I remember the first time Japan qualified for the World Cup in 1998. I would have been in the early years of high school at the time, and as a young man interested in both football and Japan I found the whole thing rather exciting (my interest in all things Oriental faded shortly after, until events elsewhere in my life led to a rekindling of my enthusiasm a few years ago). What fascinated me most was reading through at the squad list in the pull-out from the newspaper and noting the weird and wonderful names of the players’ clubs. Yokohama Marinos. Consadole Sapporo. Kyoto Purple Sanga. All these mythical places I so longed to visit, coupled with football teams. To a slightly eccentric fourteen year-old, this was something I had to see.
It only took eleven years, but last weekend I finally got to see a J-League match. The fantasy I harboured as a teenager had long passed, but I was really looking forward to the game for an entirely different reason. For the last eight months, you see, football had for me become synonymous with pain, anxiety, stress and rapid alternations between ecstasy and deep depression. My beloved Raith Rovers had just completed a season that could only be described as bizarre, even by the standards a team who once got shipwrecked on their way to an away fixture and played host to the first recorded pitch invasion at a football match. After seeing my father and his friends practically reduced to tears after an injury-time cup tie equalizer from Aberdeen, almost breaking my wrist thumping the couch when wonderboy Adam Rooney denied us a famous draw against league leaders Inverness, and being part of a massive traveling support that literally caused concrete to shake at Dundee, I was secretly relishing the prospect of seeing live football without any emotional baggage.
Sadly, however, this feeling did not last, for the performance of the team we went to see triggered unpleasant flashbacks that reminded me of the season just passed back in Scotland. FC Tokyo weren’t a bad side, but it quickly became apparent they couldn’t score for toffee. The players were reasonably nimble and easily had the measure of their opponents Vegalta Sendai, and yet none of this pressure could be converted into goals. I had seen this so many times with the Rovers over the course of 2009-10, but things were about to get more familiar still. The team generally played the ball down either of the wings, hoping that their crosses into the box could find either of the misfiring forwards. Not in itself the worst tactic in the world, but after half an hour or so I realised this was all they were going to do for the duration of the match. Throw a few low, feeble shots aimed straight at the keeper, a couple of wasted corners and an air shot into the mix, and you had a display of football that wouldn’t have looked out of place at Starks’ Park on a Saturday afternoon.
Similarities with Scottish league football aside, my first visit to a J-League game was actually a very interesting and enjoyable experience. Wednesday afternoon football is something I associate more with the Meadows than any kind of professional effort, but with the Wednesday in question being a national public holiday, league organisers had put on a full complement of fixtures kicking off at 2pm. It wasn’t unusual to find myself on a train going to a match just after lunch, but to be doing so in the middle of the week was rather odd. Still, with it being a holiday the city had a more relaxed feel to it, so it wasn’t as if we were heading to the stadium on a train full of suited folk.
As we near the stadium, ever-increasing numbers of fans board the train. Nothing earth-shattering about that revelation, I hear you cry, but what is interesting is that I can notice they are fans. Most Japanese clubs are relatively recent creations, but that doesn’t mean the supporters aren’t passionate or enthusiastic. FC Tokyo, whose home game it will be, were only established in their current format in 1999 (okay, so they’d been kicking around for a long time before that under the catchy title of ‘Tokyo Gas FC’, but didn’t really hit the big time until the late 1990s) and yet two out of three fans stepping off the train at the station closest to the stadium are decked out in the club colours of red and blue. Yeah, I know there’s a much bigger population to draw a fan base from, but imagine Livingston, Gretna or – perhaps more appropriately – MK Don drawing such a big support. The river of red and blue flows from the station right up to the Ajinomoto Stadium five minutes’ walk away. From the outside, the ground itself is nothing to write home about, a big, rotund, concrete arena like most European new-build stadiums. There are no turnstiles at the Ajinomoto. Instead we pass through an open-sided white plastic tent where policemen are stationed behind wooden fold-up tables. Our bags are searched, the lids from our plastic 500ml juice bottles inexplicably confiscated and our tickets checked. Stadium security safely negotiated, I disgrace myself by temporarily forgetting which country I’m in and wandering off in search of a pie before kick-off.
Despite the lack of pies, my appetite for less-than-healthy food is satisfied by a wee tub of chips and a sandwich containing a cutlet of deep-fried pork stuffed with cheese, sourced from one of a large number of food outlets at the base of the stands. We take our food upstairs to the second tier and go to claim our spectating spots. Now, I’ve been to Japanese entertainment events before so I’m familiar with the protocol for reserving seats, but it still takes me a second to get over the fact one can claim a pew by leaving one’s bag on it and then wandering off to soak up the pre-match atmosphere. Even at a fitba match. It almost makes me want to try it next time we go to Dens Park in Dundee, just as a socio-psychological experiment even if it does mean my can of Coke gets pinched.
When we come back fifteen minutes before kick off our food, bags and jumpers are exactly where we left them, and our seats remain vacant awaiting our return. In the interim, I acquire myself a replica jersey and don it in an attempt to blend in with the surrounding support – if players can go out on loan to places like the MLS over the summer, then surely fans can too? (now I look at it, the Tokyo strip looks a bit like an Inverness Caley strip, so I might just quietly put it in the cupboard when I get back to Scotland and forget about it…) The level of dedication from the support of both teams is nothing short of staggering – the 50,000 seat arena is only half full, but the Tokyo fans are packed at one end in a dense blur of red and blue, whereas the Sendai support create a large yellow lake at the other end. Both sets of followers are extremely vocal in their support, drums and horns kicking out beats for the duration of the match to direct the fans’ relentless chanting. Brightly-coloured banners are draped over the advertising hoardings and massive flags wave back and forth above the sea of singing supporters. Now I know where the game developers get the inspiration for the fans in Pro Evolution Soccer from.
