The shocking scenes of violence after last week’s match between Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka were a worrying development for the J. League, but that does not mean an era of Japanese hooliganism is dawning.
A brawl between both sets of players kicked off last Saturday when Gamba celebrated its 3-2 win on the Saitama Stadium pitch, rejoicing with an overexuberance its opponents took exception to.
Gamba’s fans were also eager to rub Reds’ noses in defeat, with one fan throwing a water balloon into the home section.
The chaos that ensued was on a level previously unseen in the J. League, with a barrage of objects thrown and Urawa fans charging through the barrier dividing both sets of supporters.
Several hundred Gamba fans were then effectively taken hostage inside the stadium for almost three hours as home supporters waited outside the grounds, until police were able to escort them to safety.
The J. League, as with Japan as a nation, has long enjoyed a reputation for safety.
Fans of opposing teams regularly travel to and from matches side by side, wearing team colors without fear of aggression or confrontation.
Games are widely attended by families, songs are sung in support of one’s own team rather than in abuse of the other, and the booing that goes on is, unlike the vitriol aimed at some players in Europe, generally of a pantomime-villain nature.
Violence at games is not unheard of, but this year’s J. League seems to have had more than its fair share of ugly incidents.
The season began with a Xerox Super Cup match poorly handled by the referee, prompting a pitch invasion from Kashima Antlers fans determined to take violent retribution on the official themselves.
A furious group of fans was still waiting outside the stadium gates more than two hours after the match, and Antlers supporters held up giant letters before a match in Urawa one month later spelling out an offensive message toward their hosts.
It is possible that many Japanese fans yearn for a harder edge to their domestic game. Some fans may resent the J. League’s “safe” tag as a badge of inauthenticity, and the banners strung along stands at every ground bear testament to the fascination with imagery from hardcore “ultra” supporters’ groups at foreign clubs.
France’s Paris Saint-Germain, formed in 1970, was derided for years by fans of more storied clubs for its lack of history. Now PSG is burdened with the “Boulogne Boys,” a group of hooligans which has given the club a far more unwanted reputation.
Creating an intimidating atmosphere is one thing, crossing the line into violence is another.
But last weekend’s incident seemed more spontaneous stupidity than organized hooliganism. For one thing, with a few thousand Gamba fans outnumbered by more than 50,000 Reds supporters, no hooligan firm in its right mind would fancy its chances against those odds.
Japanese soccer is remarkable in its organization. Fans sing songs and chant in perfect unison, and supporters’ group leaders have enormous power over the rank-and-file foot soldiers whose moves they orchestrate.
This can be a powerful tool, as Reds fans showed early in the season when they staged a 90-minute sit-in after losing the first three games of the season, calling out club president Mitsunori Fujiguchi to answer their questions.
But these groups also carry great responsibility, and no organization wants to see its club descend into chaos.
It is likely that any hooligan element would be immediately rejected by the mainstream, and although splinter factions could set up their own groups, they would be easily identified.
In Europe, it is often the case that a small group of hooligans spoil things for the majority of fans. In Japan, where fan groups are far more organized and leaders have more influence over others, it is much more difficult to break away from the crowd and go against the grain.
The clubs and the league must come down hard on the offenders from last weekend’s trouble, but it is essential to consult with supporters’ groups in doing so. Any attempt to cut them out of the process would lead to feelings of alienation at a time when harmony must be of paramount importance.