Hiroshima Ultra Badboys: the Strange and Polite World of Japanese Football

‘He’s football civilised, football refined, football’s kept him standing in neat and respectful lines’ – not a chant at the Edion Stadium, but it should have been.

berlin-wall.jpgThe assorted literati and liars who write history books like to talk about turning points. Turning points are moments when history pivots, and continues on a different trajectory. Sometimes they’re so obvious you can see them even in the chaos of the moment; the protesters dancing on the rubble of the Berlin Wall in 1989 knew history was turning around them.

At other times, people perceive the earth-shattering implications of their actions slowly, like the explorers, pirates and mercenaries who discovered and colonised the Americas after 1492. Or not at all, like the Ming imperial palace which sharply restricted sea travel around 1400, and probably prevented China from challenging Europe’s growing power.

Sometimes, turning points are too recent for us to unpick their effects. The new world created by the financial crisis of 2008 is still forming. The centre cannot hold. We don’t really understand what it looks like yet, but it’s definitely different.

On a substantially smaller scale, I think yesterday was a turning point of sorts in my time in Japan. Small ripples pulse outward, and it’s too soon to tell what the effects might be. But in some small way, my adventure is on a slightly different path.

Or it’s possible all this ‘hand of history’ melodrama is just because god help me, I’m writing a blog post about football*, and I need some grandstanding to get me through this.

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To be honest, I was having a wretched September. I was (still am) teaching too many hours for me. My contract doesn’t include paid holidays; you get paid for the lessons you teach. August, with its week off for Obon, left me with a painfully lean paycheck. Worse, I’d run up a fair bit of overdraft debt through flying, staying in hotels and hostels, buying Shinkansen tickets, provisioning my flat- you get the picture. I’m coping, but I’ve got nowt to spare really.

So I was working extra days this month to barter for some time off. I just finished six days this week, and am doing six days next week too. Even in a normal week, I don’t have two consecutive days off in a row, so it’s harder to recharge. Life was becoming a bit of a slog.

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And then, a thoughtful acquaintance and fellow Hiroshima newbie offered me a ticket to the see the soccer with him, or rather, the football (as I will continue to call it). A free ticket, no less- one was going spare. Hiroshima Sanfrecce are the leaders of Japan’s top-tier J1 football league, and FC Tokyo are the third-placed team, so it seemed like an offer too good to miss. An invitation, not the hand of fate. Racing for the Astram after work on Saturday, I beelined for the Edion Stadium.

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The similarities were quick enough to spot. People were selling overpriced shirts. People were even chanting vindaloo. On a side note: fuck that song sideways, and fuck the ooh-am-I-being-ironic-or-not-nothing-matters-anymore ethos of late Britpop. Writing a shitty song on purpose still means, essentially, that you’ve written a shitty song. It took 15 minutes to write. But anyway, where was I? Erm, there were takoyaki stands. You wouldn’t see that outside the Etihad.

But once I got inside the stadium, a new world unfolded. The top team in Japan has a football pitch flanked by a running track, and everything about the place looked… different. Maybe it was the abundant baseball caps, or the udon bowls. Maybe it was the communal benches that made up much of the seating. I think a lot of it was in the baseball-style jumbotrons, which broadcast cutesy cartoons for synchronized clapping and scarf-waving. My newfound buddy sat with binoculars trained on the far goal.

The number of children and, particularly, women in the crowd was noticeable, too. It was pretty much 50-50, and there were plenty of female friends there together as well as families. Apparently Japanese football is scrupulously polite. Rivalries are friendly rather than bitter, and there’s almost no violence. Alcohol was available but nobody was that rowdy. There wasn’t even much anger when FC Tokyo scored, just a mournful cry and a few dejected faces. As a casual observer, I was happy enough, although I imagine some of my friends back home might find it a bit tame, passionless even.

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And the game? It was cool to watch. Hiroshima Sanfrecce are kind of fast paced; they tore down the pitch and scored quickly even while Tokyo hogged the ball for most of the first half. Which was just as well, because their longer chains of passes tended to fall apart at the last moment. If I was pushed, FC Tokyo were probably slightly the better team on the night, but they made some really embarrassing stumbles. One of their players (I have no idea what his name was) belted the ball right into the keeper’s hands from about five metres away. Anyway, FC Tokyo scored early in the second half, and the last thirty minutes or so fizzled out in a flurry of pointless substitutions. I can’t believe they don’t make me a football commentator.

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My absolute favourite thing about the game, though, was the Hiroshima Ultra Badboys. The team’s ‘hardcore supporters’ bounced up and down with unlimited, playful energy, and clapped and sang in tune, and to be honest looked about as threatening as a village crochet circle. Every time I looked over at their banner, I creased. It sounds like the badly translated title of an anime soundtrack. Beside the banner, a sign read: ‘Commando Ultra Curva Ovest’. It couldn’t have felt more out of place.

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I’m told by fans that the Italian connection runs quite deep in Japanese football. The Italian football team is idolised, Serie A is watched often, and many of the team names have Italian roots. Hiroshima Sanfrecce takes its roots from the Japanese word for three, ‘san’ (pronounced to roughly rhyme with French ‘pain’) and the Italian word for arrows, ‘frecce’. Apparently they’re called this because Mori Motonari, the daimyo of Hiroshima in the warring states period (16th Century, roughly), told his squabbling sons that ‘A single arrow might be easily snapped, but three arrows held together will not be broken.’ I bet there aren’t many British teams with names referencing medieval dynastic disputes.

I wanted to write more about the Italian role in Japanese football, but frustratingly I couldn’t find out much that was solid. This is all getting a bit long anyway, but I might try and do some research for a future article on the history of Japan’s football. For now, I’ll leave you with the fact that until the 1960s, the proto-football leagues mostly consisted of company teams, with early cup winners including Furukawa Electric and Yanmar Diesel. In England, fans fear football being consumed by corporate branding exercises; for many Japanese teams, it started that way.

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So what was my revelation? Well, I was watching the football and I was thinking about what it means to belong to a community, especially one as diffuse as a twenty-first century city. It occurred to me that part of my sadness of late might been a lack of integration into any kind of community. I know some individual people, but I’m not part of this place.

Well, it’s easy to sit back and grumble and cast Japan as a closed society, but really, what have I done? Sure, I’m tired after work, but once my long September is done, I’ve got enough time to go out and do more. Even if that simply means supporting a local team. So, I figure that might be a good place to start.

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*  If you had ‘write a blog about football’ on your ‘things Lewis will never do in 2018’ reverse bingo card, I’m sorry.

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