Japan’s fourth annual refugee soccer tournament commemorating World Refugee Day (June 20) was played in the rain on June 24 in front of a small but enthusiastic crowd. There were 12 teams with players mostly from Asia. Takeshi Okada, former manager of the national team (1997-98), told me he fancied the chances of the Nagoya Burma team. The fullbacks looked like they trained on beer, but the forwards were deft and the goalie was lean and quick on his feet. Alas, they made it to the semifinals only to lose to Cambodia in a penalty shootout.
Okada, who volunteers his services at the tournament, said that two years ago one of the Kurdish players had a tryout with a J-League team, but didn’t make it. However, the tournament is more about promoting awareness about refugees and giving them a chance for fun and glory. And aside from the players on the wrong side of sharp-elbowed, hard-tackling Kurdish players, everyone seemed in good spirits.
The tournament is sponsored by the UNHCR and Waseda Volunteer Center (WAVOC), and also involves some JICA workers who first came up with the idea. There is also some limited corporate sponsorship.
Takuya Murata, a personable young development specialist working at JICA, said it was a chance for refugees to forget about their troubles for a day. But he admits the tournament has not attracted as much public and media attention as he hoped.
Okada said that after reading the book written by a JICA staffer about Ali Jane, an asylum-seeker from Afghanistan, he became interested in the refugee issue. He says it would be a good idea to have a J-League celebrity charity event to raise money for refugees. He thinks that Japanese in general are not very sympathetic to refugees, and laments that Japan only seems to accept foreigners who are considered useful — and excludes those not deemed useful.
Altogether, he said he was surprised to learn how difficult the situation facing refugees is, and he blames the government for not keeping the public informed about these grim conditions — perhaps fearing it may arouse greater sympathy for them.
Leaving the junior high school where the tournament was held, I saw a large police presence down the block, complete with rolling fences and riot-squad buses. Thinking this was a bit of overkill for the refugees and their potential for hooliganism, I asked an officer what they were worried about. It turned out that around the corner there is a North Korean school where a conference was taking place, and there were concerns about uyoku (right-wingers) showing up in their black buses and disrupting the proceedings.
Ironically, refugees eager to settle in Japan were unaware of the Koreans down the road — people born and raised in Japan, but still struggling to be accepted.