Sing when you’re winning

And when you lose…jump into the river anyway. From our man in Japan.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Politics

The dream is over. Japan are out.

Which is a shame because a successful Japan has been good for this World Cup. Everybody has been excited about the team, and the Shared National Experience too. Kumi Kinohara, sports reporter for the Japan Times, the main English-language newspaper here, asks, ‘Have the Japanese people ever been so excited? As the co-host played each of its World Cup matches in the first round…the excitement of the nation has grown exponentially’.

This in a country with no tradition in football, in its second World Cup finals, which had never qualified for the second phase before or even won a World Cup finals match. Yet the team won its group, beating Russia and Tunisia and holding Belgium to a draw (although it did no harm that Japan were seeded in the original draw and avoided the really big guns).

Soccer still holds second place here to baseball, but baseball is a predominantly male, middle-aged sport. Soccer’s following seems to be a 50/50 split between very young men and women. The most vocal fans are between 16 and 25 and more often than not have the same spiky, dyed hair that most of the team do. They love their own team plus one or two other select individuals – notably David Beckham, who may actually be elevated to the heavens if England do something as improbable as winning.

It’s the little differences you notice. When not supporting their own team, fans at the stadiums turn up in the colours of whoever is playing. Some even arrived in Turkey shirts for the game against Japan. Having the flag of each team painted on either cheek is very popular. They just want to take part in the big football thing.

They watch the game in a very different way, too. Japan’s games aside, there only seems to be any noise at all when there is some penalty box incident. Even watching Japan’s historic victory over Russia on a TV screen in Tokyo, there were long periods of absolute silence among the crowd. No songs or shouting until there was a chance of a goal. Then a lot of high-pitched squealing, reminiscent of a schoolgirl hockey international.

Yet when the game was over, they went mental. The nearest thing to public order trouble so far has come from jubilant Japanese fans. Jumping into rivers is fast becoming a national pastime. Even in defeat, crowds still gathered at Osaka’s Dotenbori Bridge and many made the plunge into the water below.

Even the team are different. After beating Russia, they celebrated enthusiastically in the dressing room. Then they tidied up.

And then they were out. I don’t know if the Japanese coverage turned the sound down but the silence after the final whistle in the 1-0 defeat against Turkey was deafening. They had never really supported football before, so they only knew how to react to winning, not losing. What do you do, especially when you had assumed you were going to win? (England fans can produce compendious self-help guides on this particular subject.)

Pretty soon there was a wailing and a gnashing of teeth. And the Japan Times, perhaps as an English-language newspaper, knew the proper form: blame the manager. ‘Japan coach Philippe Troussier has to shoulder much of the responsibility for the defeat after making some bizarre changes in personnel’, said reporter John Maylam (2). Others blamed the players for being too confident after getting through the first round. But mostly, it was just a sigh of resignation that the party could not continue.

Whether the Japanese have enjoyed the football nearly as much as they’ve enjoyed the collective experience, only time will tell.

Monday 10 June

One day of sight-seeing in Tokyo. Slightly spoiled by the fact that the Imperial Palace gardens are closed on Mondays. So we go shopping in Ginza, the Knightsbridge of Tokyo. Menswear seems to consist of suits and golf attire, at least in the big department stores, but I guess they know their clientele. The cutest thing is the white-gloved, airhostess-like lift girls in one store, Takashimaya. One bids you in, the other takes you to the floor you want. This is over-staffing par excellence. Don’t they know there’s a recession on?

After eating some dubious yakatori (meat on long cocktail sticks) under a railway bridge, we check out the Sony store. Loads of neat gadgets, though nothing really out of the ordinary compared to the UK. The adverts on the subway for mobile phones with fast colour internet and in-built digital cameras – effectively portable videophones – seem much funkier.

After getting some tickets for the train on Tuesday to Shizuoka, we head for a soccer pub called Footnik – tricky, as there are very few road names in Tokyo. Addresses are based on an area, then a sub-area, then a smaller area again and finally a building number. Even the Japanese find it confusing, sometimes.

