Just Kicking Around

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An English football fan explains how the Japanese warmed--then cooled--to his favorite game

It's easy to be cynical and condescending about Japanese football, especially if you are English and grew up supporting West Ham United, an unfashionable East London club that is so tough and hardscrabble that fans find brawling at matches considerably more entertaining than anything on the pitch. In Ultra Nippon (Headline; 249 pages), Jonathan Birchall admits a youthful dalliance with West Ham. So when the former BBC Tokyo correspondent immersed himself in the culture and pageantry of Japanese football, he initially came up guffawing.

Could anyone take the game as played in Japan seriously? For starters, the Japanese call it socca, a linguistic corruption of the sport's name among Americans, who, of course, know next to nothing about the game. For another, Japanese crowds are polite. Painfully so. They hold up signs urging please show us your best performance. They shout ol� (which comes out or�) in response to impressive plays, while a samba band bangs away. At half-time fans line up to buy noodles and grilled squid. The disposable chopsticks that come with them would be considered dangerous weapons in Europe, writes Birchall. But in Japan nobody is looking for fights. After games, smiling fans scramble to catch furry toy mascots tossed into the crowd by the players--once they have completed their postgame bowing rituals.

On the pitch, Japanese players, their hair dyed bright colors to attract the attention of the thousands of young women who crowd the stands, display a disheartening lack of competitiveness. Is it really possible that the nation that gave the world the samurai, the Yakuza and Tokyo commuters would produce football stars who are docile and risk-adverse? Yes, say the many European and South American coaches and players lured to Japan by generous salaries. They--and Birchall--struggle to explain this anomaly. Perhaps, the author suggests obliquely, it has to do with Japan's hierarchical structure. The Japanese, to generalize wildly, are not a people who are culturally encouraged to express their individuality forcefully, writes Birchall. As a result, the Japanese game often lacks the flair and ferocity of South American and European football.

The quirks of Japanese football might best be reserved for the attention of cultural anthropologists, except that in 2002 Japan, along with South Korea, will co-host the World Cup. Thousands of fans from around the globe will struggle to make sense of the hordes of Japanese, accompanied by their samba bands, who will no doubt jam the stadiums. Birchall's book should be a useful guide for World Cup visitors. It's also a delightfully funny introduction to Japan.

Football is not a new phenomenon in that country. In 1873 a British delegation advising Japan on how to build up its naval forces also organized the first game of football ever played there. The Japanese heeded the British naval instructions well, scoring impressive away victories in the Russo-Japanese war, but the football lessons were less successful. Baseball, introduced by American missionaries around the same time, became Japan's national game. Football languished as a minor sport until the late 1980s, when advertising executives identified it as a useful vehicle for reaching young consumers, many of whom find baseball too slow-moving. Millions of dollars were spent promoting football. Talented foreigners were imported, like England's Gary Lineker and Brazil's Zico. Musicians were sent to Brazil to learn the samba. A Scot was recruited to teach refereeing. By 1993 a football boom was gripping the country. As the number of fans soared, TV and merchandising deals took off. But by the late '90s Japan's fickle young consumers began to move on to new fads, like caring for robotic pet dogs. Some clubs went bankrupt and, despite the triumph of securing the World Cup, football was once again a minor sport.

But fans who stuck with the game are still passionate and insanely dedicated, as Birchall discovered when he attached himself to the Shimizu S-Pulse for a season. As the team pursued the national championship, Birchall found himself sucked into the excitement. He grimaced when his team's shots bounced off the post. He bled when S-Pulse's star player was red-carded during the final game. He suffered through a golden-goal overtime and then a penalty shoot-out to decide the championship. In the end, even an old West Ham supporter discovered that there's always excitement in football, no matter where or how it is played--and even if they serve grilled squid at half-time.