Murai deserves praise for taking bold action against Urawa

by Andrew McKirdy

The J. League has not always been known for taking clear, decisive action, but Thursday’s announcement that Urawa Reds must play one home game behind closed doors as punishment for a discriminatory banner was a bold decision that must be applauded.

J. League chairman Mitsuru Murai ordered Reds to play their March 23 game against Shimizu S-Pulse at an empty Saitama Stadium after ruling that a banner bearing the words “Japanese Only,” hung above an entrance to the stands for last Saturday’s home game against Sagan Tosu, could be interpreted as discriminatory regardless of its intent.

The financial hit that Urawa must absorb from lost revenue and ticket refunds has been estimated in the region of $1.3 million, but the damage to the club’s reputation cannot be measured in numbers. The incident has made headline news in Japan and overseas, and Urawa must now live with the shame of becoming the first J. League club to be hit with a closed-doors punishment.

That Murai was willing to dole it out speaks volumes of his intention to lead by example. The 54-year-old has only been in the job since January, but the way he confronted the issue head on and brooked no excuses bodes well for the remainder of his tenure.

Murai made explicit mention of Urawa’s long history of fan misbehavior when announcing the punishment, and clearly something needed to be done about an unruly element that had begun to think of itself as being above the law.

“The supporters viewed the area behind the goal as their sacred ground, and they didn’t want anyone else coming in,” Urawa president Keizo Fuchita said Thursday as he explained how the banner came to be displayed in the stadium.

“If foreigners came in they wouldn’t be able to control them, and they didn’t like that.”

Some have argued that the punishment is too severe given that it affects every Urawa fan when the vast majority are innocent, but the nature of Japanese crowds makes it eminently sensible.

Supporters groups are hierarchies that value the greater good ahead of the individual, and if a rogue few are responsible for upsetting the entire apple cart, the majority is less likely to let it happen again.

“The atmosphere in the stadium is different to how it used to be,” one 40-year-old Urawa fan from Saitama was quoted as saying in Friday’s Nikkan Sports.

“In the past there would be booing, but it would be done with love. Now it’s difficult for new fans to come along. Hopefully this can be an opportunity to change things.”

Urawa’s subsequent decision to ban its fans from displaying all banners at every game home and away for an indefinite period was understandable, but it would be disappointing if the humor and color that makes attending matches fun was lost along the way.

J. League stadiums are overwhelmingly vibrant, welcoming places where fans can relax, feel comfortable and, crucially, enjoy themselves.

Urawa’s one-game punishment should help make sure they stay that way.