Football Against Adversity: A Japanese Odyssey

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY: SEAN CARROLL

After moving to Tokyo, British football writer Sean Carroll discovered a rapidly developing passion for the sport as he travelled across Japan to cover the J.League. But, as the nation looked to recover from the disastrous earthquake of March 2011, he witnessed the game take on an entirely different cultural significance…

When it hit I was luckily quite close to my apartment in Shin-Nakano, in the west of Tokyo around 230 miles from the epicentre in the Pacific Ocean off the east coast of Japan.

It was certainly the biggest I’d experienced since moving to the country but at that point I had no idea just how much of an impact the earthquake of March 11, 2011 was going to have around Japan – or indeed the world.

Initially, in fact, I didn’t even think the next day’s football would be affected, dismissing somebody’s suggestion that the J.League would be forced to cancel that weekend’s games.

Of course they were, and as the full horror of events in the Tohoku region unfolded the league wouldn’t resume again until fully six weeks later.

Strangely, in that month-and-a-half without matches I feel I learned a lot more about the status of the game in Japan than I had in the previous two years.

The professional J.League started in 1993, and in less than two decades has accelerated swiftly through the gears to the point where the nation regularly qualifies for World Cup finals and increasingly provides European clubs with talented young players.

Even so, the beautiful game still plays second-fiddle to baseball in the Land of the Rising Sun, with the American influence exerted in the aftermath of the Second World War still evident in much of Japanese culture.

Gradually though – and things certainly take time in Japan; would you believe, for example, that most official correspondence is still carried out by fax? I’d never sent a fax in my life before moving to the supposed home of technology – football is closing in.

The covers of sports magazines are increasingly emblazoned with images of Yuto Nagatomo or Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda’s chiselled features stare out at commuters on Tokyo’s underground advertising pocket mints, and kids are as likely to be kicking a ball around in the park as they are to be swinging a bat.

This, in the opinion of former Tottenham Hotspur player and manager Ossie Ardiles, is vital to the continued development of football in Japan.

“It has to do with cultural things,” the former Shimizu S-Pulse coach said upon his return to the country at the start of 2012 to coach second division outfit Machida Zelvia.

“For example,” he mused, “can a Messi be produced in Japan?

“For a Messi to be produced not only do you have to be brilliant in terms of skill and so on but the culture of the country has to help.

“Basically, Messi, from the day he was born he was playing football. In Japan that doesn’t happen. Yet.”

This caveat is added with Ardiles fully aware of the potential in the country.

The 1978 World Cup winner coached S-Pulse alongside his friend and Spurs legend Steve Perryman in the mid-nineties, and has seen first-hand the development of the Japanese game in the intervening years, also enjoying spells with Yokohama F. Marinos and Tokyo Verdy.

“You remember 20 years ago when I was playing there was not one single Japanese player playing outside of Japan,” he said.

“Suddenly you had [Hidetoshi] Nakata, [Shunsuke] Nakamura and the guy right now [Shinji Kagawa] who is probably even better.”

It is not just on the pitch that the influence of the game is growing.

While the professional baseball league ummed-and-ahhed about what to do in the days and weeks after the earthquake and tsunami wreaked physical and mental havoc on the nation the J.League acted swiftly and efficiently to aid the recovery efforts.

Players from every club headed out into their communities to raise money, a “Team as One” charity match between the national team and a J.League select XI was arranged – attracting 40,000 fans, plus tens-of-thousands more who attended open training sessions over the previous days – and, with the problems at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant causing shortages, once play resumed evening games were rescheduled to help save electricity.

I spoke with Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, of Belgian club Lierse SK, ahead of the “Team as One” game, and he commented on the central role that football could play in helping the recovery efforts.

“It’s really special because this is not a usual game against usual opponents,” he said.

“We are always supported by the Japanese people and now we must recognise the Japanese people. I will try to do my best and try to show what it is to give 100% – to not forget to hope for something.”

