‘And now for something completely different’: Football in Japan Part 1

I’m not suggesting in the title of this post that football in Japan is comical or akin to anything you might see in a Monty Python sketch, but for football fans visiting a J-league game for the first time and taking in the experience with Japanese fans, it is undoubtedly different. I first attended a J-league game back in 1999 on a hot and humid night in Yokohama, where I witnessed a stultifying 2-0 home win for Yokohama F Marinos against a team playing in white (which one it was I don’t recall). At the time the J-league was still in its infancy having been brought into being in 1993 (although football in Japan dates back to 1873 and the first national league was formed in 1917). The thing I remember most about the match was the immense 72,000 capacity International Stadium being less than half full, the heat, the lights and being able to drink beer in my seat bought from beer girls clad in hotpants and T-shirts. So much for the football. The pitch was set in the middle of a running track and I would have needed a pair of binoculars to have seen the action clearly. Little did I know that I would later become a regular visitor to J-League games and that I would see the standard of play improve a lot in the space of two decades.

It was a while before I decided to start attending J-League games again. The shock of seeing the slow-paced and mechanical Marinos game had reminded me of Mark McGhee’s version of forwards, sideways, sideways, backwards, backwards, sideways, forwards, sideways at Wolves between 1995-1998, which had traumatised me and many other Wolves fans. However, once I had visited Urawa Reds for the first time at Komaba Stadium in 2000, I was hooked, despite the poor quality of the football.

In 1999, Reds had been relegated to J2 for the 2000-2001 season (for what has so far been their only season in the second tier) and I wasn’t expecting much. The factor that counted was the beat up stadium with its concrete terrace situated below a seating stand that ran the length of the pitch. The 21,500 capacity ground which had been built in 1967 was just another converted multi-purpose sports venue with the requisite running track. Reminiscent of some of the run-down rubbish tips I had visited following Wolves in the mid to late 80s (Molineux included at that time), I discovered that when you stood on the terrace with the Reds at Komaba, you knew you were with real football fans.

Komaba was a dump (but as you would expect in Japan, a clean and tidy one). It was just right for drumming up an incredible atmosphere with orchestrated chanting and choreographed flags, banners and scarves. In the build-up to the game, which in Japan, lasts from around 10:00am to Kick-off, fans were camped outside the ground on blue tarpaulins drinking beer and eating yaki-soba. On entering the stadium I found that fans had marked out their sections of the terrace with personal belongings – bags, hats, scarves, more blue sheets and so on. I felt that I was infringing on personal space or invading regular terrace spots as a newcomer and a foreigner to boot, but I was welcomed as people made space for me and asked where I was from. It helped that fans could (and still can) drink beer from paper cups in the stands and on the terrace and so communication was eased somewhat. As kick off approached, rhythmic drumming and chanting kicked in as well as occasional guttural roars more associated with English or European football. This would continue for the duration of the game without pause. Reds won 3-1 that day and I was deeply impressed with their support. That season the Reds attendance averaged just 16,923 as they finished as runners-up, sealing their return to J1.

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Komaba Stadium in Urawa-ku, Saitama.

I have returned to watch Reds more than any other J-League team, although since that season a lot has changed and it is more difficult on a personal level to follow them. After the Japan-South Korea World Cup in 2002 Urawa became the best supported football club in Japan and now play at the magnificent 63,700 capacity, football specific Saitama Stadium, regularly attracting over 30,000 fans at home. The atmosphere that the Reds fans generate is unrivalled in Japan and is not unlike those of the more passionate European clubs, but it lacks the spontaneity and wit associated with the fans of some of the noisier English clubs. The reasons for this become understandable with a basic understanding of social and cultural traits that permeate Japanese life and I’ll look a little bit at that in Football in Japan Part 2.