Japan’s national soccer team plays the North Korean team today in a qualifying match for the Asian World Cup in Saitama City, just north of Tokyo. Given the continued tense relations between the two countries, the Japanese government is calling on Japanese supporters to avoid quarreling with supporters of the North Korean team.
This call for calm among soccer fans that are internationally known for their good manners is unusual. Sports officials here cannot recall any acts of violence committed by Japanese supporters against those rooting for the opposite side. Mindful of the mistrust of North Korea that is spreading among the Japanese public over the abductee issue, we hope that Japanese fans continue their tradition of good conduct this time as well.
Cheering for the North Korean team will be ethnic Koreans who reside in Japan. Pyongyang has not sent supporters. About 4,500 residents are expected to come and watch the game under arrangements made by the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryun). The police and the Football Association of Japan are reportedly mobilizing about 3,400 security personnel.
In Europe, research on crowd control has made great progress since the advent of soccer hooligans. Japan, too, has been trying to accumulate knowhow on antihooligan measures. At the time of the 2002 World Cup, which was cohosted by Japan and South Korea, Japanese security personnel received guidance from British experts.
Security plans at or near Saitama Stadium include elaborate precautions designed to prevent physical contact between supporters of the two sides. North Korean supporters, who will be transported by chartered buses, will enter the stadium through a special gate from a reserved parking lot. Their seats will be separated from those of other spectators by a “buffer zone” of empty seats. After the game, they will depart on the same chartered buses. So there is no chance, officials say, that North Korean and Japanese supporters will meet on nearby streets.
Violence by soccer fans appears to be slowly increasing in Asia, reflecting the growing popularity of the sport. During the Asian Cup matches held last summer in Beijing and Chongqing, for instance, Chinese supporters who harbor anti-Japanese feelings turned violent, burning Hinomaru flags, spitting on Japanese fans and smashing the windows of the car carrying a Japanese envoy posted in Beijing. In light of these and other unfortunate events of the past, tight security for the Saitama qualifier is warranted.
Although clashes with foreign supporters have not occurred, Japanese soccer has not been entirely violence-free. Right after the Asian qualifier for the World Cup held here eight years ago — a match with the United Arab Emirates team that ended in a tie — about 1,000 supporters clashed with police near the front entrance to the National Athletic Stadium. They threw plastic bottles, raw eggs, chairs and the like at buses reserved for the Japanese team. And at a number of J. League games, supporters disappointed by the performance of their team have thrown things from the stands. In one extreme case, some jumped onto the field and attacked players.
At present Japan does not have tough regulations to punish such malicious acts. By contrast, soccer clubs in Europe are held largely responsible for problems caused by supporters and often receive severe penalties, such as forfeiture of the right to sponsor games.
Japan needs to make constant efforts to root out spectator violence. Those who commit acts of violence need to be denied access to home games indefinitely. Moreover, the league needs to take strong steps against clubs involved, such as imposing fines or suspending their right to sponsor home games.
One silver lining is the steady increase in the number of female soccer supporters. Their growing presence in the stands may help reduce the acrimony of the soccer field atmosphere created by a raw sense of antagonism. Few nations seem to have as many female soccer fans as Japan. They are a great asset to the popular sport and an invaluable incentive for Japan to develop a soccer different from that of Europe — one that is free from threats of violence and racial discrimination.
All supporters, both male and female, should give open and hearty support to their favorite team at today’s game. We also would like to see Japanese supporters cheer warmly for the two Japan-born J. League players on the North Korean team: An Yong Hak of Nagoya and Ri Han Jae of Hiroshima.
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