Soccer: No Sport for “Japanese Only”

Society Culture

On Sunday, March 23, the Urawa Reds played Shimizu S-Pulse to a draw at a locked and empty Saitama Stadium 2002 in the first ever closed-door match enforced by the J-League, Japan’s top professional soccer league. The fan lock-out, which by some estimates will cost the Urawa club a whopping ¥300 million, comes as punishment for a March 8 incident where a banner displaying the phrase “Japanese Only” was hung from a gate during a match against Sagan Tosu. Photos of the banner quickly made the rounds on social media, sparking debate online and in print as to its meaning and intended target.

The March 23 game took place before stands looking like this, instead of filled with banner-waving fans. Gate 209 is just under the giant screen. (©

The banner in question was hung at the concourse entrance of gate 209, which leads directly to the seats behind the north-end goalposts: stomping grounds for the urutora (ultras), the die-hard core supporters. The Urawa ultras relish their bad-boy image―they openly advertise their anti-authoritarianism with a giant Che Guevara banner. I live in Urawa and have regularly attended Reds matches for over a decade (though I was unable to attend the match in question). Being familiar with the ultras’ antics, when I saw the debate on Twitter light up I slapped my head in dismay and thought, here we go again.

As I watched things unfold, though, my reaction went from slapping my head to scratching it in wonder. First came the response, or lack of it, of the Urawa Reds head office. The club has generally been quick and decisive when responding to incidents involving team supporters. This time, though, they received deserved criticism for their slow response. A statement posted on the club’s website outlining the response to the incident and affirming the Reds’ commitment to the “Sports for Peace” project sounded like a quick brush-aside, and it was not until the J-League passed down its severe punishment on March 13 that the club announced it had banned the group responsible indefinitely and was for the time disallowing banners and flags to be displayed at all home and away matches.

Another thing that had me scratching my head was the flat note on which all this drama ended. J-League Chairman Murai Mitsuru showed decisive action from the beginning. He cited, among other things, the seriousness of the act and Urawa’s history of incidents involving supporters as reasons for the severity of the sanctions. But when I saw the official English translation of his statement I cringed. Although the core meaning was still there, the quality of the translation frustratingly diminished the impact of Murai’s message.

The most disturbing theory explaining the incident is that the banner was a statement of Japanese nationalism. An article in the Huffington Post Japan (in Japanese) cited an interview with Sagara Sumitomo, the retired call leader of an ultra fan group, in which he notes that “the ultras don’t like Korea.” The article also points to booing directed at recent Urawa acquisition Lee Tadanari, a Japanese national team player of Korean ethnicity. However, a careful reading of the full interview (which was printed in the March issue of the official Urawa Reds magazine) shows that Sagara seems rather to be describing the current tense state in the country and not promoting racist thinking.

The more likely theory has to do with short-sighted fan pride. Space is limited behind the goalposts, and the groups have a hierarchy that decides which groups stands where. Lone supporters are allowed to squeeze in behind established groups as more people means more intensity. I did the same when I began attending games at Komaba Stadium, the team’s old home ground. Mere meters away from the call leader and banging drums, I quickly learned that the tradeoff for being given a spot was nonstop cheering. Under no circumstances were you to stop―not even to go to the toilet or if the team was crashing and burning big time. At Saitama Stadium the all-out rule applies between gates 208 and 209.

I have noticed over the years an increasing number of foreign fans at matches, undoubtedly drawn by the intensity of this atmosphere. Many of these fans are lured or wander into the ultras’ area out of curiosity (or voyeurism), unaware of the strict code of conduct. Rather than a sneer directed at all foreigners, the sign at the March 8 game was likely a reaction of some of the ultras to well-meaning foreigners getting in the way of people who are very serious about what they are doing. This explanation seems to also fit with the comment made by the supporters club to Reds investigators: “The area behind the goal is ours. We don’t want other people, especially not foreigners, coming here.”

Again I scratch my head. What did they think would happen? With over 10 million visitors to Japan in 2013 and growing number of foreign residents, those in society uncomfortable with change are going to have to come up with a more viable option of dealing with cross-cultural friction than merely telling people they are not welcome. I hope the J-League’s strict punishment serves as an opportunity to discuss ways to be more tolerant. In the meantime, I will continue to support the Reds, though from a different part of the north stands—first, because I am getting too old for the shouting, and also because the seats behind the goalposts are a terrible place to watch a match, with the view of the game nearly always blocked by heads and waving flags. It is a great atmosphere, though, and I will be watching any developments there closely.

Soccer football sports J. League racism Urawa Reds