Preview 23 – Japan

The Japanese National Team travel to Brazil safe in the knowledge that they will be well-received upon their arrival. Brazil is home to the biggest ethnically Japanese population outside of Japan, with estimates suggesting a figure in the region of 1.5 million. The state of Sao Paulo is particularly populated with Nikkei (Japanese diaspora) and the team have elected to base themselves there, in the city of Itu.

The Brazilian-Japanese relationship is over a century old and has had a significant impact on Japan’s footballing culture. Japanese immigration dates back to 1907, when Brazil and Japan signed a treaty permitting migration to Brazil. This resolution was the result of mutually agreeable circumstances of the age; Brazil was suffering a labour shortage for its coffee industry, while Japanese workers were facing domestic poverty and limited employment opportunities. Consequently, thousands of Japanese travelled to South America and became heavily involved in the coffee plantations.

Unable to return to Japan due to the outbreak of World War II, a large Japanese minority remained in Brazil and their interests and identity formed a strong part of 20th century social history, particularly in Sao Paulo. After Brazil declared war on Japan in 1942, the Nikkei suffered severe maltreatment, including deportation and forced relocation. As such, the World Cup may add a timely olive branch to Japanese-Brazilian public relations following the formal apology that Brazil gave at the end of last year.

Brazilian players also played a big role in the establishment of the Japanese domestic game. The Brazilian-born midfielder Ruy Ramos became something of a cult figure in Japan, where he moved to in 1977 and spent the entirety of his playing career. Ramos took Japanese citizenship in 1989 and made his international debut a year later. He helped to spread the game, paving the way for a number of Brazilian internationals who arrived during the 1990s.

Following the announcement that a professional league known as the J-League would begin in 1993, the legendary Zico came out of retirement to sign for Sumitomo Metal Industries to play in the qualifying tournament. Zico was a popular character and, even at the age of 40, showed the Japanese that individual talent could be combined with work rate and discipline to make a top player. He became known as the “God of Soccer” amongst Japanese supporters and would return in 2002 to coach the National Team.

It was also during the ‘90s that Japan amended its immigration laws, allowing Japanese descendants to move to the country. It also saw an increase in Brazilians immigrating to Japan and had an inevitable impact on the football scene. The most famous was the dread-locked Alessandro Santos, better known as Alex, who arrived in 1994 and would go on to become one of the J-League’s greatest ever players. It seemed like an overseas move might beckon, such was his talent, but he ended up staying in Japan and taking citizenship in 2001. Alex possibly summed the plight of all diaspora, when he jokingly told an interviewer in 2000, “I’m not quite sure what nationality I am at the moment”.

The supporters group Ultra Nippon will also be turning out in force in Brazil. As Japan’s presence on the international football scene is a relatively recent one, it has taken time for a distinctive fan identity to develop. Indeed, the very idea of fanaticism seems to go against the stereotypical versions of what it means to be Japanese: humility, politeness and reservation. Back in 1991, when Tottenham Hotspur played Vasco da Gama in Tokyo, Spurs coach Ray Clemence commented on support for the national team, “the support was very sedated…it is what you would expect really, considering the national character”.

Indeed, there is something about football that seems to raise questions about Japanese national identity. An early observer of J-League fans describes how “they are Japanese living in their own country, who have abandoned a little of their Japaneseness”. The J-League founders were keen for clubs to be community-based, as opposed to industry-orientated as many had been. Previously all league clubs had been representatives of their parent organisation, usually car manufacturers or electrical companies. So, for example, the Saitama prefecture was now represented by Urawa Red Diamonds instead of Mitsubishi Motors FC. Due to this emphasis on regionalism, a new fan culture that was more in line with British football fanaticism was able to develop. It was also a boon for the national team as fans started to take pride in seeing players from their clubs pulling on the blue shirt.

On the pitch, Japan are a technically gifted side and this squad is the quite possibly the strongest they have sent to a major tournament to date. A lot can be gleaned about their quality by the number of players who play overseas. 12 of the 23 man squad play outside of Japan, compared to 1998 where all 23 played domestically. The fulcrum of the side is made up of German-based players, with the Bundesliga becoming something of a second home for Japanese overseas players in a way which the Premier League has never been able to match. The German top flight now has 10 Japanese players and as a signal of its growing status, an official Japanese Bundesliga website was launched last year.

Again, this bilateral relationship raises some interesting discussion on what it means to be Japanese. Schalke defender Atsuto Uchida is one of Japan’s current stars and was the only player outside of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund to be named in the Bundesliga team of the season. A promotional video about Japanese players in Germany describes Uchida as the “personification of the Japanese work ethic”: what exactly does this mean?

It suggests that Uchida has been a diligent worker who is willing to learn and seek self-improvement but it is striking that these stereotypes are still applied so readily. The English equivalent would probably be a “blood and guts footballer”, although this is something of a dying breed and it is hard to think of a player in the current squad who fits this bill. We can only assume that these so-called Japanese qualities compliment the traditional German ones of “work rate” and, wait for it, “efficiency”. Maybe it is no coincidence after all that a few years to prior to the J-League’s formation, Japanese officials spent three days in Germany at Bayer Leverkusen learning about wage structure and scouting.

Indeed, the formation of the J-League offered Japanese football something of a clean slate in player development too. Since the 1970s, football coaching had grown increasingly in prominence and in 1984 the Coerver Coaching programme was created based on the revolutionary coaching practices of Dutch manager Wiel Coerver, whose methods focused on improving individual skill and technique. Since then, over 300 boys have graduated from the Coerver programme to J-League teams and several are now in the National Team.

Thus, Japanese football, devoid of any true historical football culture, has become a synthesis of Brazilian technique, British fanaticism, German “efficiency” and Dutch coaching methods. With such credentials they should prove an exciting and potentially formidable team at this World Cup.

Posted by Hugo Greenhalgh

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