SAITAMA - For nearly two decades, Shunji Usui has been a fixture at Urawa Red Diamonds matches at Saitama Stadium in the suburbs of Tokyo, a face in the crowd among the most avid — and sometimes rabid — fans of any Japanese soccer club.
In recent weeks, though, Usui’s pride in the former Asian champions has been tempered by embarrassment at seeing the team he loves held up as a symbol of the kind of intolerance critics say has been emboldened by the conservative politics of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
On March 8, a banner with “Japanese Only” scrawled on it was hoisted on a stadium gate behind goal one, an area packed with thousands of the club’s hard-core fans. Despite complaints from onlookers, it remained in place until the end of the game.
In response, the Mitsubishi Motors-owned club was given the harshest punishment in the two-decade history of professional soccer in Japan — a J-League edict ordering the team to play before an empty stadium.
That cost Urawa over $1 million in lost ticket sales. In addition, more than 10 Reds supporter groups, including UB Snake, the group responsible for the banner, were disbanded.
When the Reds returned home for a domestic cup game last week, flags and drums were banned, essentially putting fans on probation. The only banner allowed was one held up by a club official warning fans against discriminatory behavior.
“There are people who hate foreigners in Japan, and there are people who hate foreigners in this stadium,” said Usui, 53, a teacher at a local school.
“By quietly standing by, we gave them a platform to voice such views. So it’s fair enough that now we have to pay for this.”
Although Japanese soccer has not suffered from the sort of hooliganism that has so often blighted the game in Europe and South America, Reds fans have a record of rowdiness.
In 2008, the club was fined nearly $200,000 after a scuffle involving Gamba Osaka fans. In November, Urawa were fined $96,000 after fans set off firecrackers near the bus of a rival team.
Supporters have also displayed the Rising Sun flag, a symbol used by the Japanese army during its colonial rule over Asia in the first half of last century, which is seen by many as a painful reminder of Japan’s militaristic past.
But the most recent incident in Urawa, which comes as Japan begins preparations for the 2020 Olympics, reignited a debate about Japanese identity and attitudes toward foreigners.
Many Urawa fans — and players — were quick to denounce the exclusionary banner.
In early April, more than a quarter of the 20,000 Reds fans who turned up for the first open-door home match since the incident signed a declaration condemning discrimination.
Urawa center back Tomoaki Makino tweeted a picture of the controversial banner to his 177,000 followers and criticized fan behavior.
“My biggest regret is we didn’t take the flag down quickly enough,” Urawa President Keizo Fuchita said, vowing a zero-tolerance policy in the future.
Critics, however, see a worrying trend that goes beyond soccer.
Last year, hundreds of nationalists marched through the streets of Tokyo’s Korean district, Shin Okubo, with signs labeling Koreans as “cockroaches” and saying “Sink Koreans in the Tokyo Bay”.
Some human rights lawyers say Abe’s December visit to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, as well as Class-A war criminals, and controversial statements about history by those in his circle have created a climate that encourages far-right sentiment.
The chairman of NHK, Katsuto Momii, made remarks, later retracted, that appeared to justify Japan’s wartime military brothels, saying all warring nations had similar institutions.
Another member of the NHK governing board, Abe appointment and prominent novelist Naoki Hyakuta, has said the Tokyo war tribunal after World War II was designed to cover up U.S. atrocities.
“The very fact that those who put up the banner thought they would get away with it, shows how people here don’t understand what racial discrimination means,” said Yoshiro Tanaka, holding his 2-year-old daughter, Yuzui, on his lap behind Urawa’s goal at a game earlier this month.
Like many other fans, Tanaka said what happened was not representative of the majority of Urawa supporters.
But also like others, he feels sorry he let it go unchallenged.
“There’s a general mood that just allowed that kind of behavior to happen,” said Tanaka.
On April 2, Tanaka and his daughter watched as Urawa’s Tadanari Lee, a player of Korean heritage who was born in Tokyo but only obtained Japanese nationality in 2007, scored one goal and set up a second, a dramatic winner three minutes from time.
“I’m so glad we managed to come back after the scandal with a win,” said Tanaka.
“We must create a place that will be inclusive for everyone, so that my daughter and I can keep coming back for many years to come.”