The singing of national anthems is often something that acts divisively between opposing teams, but on this occasion kimigayo would serve to emotionally unite everybody packed into Nagai Stadium in Osaka.

“Everybody is thinking about the situation in our country. At that time it will be all together, the people and the players,” Kawashima said.

“Through football we can do something. I have grown up by playing football. It’s not only Japan, football is the whole world and we can do something by playing football.”

Those sentiments were expressed even more concretely by Cobaltore Onagawa, a fifth-tier club who were directly affected by the tsunami and which had initially been created with the aim of keeping a community together.

Cobaltore was founded in 2006 in a port town with an ageing demographic and steadily decreasing population. The football club was established to give the youth of Onagawa a reason to stay rather than heading to bigger, more exciting cities.

Things had gone well on that front, and in their short history the team achieved three promotions to progress from the Ishinomaki City League to Tohoku League Division One.

They found themselves back in Division Two (South) in 2011, but after the tsunami hit the town on-field activities became very much secondary.

Equipment, facilities and, most tragically of all, players were lost, but the club acted as a focal point for the community.

The Cobaltore message-board was used to aid communication with phone-lines down in the direct aftermath of the disaster, the players worked tirelessly to assist in the clean-up efforts and to provide food for the town by continuing with their shifts at the fish-processing plant, and football gave everybody something tangible to focus on as they sought to rebuild.

“Though what we are doing right now is to try and recover from this disaster, in the future there will definitely be a time that our main activity, football, is needed,” club president Koichi Ohmi told me.

Another side in the affected area was J1 outfit Vegalta Sendai (pictured below in a group huddle prior to a match with Kashiwa Reysol in July 2011). The yo-yo club surprised everybody in the country by embarking on an astonishing run once the league restarted, going unbeaten for 12 matches.

When speaking with their head coach Makoto Teguramori he, too, alluded to the way in which results, and more importantly performances, on the pitch could encourage greater things away from the game.

“We’re trying to be a beacon of hope on the path to reconstruction,” he said.

“By showing how we are putting up a fight, how we are showing the Tohoku spirit of not succumbing to the earthquake, I hope we are a source of inspiration for people.”

Speaking to some of the fans of the club, this message was undoubtedly getting through loud and clear.

Noboru Takahashi, leader of the club’s oendan (support group), pointed out that the team was not only providing a welcome distraction from the misery in the region, but that it was also reinforcing just how much Vegalta had come to mean to the fans.

“After the earthquake we’ve had depressing news pretty constantly – something that’s been bringing everyone’s spirits down,” he told me.

“So when we saw our team from Sendai keeping their spirits up, we’ve been encouraged too.

“Previously I’d taken it for granted that I could watch football, and cheer on my team, but I don’t think of it that way anymore.”

Another fan, Takanobu Sato, put it more concisely.

For me, at least, more than work, more than anything, Vegalta is part of my life.”

Baseball’s popularity in Japan lies largely in the way in which it pits one competitor directly against another.

Such confrontation tests mental as much as physical resolve, and, as the nation’s martial arts karate, sumo and kendo attest to, such combat appeals to the traditional, slightly reclusive Japanese psyche.

Or at least it did.

Football, as demonstrated in the observations of Eiji Kawashima and the relationship between the Vegalta Sendai players and fans in the wake of the natural disaster, more closely resembles the multi-faceted and interconnected nature of modern society.

It will still take time, but as Japan opens up to and increasingly interacts with the wider world, football may provide the perfect vehicle with which it can explore and experience it.

Sean Carroll has been writing about the game in Japan for 3 years and has regular columns in Weekly Soccer Magazine and The Daily Yomiuri. He also provides content for the official English-language J.League website and edits their Facebook page. Most of his articles can be found at sakkanihon.wordpress.com and you can follow him on Twitter: @seankyaroru
And if you don’t already, remember to follow @theinsidelefty on Twitter as well!

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