Then all of a sudden it gets really weird. Five minutes before kick off, with little or no prompting from the tannoy, the Tokyo support rise from their seats, hold their scarves stretched out above their heads and begin chanting slowly. The pitch rises and falls in accordance with something resembling a tune, but I can’t figure out what it is. “This is SO weird,” I yell to my fiancée sitting next to me. “Liverpool and Celtic do this thing with their scarves too before every match. Why are they doing it?” “I don’t know,” she replies. “Maybe because we’ve seen it on TV and like to copy it.”
‘YU-RU-NE-BA-WO-KU-A-RO-NU’ the chanting continues. What on earth? Then I notice the big screen at the far end, upon which words are being projected karaoke-style. ‘You’ll never walk alone, you’ll never walk alone’ it reads as a yellow cursor bounces in time to the music. I don’t believe this. I’m in Tokyo, on a Wednesday afternoon, at a football match, surrounded by people singing a song in a largely foreign language and holding their scarves aloft. If the Rovers fans started chanting Kimigayo before kick-offs next season I’d be slightly alarmed. The singing finishes, the lineups are beamed up on the big screen for the benefit of the fans and both teams break out into Celtic huddles. The clock strikes two, the ref blows his whistle and the match gets underway to a massive roar from the home crowd. The drums beat incessantly, with the hard core of support on the lower level belting out short ditties or simply chanting the syllables of their favourite players’ names.
Whisper it, but I could get used to this style of football. Invented traditions aside, it’s a very pleasant experience indeed. There’s not a cloud in the sky, a warm breeze licks through the arena and the sun casts its glorious rays over the pitch. Tiny propellor-engined planes on approach to Chofu Airport periodically fly over the stadium at a low altitude, making me just a tiny bit homesick as I remember the trains passing Stark’s Park. We’ve got a great view of the action, some semi-decent grub and nice big screens to see the replays on. There are loads and loads of families here, the kids alternating their attention between the on-pitch events and their Nintendo DSs, Blue-shirted staff run up and down the stairs with big buckets of icy water, from which one can buy cans of beer. Yes, beer at football matches. I know it’s fairly common on the continent and that it would be fine in Britain if it wasn’t for the effects alcohol has on a small minority of football supporters, but seeing all these folk enjoying cans of cold beer in the middle of the afternoon in a public place without even a hint of trouble reminds me once again that the idea of responsible drinking is a cultural concept that goes much, much deeper than increasing the price of booze and restricting the times and places when one can consume it.
As I mentioned before, the standard of play on-field isn’t that great. It seems to be on par with an average Scottish Premier League game, however Tokyo’s inability to find the net despite absolutely pummeling Sendai brings back uncomfortable memories of peering out at the Stark’s Park pitch through the gaps in my fingers. Hirayama, the main striker and tallest player on the pitch at 190cm, misses a series of headers and fires a number of close-range shots into embarrassing locations. This guy is supposed to be knocking on the door of the Japanese national team, but today he’s having a stinker. It’s like watching Gregory Tadé without any of the lung-bursting runs or comedy trips over the ball. A fluffed shot midway through the second half proves to be the final straw and Hirayama earns a yellow card for petulantly booting the ball in the direction of the corporate hospitality boxes. The game drags on with FC Tokyo booting balls up the park and down the wings to limited success. Sendai come close with a couple of chances to keep up the spirits of their traveling support, who are surprisingly energetic and passionate despite having traveled the best part of six hours to be at the game. The spectre of stoppage time gives the home team slightly more impetus, but ultimately the game ends goalless.
The ref gives three short blasts to indicate it’s over, and then I hear something I really wasn’t expecting. Booing. At first I wonder if it’s directed at the man in black – there had been a few debatable decisions including something that could, at a push, have been a penalty – but in fairly short order the guy two rows behind me shouts something untranslatable that leaves me in no doubt it’s Tokyo’s performance that has upset the fans. The bewildered Sendai squad head off to congratulate their fans, who equally are at a loss to understand how they came away with a point, whilst the Tokyo team are sent on a walk of shame round the running track. This isn’t a Mark McGhee after the Raith game-style walk back to the tunnel via the path of least resistance, oh no. It is an enforced march past all of the fans, culminating in the players lining up and executing a deep bow in front of the loudest section of fans. Having been suitably shamed into scoring more goals next time out, the players and manager solemnly head for the tunnel, doing their best to ignore the supporters’ critical input. Tokyo and Sendai fans head back for the trains together, and aren’t even segregated as they leave the ground by the same exits. This is really refreshing to see, not least as no riot vans or mounted police are present. The fans are loud and proud when the game is in progress, but as soon as final whistle goes it becomes just that. A game and no more. None of this Bill Shankly life and death business here.
So, visiting a J-League game, tick. That’s one more of the things accomplished that I never thought I’d get to do when I was going through my Japan Phase in high school. Different to Scottish football? In some ways yes, in others no. Less entertaining? Not necessarily. Better than sitting in a freezing cold Stark’s Park, munching on a pie and joining two thousand others in an out-of-time rendition of Geordie Munro? Not in a month of Sundays.