Japan’s surprising success at the 2018 World Cup in Russia has dominated headlines and morning shows domestically. News organizations abroad, however, honed in on a very different topic — trash.
It was a virtual replay of one of the last World Cup’s most viral stories: Japanese supporters stuck around after the national team’s matches and cleaned up their own garbage. Western websites gushed over the practice, with numerous outlets devoting space to explaining why this was part of Japanese culture at large. Upping the ante from 2014, fans of other countries joined in, leading to more uplifting stories and speculation that Japan kick-started this tidying-up trend.
Perhaps it’s the latest incarnation of some people’s fascination with “nice Japan,” or just a smear of marshmallow cream on a particularly depressing online news cycle. However, it’s defined Japan’s World Cup in English-language media (and served as a wake-up call for some Chinese media). Japanese news outlets, meanwhile, haven’t latched onto it quite as hard — the squad’s performance leads — but plenty of reports and tweets have celebrated this shared interest in collecting rubbish. It tiptoes toward Japanese exceptionalism, but for the most part is taken as feel-good content for Facebook.
That said, Japan’s web-centric publications and netizens found plenty of other juicy stories around the games. The first big viral post of the competition actually focused on something negative, a rarity at a gathering like the World Cup. Buzzfeed Japan reported on a video of a Colombia fan asking two Japanese women to repeat a phrase that essentially meant “I’m a prostitute” (in more vulgar terms) in Spanish, without them realizing it. Many Colombians denounced his actions.
The end result of the June 19 match — a 2-1 win for Japan — prompted a different sort of meme. Colombia fan @stephyayy tweeted “F— sushi forever” out of frustration. Japanese fans found it, and proceeded to flood her mentions with sushi, in emoji and photo form, much to netizens’ delight. Buzzfeed, meanwhile, highlighted how many outside Japan reacted to the win — by comparing the players to anime.
It was the Senegal game on June 24 that got netizens buzzing the most, however. While Japan charmed with good manners, the Senegalese team attracted viral attention for their joyous dancing, which one Japanese Twitter user found goes well with bubbly idol pop. The match itself provided a stadium’s-worth of moments to be transformed into memes. Goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima’s boneheaded decision to punch the ball right into the leg of an opposing player (causing it to ricochet into the goal) led to a lot of digital groans, and one creative effort to fix it. Offside traps wowed viewers at home and around the world. A guy in the stands delivered a solid header, and he’s already selling merch.
And the game ended in a draw, though Keisuke Honda’s face after scoring the equalizer feels like a win for … well, the whole internet. The aftermath of that result gave the web one more viral hit, as actor John Sulo sang the theme song to “One Piece” with several Japan fans (and people say Cool Japan doesn’t work?). Japanese netizens also developed a fascination with Senegalese head coach Aliou Cisse. A popular hashtag imagined the 42-year-old manager as a school band teacher, with all sorts of riffs using photos of him. Interest in Cisse remained strong even ahead of the Poland game, with users imagining him in other situations, like buying cigarettes.
Later, Japanese netizens expressed sympathy and respect for him after Senegal went out due to fair-play points (online, reaction to Japan’s pass-a-thon to close out the loss to Poland ranged from “boring” to people joking about how casual fans don’t get how the World Cup works).
Most of the stuff coming out of Russia during the World Cup is fun and vaguely upbeat, which is fitting for a large-scale sporting event. Yet one final online trend in Japan subverts the narrative built around the good manners of the Samurai Blue’s supporters. Following all group games, fans took to the streets of Shibuya for some revelry. Plenty of YouTubers made videos reacting to the win, but it was Hikakin, the nation’s most popular creator, who came up with a different twist. He went to Shibuya the morning after the first victory — and cleaned up trash left by fans the night before. Others started making similar clips.
The Shibuya scramble crossing didn’t look like “Mad Max” or anything — it wasn’t even close to being as grungy as it gets after Halloween — but after all the English-language praise about Japan’s “culture of cleaning up,” it was nice to be reminded that such blanket generalizations simply aren’t true. Turns out Japanese fans are like any other sports fan in the world — they want to go nuts when their team does well and maybe abandon some beer cans in the street accidentally.