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J. LEAGUE

The harbinger of a new era

by Jeff Kingston

JAPANESE RULES: Why the Japanese Needed Football and How They Got It, by Sebastian Moffett. London: Yellow Jersey Press, 2002, 207 pp., 10 pounds (paper)

In elucidating the cultural context, symbolism and social implications of the world’s most popular game as it has evolved from irrelevance to obsession and beyond in Japan, Sebastian Moffett has done for Japanese soccer what Robert Whiting did so admirably for Japanese baseball. Whether the World Cup mania has you glued to the tube or trying to escape the hoopla, this is a book full of insights on contemporary Japanese society refracted through the prism of sports, shedding light in unexpected ways on local icons, taboos, myths, fading verities and assumptions. It is also a well-written, intriguing yarn for that summer reading list.

Moffett makes a provocative case for soccer reflecting an ongoing social revolution in Japan. The attitudes and inclinations associated with the postwar corporate-centered world of conformity, personal sacrifice and relentless drudgery — in short, the dour system that spawned the economic miracle — are increasingly seen as major obstacles to Japan’s rejuvenation. The “salaryman syndrome,” rote repetition, micromanaging and so on are part of the system that soured. In Moffett’s view, baseball has been so popular in Japan because it provides a reassuring mirror image for middle-aged male fans. He writes, “The players wore grim, at-work expressions and short black hair, much like the office workers who went to see them play. In short, baseball was a reflection of the corporate way of life that had dominated Japan since the war.”

In contrast to the slow, steady and regimented way of baseball, soccer offers something flamboyant and subversive to the established order. In embracing its culture, Japanese fans are embracing something quintessentially international, adopting and adapting global riffs that resonate with a youth looking for something more interesting and cool than the “national sport.” Moffett writes, “Fresh, young and international, the J. League was like a harbinger of a new era.”

Conceived in the late 1980s when Japan, Inc. was dripping cash, the J. League was launched in the 1990s recession, one of many reasons it has fallen short of expectations. Translating dreams of professional soccer into an acceptable reality has proven a difficult road, and Moffett explains why. Simply, the pre-J. League quality of play in Japan was mediocre at best. In order to have a successful league, there was a need to provide a skillful and competitive game to attract and retain fans. This involved foreign coaches, some foreign players and nurturing and hyping local talent, while managing a major league media blitz and relying on shameless hucksterism. Savvy clubs also focused on fostering community-based fan networks that could sustain interest and attendance once the boom receded.

Japan’s first star, Kazuyoshi Miura, went to Brazil as a youth to develop his skills and in his wake thousands followed, to the extent that Brazilian clubs set up facilities and charged set fees for such visiting apprentices. But when Kazu went in the 1980s there were very few Japanese in Brazilian football, and when local fans chanted, “Futebol japones,” they were not rooting him on. The expression means to play soccer as badly as only a Japanese can. With gritty determination he stuck it out, bouncing from club to club, enduring endless bus rides on the minor league circuit until he developed into a competitive player.

Upon returning to Japan, however, his flamboyant, individualistic style did not initially go down well. Eventually he was given a chance to showcase his talents and he went on to win the Most Valuable Player award in 1993, by which time his jazzy feints and “crotch-grabbing, hip-jiggling, arm-waving celebration” after scoring a goal became familiar sights.

Soccer offers an interesting window on a Japan in slow transformation. Hidetoshi Nakata, Japan’s most accomplished star, also encountered difficulties in dealing with antediluvian attitudes, raising hackles by his lack of deference to his elders on the pitch and stating in an interview that he had been spotted not singing the words of the funereal traditional national anthem because it was “dasai” (uncool). Dropping honorifics on the pitch and dissing “Kimigayo” to boot! This prompted rightwing organizations around the country to threaten his life, forcing him to live with 24-hour security. Over a few months the tab ran up to 20 million yen.

The stress caused him to develop eczema and was one of the reasons he jumped to the Italian soccer league. There he continues to be hounded by Japanese journalists who are frustrated by his boycotting of the media. Once while signing autographs a photographer got too close and in exasperation he snarled, “Go away, you worm,” one of the few quotes the media has been able to get from a man famous for loathing hacks. He also bypasses them with his own Web site, getting some 700,000 hits a day. It is Nakata’s un-Japaneseness that is his attraction. Flouting conventions, challenging authority and refusing to fit the mold appeal to a youth who looks askance at what has passed for life in modern Japan.

Foreign players and coaches have had the usual and predictable teeth-gnashing experiences in trying to work with counterparts in Japan. Dunga, a fiery Brazilian midfielder, had a tough time adjusting to the more laidback attitude of his teammates. He thought that the problem of Japanese players was that “. . . they treated football like just another day at work — and in a Japanese office at that, where results were nice, but deferment to the boss and maintaining a quiet life were more important.” He also thought that they played like Boy Scouts and needed to develop more guile and craftiness, somewhere in the gray-zone of cheating, and show more of a killer instinct.

Coaches have been exasperated with players always wanting to be told what to do and how to do it. Rather than perfect form, dutiful following of explicit instructions and regimented playing, foreign coaches have sought to instill creativity, goading players into thinking and responding spontaneously during the game as situations develop. This appears to be on ongoing challenge. It has now even become a management metaphor, as professors urge corporate Japan and workers to develop the creative attributes of soccer players and take initiative to make things happen. Japan’s future is said to depend on making this transition from a manager-centered team (baseball) to a player-inspired team (soccer), where autonomy and flexibility are emphasized.

The J. League has had a rough ride in the past decade. The initial blitz made it a popular draw, but the problem was in sustaining enthusiasm and building local community support networks. This became even more difficult as new stadiums were built that added larger capacity and placed atmosphere-sapping running tracks around the pitches, ensuring that fans could not feel the excitement up close. The league also expanded too fast, diluting the quality of the game. Moreover, the prolonged recession meant that cash-strapped corporate sponsors were more interested in cutting losses rather than promoting a soccer league.

In Moffett’s view, soccer is a healthy outlet for Japanese to channel patriotic feelings and engage in nationalistic displays without reviving the incubus of past militarism. In this sense, soccer may represent a healthy and nonthreatening way for Japan to overcome the burdens of history that have made it difficult and divisive to express normal nationalistic impulses. Joint hosting of the World Cup anchors Japanese nationalism in a reassuring international context and may help promote an overdue process of reconciliation.