organised fan club to travel the length of the country in support of their team, but these days it is Urawa’s travelling hordes who continue to polarise opinion. The Reds’ story is a well-worn one of a struggling underdog come good, but in a country obsessed with glamour, the extra twenty thousand fans to have recently clambered aboard the Reds roller coaster has sparked claims that much of Urawa’s support is made up of “plastic fans.” Whether that is the cause of the inferiority complex that Urawa’s more hardcore supporters lumber around with them is a mystery, but at any rate the most recent instances of fan violence have almost always involved the Reds.
Urawa fans deserve further scrutiny. At their best Reds fans produce an atmosphere worthy of any match in the Bundesliga – from which the Saitama club borrowed heavily in the mid-1990’s. Opposition teams are greeted by a cacophony of noise, with hopeful away fans forced to up the ante to compete with the vociferous support raining down from the northern end of Saitama Stadium. Yet Urawa’s hardcore support has grown increasingly boorish. From the days of supporting their team with relentless zeal at the dilapidated Komaba Stadium – which included a trip to the Second Division in 2000 – Urawa’s support has not only been diluted by the move to the far larger Saitama Stadium, it has also become increasingly inane. Instead of offering support to their team, many Urawa fans have simply taken to booing the opposition, and a string of more than three opposition passes prompts a predictable chorus of jeers from the Urawa faithful. There were more than a few wry smiles up and down the country, then, when Urawa inexplicably choked away at relegated Yokohama FC on the final day last season, handing the title to bitter rivals Kashima Antlers in the process.
The organised nature of support in Japan is often misunderstood, and stands in glaring contrast to the spontaneous outbursts synonymous with English football. The word fascist pops up from time to time to describe J. League fans – not because of any particular right-wing political leanings, but rather due to the rigidly organised nature of their chants. That has given rise to claims from some Euro-versed analysts that J. League supporters are not in tune with the action on the pitch, however such criticism overlooks the fact that Japan remains a group-oriented society. While J. League stadia offer fans the chance to cast off the shackles of an overbearingly formal social structure, that fans choose to do so in unison with their fellow supporters should come as no surprise in a country where the concept of wa – or group harmony – is one of the central tenants of its culture.
Elaborately choreographed card displays are one aspect of European culture that have made their way onto J. League terraces, while the fact that hardcore fans stand at J. League grounds makes the giant flag display an old favourite. Uniquely Japanese are the team slogans, however, which routinely delight English-speaking fans with their Babelfish-inspired Engrish. Júbilo Iwata’s “Hungrrrrry” invoked mirth from local rivals Shimizu S-Pulse this season, but the joke may be on S-Pulse for their “We Believe” slogan, with the club failing to inform fans to believe that a relegation dogfight was on the cards. Supporter groups also adorn themselves with some inspired translations, with Kyoto Sanga fanclub “Real Naked” making a name for themselves as a group of men who support their team in bare chests – fortunately for them the J. League is a summer-based competition.
Despite some of the more uniform aspects of J. League support, the match-day experience for all eighteen top-flight clubs differs from team to team. The 2002 World Cup may have left a legacy of international-class stadia, but it has proved problematic for some well-established clubs such as Nagoya Grampus, who alternate their fixtures between the ageing Mizuho Athletics Stadium in downtown Nagoya and the ultra-modern Toyota Stadium, situated some thirty-five kilometres out of town. That’s a situation mirrored across the league, with several top flight clubs regularly splitting fixtures between a variety of stadia. Given that clubs rent their grounds from local councils it has also led to some radical scheduling – with Kyoto Sanga “hosting” Yokohama F. Marinos hundreds of kilometres from the former imperial city in Kagoshima’s Kamoike Stadium, while Gamba Osaka played the first leg of their League Cup quarter-final against the Marinos in distant Kanazawa.
For foreign fans, supporting a J. League club can be a hit-and-miss affair. Some clubs welcome foreign supporters with open arms. In the case of FC Tokyo – perhaps the only J. League club to have lifted its influences straight from British football – one highlight is the annual UK Day, where holders of a British passport are entitled to discount tickets and are treated to standard English fare inside Tokyo’s cavernous Ajinomoto Stadium. With match-day line-ups announced in English and a rousing rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” belted out before kick-off, there’s no mistaking who FC Tokyo fans are paying homage to. Other clubs offer a nod to Japan’s sizeable Brazilian community – arguably the largest minority group in what is practically a homogenous society – with the Auriverde always on display when Júbilo Iwata take to the pitch. Still, in a country that remains largely suspicious of foreigners, many J. League clubs simply prefer to ignore the smattering of foreign fans that dot the terraces on a weekly basis, offering little in the way of support for non-Japanese speaking fans.
The days of extra-time and penalty shoot-outs to decide drawn games are long gone, while the two-stage championship has also disappeared from view. The image of the J. League as a mere “retirement home” for ageing European stars is also an enduring, albeit unrealistic point of view, with the league having instead matured into a legitimate, sustainable competition. Nevertheless while the forces of modernity will invariably continue to thrust the J. League into a wider global context, there’s no doubt that it remains a competition blessed with an alluring charm and a unique dose of East Asian exocitism.
All photos by Michael Tuckerman.