Review of “Japanese Rules: Why the Japanese needed football and how they got it” by Sebastian Moffett. UCD AFC programme 2003

Archived here (and now here). I have observed before that I formerly wrote much more on sport than I do now… or am interested in now. Looking at this piece now, it seems to me an interesting little case study of cultural differences.


During the Confederations Cup, myself and a friend were wandering the Champs Elysees. My friend was clad in a replica Japan top and we attracted the attention of a young Japanese man who turned out to be a football journalist. A brief discussion followed – he was delighted that we recognised Inamoto and Nakata from a team picture, and asked as what we thought of someone/something called “Jiko” It took us a while to realise he meant “Zico.” He was quite knowledgeable about Ireland’s fortunes and asked us to illustrate Brian Kerr’s tactics on a piece of paper as little circles and lines.

The books I’ve reviewed in the past few issues have dealt with football and football culture in traditional powers of the game; Spain, Germany, Brazil. Written before the 2002 World Cup, “Japanese Rules” main theme is the establishment of the J League and the gradual improvement of the national team over the years. As the title suggests, football was not an established element of Japanese culture until a perceived need for it arose.

In Japanese culture, at least in Moffett’s account, hardly any aspect of life isn’t seen as a metaphor for how the Japanese see themselves. Baseball was the established sport in Japan for most of this century, largely because the one-on-one aspect of pitcher vs. slugger reminded the Japanese of one-on-one sword combat, which dominated Japanese culture well into the Nineteenth Century. Japanese baseball culture revolved around the cult of the coach – television coverage would focus on the coach’s reactions and instructions to the players. This was in turn seen as analogous to the hierarchical management structure of traditional Japanese corporations.

Football had a low-level presence in Japan for years – they won Bronze at the 1968 Olympiad coached by German Dettmar Cramer, whose training routines according to Moffett largely consisted of jumping up and down. In the early 1990s Japan’s culture began to change. There was a mood of rebellion against the hierarchical, “baseball style” management, towards a more creative, less hidebound style – football was seen as exemplifying this trend.

Hidetoshi Nakata was seen as emblematic of the “new Japan” – in fact his signings for Perugia and Parma were partly in response to death threats from some of Japan’s tiny but virulent ultranationalist groups, after off-the-record comments made about the national anthem were publicised.

Some of the descriptions of Japanese coaches of the past are astonishingly brutal. Corporal punishment of the most severe kind was not only frequent but encouraged. This was a hangover from baseball training – which from Moffett’s account seems to consist in Japan at any rate largely of the players hurling heavy objects at each other and betraying no reaction when hit.
Zico would find his Japanese team-mates taking down his most incidental word and even referring back to them prior to games. Arsene Wenger was frustrated by the subservience of the Japanese players – players in training games would look to him for baseball-style micromanagement. As late as 2000, in a Second Division J League game, a coach instructed Omiya Ardija to slow the play initially to stop the opposition take an early lead – however once the early lead was conceded the goalkeeper continued to take an eternity to take a kick out, leading to the foreign pros on the team pleading with the ref to give their own goalkeeper a yellow card.

Wenger (recent events notwithstanding) is generally portrayed as an urbane sporting intellectual. Coming to Japan fresh from the Monaco job, Wenger spent most of his time shouting at his Grampus Eight charges – once, when a striker missed a sitter, Wenger yelled at him in English from the touchline “I’ll kill you!” No wonder Martin Keown was so wound up. At first the players naturally hated him, but over time and with the help of Drajan Stojkovic, Grampus Eight became a formidable force. Stojkovic found the Japanese players initially very passive, and worst of all they weren’t upset enough for his taste when they lost.

Dunga, former Brazilian World Cup winner, came to Japan and, like Stojkovic, spent most of his time shouting at his teammates. Dunga dubbed this his “football classroom full of love” and Japanese TV showed his greatest onfield rants to a backing track of slushy romantic music. Initially, Gary Lineker was the J-League’s greatest star. He was polite, affable, made an effort with the language and culture, and was widely expected to be a crucial factor in the conversion of Japan to soccer. Lineker had severe injury problems and his son had leukaemia around the time of his Japanese Odyssey, which was not a success. One paper calculated he made a cool million quid for every goal he scored. Linker’s case illustrated a less endearing Japanese trait also seen in baseball – gaijin (foreign) players brought over on huge contracts would be mocked behind their back if they failed to live up to expectations.

As Moffett writes, in Japan it is generally believed that there is a proper way of doing things. Thus fans were encouraged to study Brazilian, English and Italian fans. In the early days of the J-League the stadiums were full of families and teenage girls whose motivation was to see the hyped spectacle and ogle the new sex symbols. Some of the stories of early J-League fan culture are quite touching – teams were exquisitely polite to each other and to the crowd. As fans “studied” other nations, they decided that this was not the way to go, and began to adopt borderline hooligan behaviour. Reading the book, this doesn’t seem to have been particularly threatening – after all, it was a rather artificial phenomenon. Even now, at international games the Japanese supporters tend to be quiet, only making noise when it’s “proper” to do so, in the stadium

The ridiculous names of J-League Clubs owes much to this notion of a “proper” way of football. The clubs were given foreign names – such as Yokohama Flugels, Kashima Antlers, Grampus Eight – as they were proper “football names.” As the Japanese economy faltered in the later Nineties, and as the initial hype of the J-League moved on, teams began to struggle financially. A merger was mooted between the Flugels and the other Yokohama team. Spontaneously, a fan revolt took place – in fact the whole story is very reminiscent of the Wimbledon MK saga. Football had given communities which largely served as dormitories for work something to focus on. At last an authentic football culture established itself in Japan.



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