And a soccer pub it is. The walls are covered in the banners of various Premiership and First Division teams like Manchester City, Norwich City and Spurs. For once we get to see the games properly because there are at least five TVs in this relatively small bar. We get talking to a couple of mates, one a Manchester City fan, the other one a Glentoran fan. They’ve taken up residence in this place, acting as ringleaders for the Japanese kids who want to party, football-style.

For the record, Belgium and Tunisia played out a 1-1 draw elevated only by a good free kick from the Tunisians, and Poland got royally turned over by Portugal with a hat-trick from Pauletta. The Glentoran fan is also a part-time Liverpool fan, so the travails of the Poland and Liverpool goalkeeper, Jerzy Dudek, became a source of amusement. ‘No, really, he’s a great goalie’, we would say as he stretched to pick the ball out of the net again.

The Glentoran fan gave me the number to phone for England v Nigeria tickets. Our confidence in the team was such that, even after the win in Sapporo over Argentina, we thought we had better go and see them in Osaka before they went out.

Or maybe I spent too long living in Scotland and I’m confusing teams.

Saturday 8 June

The last time I arrived in Japan, four years ago, it was like landing on Mars. Apart from signs in airports and train stations, I understood nothing, and survived by saying ‘Thank you’ a lot. This time, with a few Japanese lessons under my belt, I tackled the free Japanese newspaper on the plane. Most of it was still incomprehensible but I could practice my reading of Japan’s phonetic script by attempting to work out what countries and players the reports referred to.

For example, a member of the French team was spelt out BI-LU-TO-RU-DO. Uh? Then you have to sit there trying to say it out loud in a Japanese accent. Bilutordo, Birutoldo… no, still not getting it. Ah, hang on, they don’t have a ‘V’ sound. Maybe they are approximating. Ah! Wiltord! It kept Angus, my companion, and I amused for the best part of an hour, that.

The best bit was reading the diagrams in the paper describing the goals. The Japanese have borrowed the language of football lock, stock and barrel from English. DU-LI-BU-LU…dribble! Shooto, overheado, goalokeeperu – just take any English football term, whack an ‘O’ or a ‘U’ on the end and you have the Japanese version.

Plenty of World Cup coverage in the papers, then. There’s less of a buzz as we survey Tokyo – although plenty of people seem to be wearing Japan tops. We spend the evening in Roppongi, the entertainment district of Japan most attuned to the needs of us gaijin (foreigners). We start at its best-known bar, Gas Panic, while watching Brazil toy with China. Then we end up, almost inevitably, in the fake Irish pub, The Hub. But at least they give you a pint for the five quid they extort from you.

I end up talking to a Japanese history student about the war in a combination of his bad English and my bad Japanese. I think he was trying to say that he didn’t think it was fair that Japan believed itself to be the sole bad guy in World War II and that the Japanese did not know their own history very well. I suppose I should have said that British people think they were the sole good guys in World War II and didn’t know their history very well, but I was far too drunk.

This led to us staggering into a Japanese night club. We were the only gaijin there. There was a small stage where trendies acted out kitsch, sub-Blue Peter, disco dancing moves while lines of their contemporaries followed obediently. I tacked myself on to the end of the line but couldn’t keep up. Angus went one better and got up on stage.

I know I wanted to scream ‘you’re individuals, do your own thing!’, but this was Japan’s Clueless, the kind of wealthy-ish young people who created social rules just to fit in with them. I carried on trying to keep up while Angus talked to a rather effete man in a bad but expensive suit. After a while, he came to the conclusion that he was a young Yakuza (gangster) and he had more than likely offended him. ‘But, I think he quite likes me’, he slurred. We decided it might be nice to leave before we got invited for a private drink elsewhere.

I’ve no idea how the TA-KU-SHI driver got me home, but at least I could read his sign.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Japan team giving nation soccer fever, Japan Times, 18 June 2002

(2) Japan out as Koreans stun Italy, Japan Times, 19 June 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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