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.

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