Olympic credibility under threat in wake of soccer fans’ xenophobic banner

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

The recent controversy over the “Japanese only” banner put up by Urawa Reds soccer fans is yet further testimony to the nation’s entrenched insensitivity to racism and threatens Tokyo’s credibility as host of the 2020 Olympics, experts said Friday.

The banner, written in English, was raised during the Saitama team’s March 8 match against Sagan Tosu.

A deluge of protests followed, prompting the J. League to announce Thursday that Urawa’s March 23 match against Shimizu S-Pulse will be played in an empty stadium, in what is one of the toughest penalties ever slapped on a soccer team in Japan.

Fans who put up the banner told the team they considered the place where they placed it — a spectators’ stand just behind one of the goals — as “sacred territory” where they “didn’t want foreign tourists to come in,” Urawa Reds President Keizo Fuchita told a news conference Thursday.

Freelance journalist Koichi Yasuda, known for his extensive coverage of foreign residents in Japan, said of the disciplinary action: “(The J. League) simply did what it was supposed to. Nothing more. If it had failed to take the action it did, there would have been no future for Japan’s soccer industry.”

Whatever the intention of the supporters, the banner was an “ugly act of racism itself,” he added.

With Tokyo slated to host the 2020 Olympics, it is time Japan “parted ways with such attitudes” and “lived up to its repeated emphasis on the value of globalization,” Yasuda said, adding that measures being taken to welcome foreign visitors, including putting up more English-language traffic signs, are far from sufficient.

Hiroshi Tanaka, a professor emeritus at Hitotsubashi University and a vocal advocate of the rights of foreign residents in Japan, said that the excuse given by the fans who raised the banner seems to imply that they feel foreign fans are by definition “uncontrollable.”

“So is every single Japanese, as they seem to claim, controllable? Certainly not. It’s such (unfounded) categorization that is at the center of the problem of racism,” Tanaka said.

Regardless of their intentions, the supporters’ indifference to how the banner might be perceived smacks of xenophobia that has come to be more visible lately, Yasuda said.

Xenophobia is especially conspicuous in Shin-Okubo, an ethnic Korean neighborhood in Tokyo. Rightist groups have made headlines by taking to the streets and demanding that the residents be banished, or worse.

“The moment they failed to realize how their act would be interpreted, they merited severe punishment. Period,” Yasuda said.

Both Yasuda and Tanaka expressed displeasure with the fact that the soccer team didn’t remove the banner until after the game, saying it is a sign of disregard for the global fight against racism.

  • phu

    Again with the incredible belief that “they failed to realize how their act would be interpreted.” It’s good that these people are trying to address the issue of racism in Japan, but I don’t think framing it in a way that suggests the act was bad but the actors didn’t “realize” it would be “interpreted” as racism is likely to be direct enough to make anyone reconsider their own actions.

  • KM

    “The recent controversy over the “Japanese only” banner put up by Urawa Reds soccer fans is yet further testimony to the nation’s entrenched insensitivity to racism ”

    Oh give me a frigging break!
    Entrenched racism? Yeah, I suppose that is why virtually every fan who weighed in on the Reds message boards was so furious at the small number of xenophobes in their midst. No doubt the immediate and stern reaction by both the League and the Reds organization itself shows how entrenched the racism is. In a “normal” country we know how they treat such incidents. Like Germany or England, where just last week homophobic and racist banners were displayed.
    http://www.theguardian.com/football/2014/mar/12/uefa-bayern-munich-arsenal-kosovo-ozil-homophobic.

    The matter will be discussed NEXT week, and “if found to be discriminatory” (LoL) the club will be fined 50,000 euro. Obviously this is the way such matters are dealt with in countries that are free of “entrenched racism”.

    How about Australia?

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-03-10/a-league-racism-allegation-set-to-be-investigated/5309330
    This happened before the Reds incident, yet is still “being investigated”. But of course the lack of quick action proves that racism isnt “entrenched” in Australia . . . or something like that?

    I dont even want to start on the US, where I was born and grew up. Ive lived in Japan for over 25 years now, and though I have (after careful searching) managed to find one or two “Japanese only” signs, Ive managed to enter every one of the offending establishments and in all but one case, convinced them to take it down. Sure, Japan has its share of a$$#oles, like any other country. But I have never had anyone physically assault me, or throw me bodily out of an establishment because my companions were of the wrong ethnic background. That HAS happened to me in the US. On numerous occasions. And Im not even going to discuss some of the things Ive seen take place at neo-Nazi rallies. But of course it isnt the US we are talking about here. JAPAN is the country that has a problem with “entrenched racism”.

    I suppose I can think of one recent example of a racist offense that was deliberately ignored by Japanese authorities. After the Cerezo Osaka – Shandong Luneng match last week, about 200 Chinese visiting fans celebrated after the match by singing to their hosts a rousing tune about “Xiao Riben Guizhi”. I dont know how many of the local fans were aware of what the song meant, but it appears that the media and at least some ACL supervisors did understand the terminology. The matter was swept under the carpet, and the Japan Times had no big headlines discussing the incident.

    If this seems like a rambling, unfocused rant, let me conclude by listing the lessons I have learned from the incident of the “Japanese only” banner:

    1. Japan (lime most countries) is made up of individual humans.

    2. In any group of individual humans, you can be fairly sure that at least a few of them will turn out to be a$$#oles.

    3. If you start blaming the entire group for the actions of the a$$#oles, you should also be categorized as one of the a$$#oles.

    4. The world is never going to be perfect, no matter how much we might wish it were. Try as you might, you are never going to get everyone to think and act just like you, and these exercises in pointing fingers and calling names just increase the number of people who end up feeling hurt by such incidents. Nothing is gained by the “blame game”.

    5.The best course of action for right-thinking people is to just try their utmost to build ties to other right-thinking people, and to seek understanding and harmony, while ignoring and marginalizing those who continue to promote divisiveness and hatred. You may not succeed in eradicating this so-called “entrenched racism”, but at least it is more productive than constantly contemplating your own a$$#oles.

  • Earl Kinmonth

    Japanese language reports do not say “foreign tourists” but rather simply “foreigners.” Xenophobic and racist chants and slurs have historically been a major feature of European soccer although there is less toleration now than in the past. But, if you follow accounts in British papers for example, you will see that this is an on going issue. That Japan should have rednecks simply demonstrates that it really is “a normal country.”