‘There’s Only One Debito Arudou’: On Football Hooliganism in Japan

The way I see it, he said, foreigners are perfectly all right.  I know lots…Many of my friends are foreigners. And yet, and yet.  When it comes to inner feelings, well then, I just wonder, you see. After all, we Japanese understand each other. – Donald Richie, Tokyo Nights

On Saturday 8th March 2014, at a football match at Saitama Stadium, the match between Urawa Red Diamonds or ‘Reds’ and Sagan Tosu, some fans of the Reds hung a banner over the entrance to the stadium.  The banner read in English ‘Japanese only’.  The banner was taken down relatively quickly, and on March 13th it was reported that the J-League ordered to play one match without spectators as punishment.

As Debito Arudou notes in the Japan Times, none of the Japanese media outlets were quick to express distaste at the banner:

“None of the initial reports called out the incident for what it was: racial discrimination (jinshu sabetsu). News outlets such as Kyodo, Asahi, Mainichi, Yomiuri, AP, AFP, Al-Jazeera — even The Japan Times — muted their coverage by saying the banner “could apparently be considered/construed/seen as racist.” (Well, how else could it be construed? Were they trying to say that “only the Japanese language is spoken here”?) Few ran pictures of the banner to give context or impact.” (Japan Times, March 12 2014)

Perhaps, it is because I hail from Britain, where such distasteful incidents at football are more common that my approach to this is a tad more pragmatic then Arudou’s, but it certainly didn’t surprise me that news outlets did not unequivocally call it out for the racism it so clearly is. News journalism, at least decent news journalism, should not really be in business of making moral judgements, yes it was distasteful, but is it being distasteful actually news?  Maybe, but I much prefer the news outlets focus on establishing the facts of what happened, rather than on expressing moral outrage.  Arudou is quite right, there is no non-racist way to use the term ‘Japanese only’ the phrase has indeed “long been the exclusionary trope for Japan’s xenophobes”, there is no argument against that, but a news organization has to be concerned with establishing facts, as the people who put up the banner could quite easily sue for defamation.  It is frustrating but ultimately wiser to cover all the bases.  Ultimately, the banner-erecters condemn themselves with this from the Yomiuri:

“The three Reds’ supporters who made the banner were quoted as saying during an investigation by the club: “The area behind the goal post is our domain. We don’t want to see other people, especially foreigners, entering that area.” (Japan News, 14 March 2014)

Was it is simply team pride got out of hand?  I agree with Arudou that the intentions of the author of the banner do not matter.  That phrase ‘Japanese only’ has too long a history, and, if it was just meant to be a psycho out for the opposing team why not go with ‘Reds only’? Ultimately, the Urawa Reds faced sanctions from the J-League, condemnation in editorials from the Yomiuri and the Japan Times followed in its wake.  So it’s all good.  Well almost, Arudou would like to see condemnation from FIFA:

“Anyplace else and soccer governing body FIFA would probably take swift action to investigate and penalize offenders in line with its policy of zero tolerance for racism, as has been done in the past, most recently in China. In January, the Hong Kong Football Association got fined for shirking its responsibility to stop racial discrimination against Filipino supporters by Hong Kong national team fans during a “friendly” match.” (Japan Times, March 12 2014)

I not aware of the facts of that case, but I can offer, I believe a comparative case, that of the player Nicolas Anelka, a striker for West Bromwich Albion, who in December 2013, celebrated a goal by performing a Nazi salute.  The Football Association of Great Britain imposed a five match ban, and has sent a request to FIFA that the ban be applied to world matches; FIFA is considering the request as of March 18th. If the request is accepted, Anelka would be banned from playing for the French national team for five matches (he was a regular player, but has apparently retired).

However, it is mistake to view FIFA, as I feel Arudou does, as some kind of UN for football teams.  Yes, it is a governing body; it ensures that the football played in one national league is played according to the same rules as another.  J-League players can’t start picking up the ball unless FA players can also.  Each national football association can request that their sanctions should also apply to the international game, but they do not regularly intercede on deciding sanctions for national games, it relies on the judgement and action of national associations, interceding only where action is lacking, as in the case of Hong Kong.  And what could FIFA do in the case of the Urawa Reds anyway?  Ban the crowd at further games, but that would ultimately not be in the interest of the national game, unless players were to start using the term ‘Japanese only’, it is difficult to see what sanctions would be appropriate.

And truly, as racism goes, if you want to see how it is done properly, I suggest paying close attention to the British Premier league, and the European game, where for example, players Luis Suarez and John Terry have served bans for racist abuse.  At the time of writing this, both are still players in a national team.

Ultimately, I take solace in the fact that Sagan Tosu beat the Urawa Reds by one goal.

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