The match day experience in Japan is a lot different to that in England. In essence, what people do is the same, it’s just that the ways in which things are done are worlds apart. Take getting to the game, for example. Making your way to a home or away game in Japan typically involves getting on a train at your local station and travelling for whatever the distance might be and getting off at a station that is only ever a short walk to the stadium, if not right outside it. Where the stadium is a kilometre or more away from the train station, free shuttle buses are usually lined up to bus fans in and out. They pull up and roll away like clockwork every five to ten minutes without fail (consequently relatively few football fans drive to games in the bigger cities). Fans of both the home and away clubs coexist peacefully, wait patiently in line and share the same buses. There’s no banter or leg pulling and certainly no hint or threat of violence. If fans from opposing clubs know each other, they’ll quite likely be found speaking and enjoying each other’s company on the way to the ground. However, once at the stadium they’ll split up and head into their respective ends but even this involves fraternization. While home and away fans enter grounds through separate gates, once inside there is little or no segregation on the concourses that lead from one end to the other and you will often see fans making their way around to opposing ends to change seats for a better view or to get a different pre-match pie and pint from the ones available near them. What? How does that work then?
Well, first up, I suppose I should point out that in Japan fans can choose whether to buy reserved seats or non-reserved seats for matches. Fans can hold season tickets for either kind of seating and they can choose differently priced areas of the ground depending on proximity to the pitch and location. Non-reserved seating is cheaper than reserved seating and the areas behind the goals are the cheapest. This affects the dynamics in the stadium. For example, if you want a good seat behind the goal, you or someone in your group has to go in and lay out scarves, flags, banners, hats, caps, handkerchiefs or other personal items to make sure no one bags your spot. Amazingly, people honour the first-come-first-served principle behind this and there are never any bust-ups over stuff being moved to make way for people who come later. In fact, people go in, mark out their territory and then head off for different spots on the concourses to eat and drink. The downside to this system is, of course, that for a decent seat you have to be in the ground often as early as noon and once you’ve entered, you can’t get out again. Now, did I mention pies and pints?
It’s not exactly pies and pints at football games in the J-league. It’s more like yakisoba (stir fried noodles with vegetables, pork and pickled ginger), takoyaki (chunks of octopus in flour-based batter served with bonito flakes, mayonnaise and a sweet sauce), fried chicken, french fries and frankfurters and almost pints of generic tasting but branded lager (350ml-500ml) in paper cups. This standard Japanese snack/junk food and beer is generally not sold by the clubs from fixed bars and counters. Rather, vendors pay to pitch temporary stalls inside and outside stadia on the concourses. As this is the case, you might get stalls selling different stuff in different areas of the grounds and so fans from opposing teams mingle in order to get their favourite nosh. However, when enough people are well fed and ‘watered’ they begin to fall into rank and that means taking up their positions in the well-drilled and orchestrated choirs which, like in England, are usually behind the goals. Ranks? Well-drilled and orchestrated?
Yes. Japanese football supporters organise themselves in clubs and hold regular pre-season and pre-match meetings. Officials are selected and given roles, chants are decided on and practised. Often there is a band or a drumming section. Within the supporters clubs there are sometimes sections assigned to drum up an atmosphere with different paraphenalia. Flag routines, timing and when and where to put things into action are usually worked out or agreed on beforehand. It’s always easy to identify fit and strong young men clad in black or another distinctive style who stand on barriers or handrails and have the task of instigating raucous and passionate chanting.
All this works because Japan is a strictly hierarchical society with emphasis being placed on age-based seniority and interdependent bonds of obligation. Originating in Confucian precepts, respect for authority and the chain of command are instilled in people from childhood. Typically, younger people and ‘new members’ (kōhai ) with less experience are charged with menial tasks by seniors (senpai) and have to bide their time in order to rise up through all manner of associations, clubs and organisations. When it comes to supporting a football team, this could mean that it’s the kōhai that has to go into the ground early and peg out seats, fetch the beer at the bar, carry the flags and banners or lead the after match litter picking (it’s true, Japanese fans clean up after themselves even after domestic club matches).
While this form of organisation could never work in England, in Japan, it ensures a unique atmosphere. When it comes to making a din in the stadium, the Japanese are as noisy as most English fans but the difference is the wit and spontaneity associated with English crowds is lost, because more or less everything is decided in advance as a result of social norms. Where the Japanese form of support is possibly better than that in England, is to be found in the generation of constant, unremitting noise for as long as the senpai require it. Because of obligation to the group, the majority in the stands will keep on supporting, supporting, supporting the team for the duration of the game and even until after the final whistle. What? After the final whistle?
Yes. After the final whistle. One of the most interesting things about watching football in Japan is the after match carry-on. Win or lose, Japanese teams will join hands and assemble in front of their supporters at the end of matches and bow deeply in gratitude to their fans. Often a player is dragged away to a microphone whereby he will thank fans for their support and vow to continue fighting for further victories or apologise for losing as the case may be. Many fans stay behind and avidly consume the spectacle before applauding as the teams leave the park. To qualify all this, in recent years, as fans have developed their footballing sensibilities fans at bigger clubs like Urawa Reds have not been uncritical. When teams are clearly playing badly there are outbursts of booing and fans openly discuss the pros and cons of what goes on at their clubs in much the same way as fans around the world. It’s just that it all happens in a much less direct register…….In Football in Japan Part 3, I’ll move on to look at club identities and consider some of the amazing monikers you can read in the J-League table.
Picture above: Takoyaki