6,000 miles does a lot to culture: New York to Baghdad, Stockholm to Johannesburg – being almost a quarter of the way around the world will significantly affect the way each respective country functions, with cuisine, people, arts and entertainment each having their distinctive quirks. The most important question being: how does culture affect the beautiful game? Birmingham to Yokohama is quite the distance, after all.
I’d become accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of Japanese culture, but a myriad of industrialised warehouses in the middle of Britain paints a slightly different picture to Kanagawa prefecture’s bustling, but scenic port town. Despite this trip being my third venture to the country, I’d surprisingly never decided to cross two huge interests of mine in my previous trips: football and Japan.
That’s where Yokohama F. Marinos come in: rewind a year and a half before my trip, and an interest forged from cinematic nostalgia and a shallow footballing mind drew me to the Yokohama based team. A 2nd placed finish and a victorious Emperor’s Cup campaign assured me that I’d be in for some future glory. It was a welcome change to my English nightmare with Aston Villa, who in the last few years had become perennial relegation battlers with a tedious brand of hoof-ball being employed by clueless Scot, Paul Lambert. The Marinos seemed like an ideal accompaniment to this dearth of creativity, countering such lacklustre football with a tidy possession based game and a well-drilled defence that had conceded the League’s lowest amount of goals.
My plan quickly unravelled, and Yokohama fell victim to an incredibly poor start, entering the mid-summer break narrowly avoiding a place in the relegation zone. It was familiar territory for me, but it wasn’t the end of the world. A sense of familiarity with Japanese football and all of its nuances had begun to sink in, even after The Samurai Blue’s miserable World Cup campaign reared its unforgiving head. Despite the ever-present optimism that followed Zaccheroni’s team to Brazil, it would’ve been difficult to remain positive, but the further I journeyed into Japan’s footballing world, the more I began to take note of something inherently special about it. The fans. They possess an unbridled level of investment in the game, staking a huge amount of pride in something that is, for the most part, a recent entity in their country. They’re ingrained in the foundations of Japanese football, and their support at the World Cup garnered significant praise and attention from the watching world; they became a constant fix on Social Media sites and a point of envy for all other travelling fans.
My trip to the Nissan Stadium felt particularly alien. When Yokohama F. Marinos conceded against Montedio Yamagata the fans simply continued on, their voices never faltering, their support unwavering; it was a stark contrast to the cynical tribalism of the English supporters, who seemed quicker to express their disdain than their appreciation for their team. There was a distinct sense of community and camaraderie amongst the supporters and they seemed to truly idolise and appreciate the players who represented their club. The players are on the pitch giving what they can for the cause, and it’s the support’s philosophy to always encourage them. Japanese football fans lack the fickleness which is so prevalent in football in the 21st century.
We see so many people clinging onto a hopeless sense of entitlement that they’ve adopted from their previous generation – a generation who often watched their teams find success in the 70s, 80s or 90s. Perhaps this is where the JLeague’s infancy comes up trumps, as success tends to impair relative judgement when it comes to football. It’s easy to feel aggrieved at something that once offered some level of triumph fading into mediocrity, especially with huge investments in a competition such as the Premier League. Teams tend to maintain their current standing, or thereabouts, for an extended period of time (with obvious exceptions: Portsmouth, anyone?) but in the JLeague, it’s considerably less predictable. Take Gamba Osaka for example. They achieved consecutive first place finishes in 2013 and 2014, but the fact that the first of the two titles was in the second division and guaranteed their promotion is testament to the capricious and subsequently entertaining nature of Japanese football. The Japanese may well be late to the beautiful game, but they’re definitely doing it right.
Although fans of JLeague teams aren’t guaranteed years of consistent success, they are guaranteed entertainment, and that at its core, is what Football is. It seems that in Japan, football is celebrated for its truest form, without any underlying prerogative, or expectation. Of course there is pride, and there’s disappointment too, but football, when stripped back from all its politics, is there to be enjoyed and I believe that the Japanese more than most, understand that.
This piece was published in issue 18 of JSoccer magazine in December 2015. They’re the main source of information and news on Japanese football for English speakers – if interested, head over to http://www.jsoccer.com or follow them on Twitter at @JSoccerMagazine.