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September 2008

Where’s the remote?

30 Sep 2008(Tue)

A brief trip back home to Somerset last week brought to mind a number of differences between the UK and Japan. Starting with the most obvious, it was nice that being back in the country of my birth meant that I could be a ‘normal person’ for a few days again as opposed to a foreigner, although it was pointed out that I may yet be turning Japanese when bemused family and friends asked me why I was bowing at them. I generally attempted to cover my embarrassment with the excuse that jet lag had my body running on auto pilot, but truth be told, the colder weather was generally enough to wake me however rough I was feeling. With even the nights of the only recently passed Osaka summer so uncomfortably hot as to require air conditioning, it was a shock to the system when I stepped out of the terminal building at Bristol Airport to an air temperature of six degrees.

 

Perhaps the need to survive such a climate is why many of us Brits are equipped with fuller bellies than are most Japanese. I am, of course, no stranger to this phenomenon myself, but visits to the UK never fail to leave me shocked by the size of a single portion. The famous scene in Pulp Fiction used McDonald’s as its barometer to compare the world’s finer details, but even a supposedly healthier meal at the Subway fast food chain brought the differences between the two countries in my life into sharp focus. The larger sandwich size is available in Japan if you ask for it, but in the UK, a foot-long was apparently the default option unless I requested otherwise. With the company’s emphasis on nutrition, Japanese Subway employees always ask if there are ‘any vegetables you don’t like’, so a rather uncommitted ‘do you want salad too, or...’ in the Taunton store implied a slightly different approach.

 

I won’t seek to compare the quality of the football itself, but my ideas of going to see the nearest professional team to my home, League One side Yeovil Town, were abandoned in any case when I discovered that entrance to stand behind the goal at Huish Park would cost me double the price of a similar ticket for a J1 game. It is a worrying indication of the current socioeconomic conditions of English football that clubs can be falling into debt even when it costs £19 just to see a match in the third tier, but the free weekend did at least mean that I could reacquaint myself with the football programming on British television. The coverage and publicity given to football is occasionally criticised amongst the broadsheet press and certain supporters for excessive levels of hype, but while it is certainly not perfect, a Saturday and Sunday in front of the box only made me wish that the level of coverage in Japan could be at least half as comprehensive.

 

The influential satellite channel Sky Sports has invested enormous amounts of money into football rights since the advent of the Premier League, and Saturdays here begin with the ever popular variety of ‘Soccer AM’. Once the viewers have been sufficiently wakened by the lively mixture of highlights, comedy, and guests from the worlds of sport and celebrity, we move on to ‘Soccer Saturday’, arguably the jewel in the crown of the Sky Sports coverage. A tradition of 3pm Saturday kick-offs that extends to teams of all sizes throughout the country means that live matches in this time slot are banned, and the consequent idea of people in a studio telling us what’s going on without any actual pictures may seem a rather strange one, but the energy and humour that Jeff Stelling and friends bring to six hours of breaking news from dozens of different matches has made this programme a great success. Over on the state broadcaster BBC, the ‘Football Focus’ lunchtime preview show and ‘Final Score’ results service have survived and prospered despite recent changes on the channel, while the highlights on ‘Match of the Day’ – which aired for the first time back in 1964 – remain an essential part of Saturday evenings. With live matches, a number of discussion programmes, and 24-hour sports news channels to boot, the football coverage in the UK is always colourful and generally inescapable.

 

The major effect that such thorough coverage has lies in the wide attention it attracts. While critics of certain programmes in Britain may point to a lack of analytical depth, the football broadcasting in Japan is sadly lagging far behind in terms of both quantity and quality. Although perhaps not true of all, there is all too often an absence of real passion and (even more inexcusably) knowledge, with few truly imaginative programmes to inspire the viewer. The J League may not have deep social roots to compare with those in England, and this may of course lead to a vicious circle whereby broadcasters are unwilling to commit further finances while viewing figures remain low. However, greater creativity in channelling resources into a more diverse line up of programming, outside of live games, could instead generate positive synergy, by enhancing public awareness of football and using this as a platform to draw attention towards TV content. Without wishing to appear overly harsh, it is simply not enough just to tell the viewer that something is interesting.

 

 

* ‘Final Score’ can be seen in Japan via cable or satellite television on BBC World News. Two hours of live ‘Soccer Saturday’ coverage (3pm-5pm, UK time) each week are also available online.

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ACL: In touch with the best of Asia

26 Sep 2008(Fri)

‘The champions of the ACL simply have to be a Japanese team’. Gamba Osaka manager Akira Nishino is of course specifically hoping to lead his own side to glory, but with Gamba set to face Urawa Reds in the semi-finals of the AFC Champions League next month, the J League is guaranteed to have one representative in the final for the second year in a row. Kashima Antlers’ narrow defeat at the hands of Adelaide United meant that Japan was unable to repeat the English feat of securing three of the last four berths in their respective continents’ premier club competitions, but with the level and overall balance of the J League growing ever stronger, further successes can surely be expected in a newly-expanded ACL from next year.

 

The ACL finally entered its knockout stages last week, and to a European, these only serve to underline the sheer vastness of the Asian continent. EU expansion may have brought about significant recent integration with Eastern European countries superficially, but the deeply-rooted capitalism of the UEFA Champions League has seen it dominated by a handful of clubs from Western Europe, and the £600 that Chelsea and Manchester United fans had to fork out for return flights of four hours each way to Moscow for last season’s final was the exception rather than the norm.

 

Asia, on the other hand, is a somewhat arbitrary concept – a massive continent comprised actually of four or five separate regions, with the traditionally strong footballing nations scattered at the western and eastern extremes. For the supporters of Gamba Osaka who travelled to Syria for the ACL quarter-final against Al-Karamah last week, the investment of time and money required totalled around 300,000 yen (approx. £1,500) for two nights and three days – well over double that for the trips from England to Russia. At the same time, however, the experience of the Ancient City of Damascus – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and of a history, religion, and culture so different to that of Japan will likely have made the journey more than worthwhile for the small number of travelling supporters. A friend of mine may have given away his priorities when he said that he ‘did manage to find some alcohol in the Christian parts of the city’, but the journey of which he told had truly been a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

 

It is in experiences like these that much of the significance of the ACL lies. With few world-famous club teams, as well as significant barriers of both language and distance throughout Asia, the ACL itself may suffer from a lack of attention while the ticket to the FIFA Club World Cup is seen as the main attraction. However, it ought instead to be viewed as an opportunity not only for the players and fans fortunate enough to travel to other parts of the world, but for normal supporters to experience different human and footballing cultures as well, by meeting visiting supporters to Japan and witnessing teams and playing styles they may not have known previously. A little more TV coverage would certainly help, but the clubs might consider hosting a few more events at the stadiums to appeal both to home and away supporters, not least in the regionally-based group stage of the tournament. The ACL has great potential to further both the football and the footballing culture of Japan, and it would be nice to see a slightly more multifaceted approach to the competition.

 

Personally, I have been a fan of the ACL since I witnessed Gamba’s first appearance back in 2006, but my most memorable experience to date was the home match with Melbourne Victory this April. Before the game, I bumped into a fellow foreigner outside Banpaku, and engaging with him in the way that foreigners in Japan often do, I discovered that he had come over from Australia to support our opponents. He introduced me to his friends, who explained that a healthy number of Melbourne supporters were using the football as an ideal opportunity to travel throughout Japan and Korea. We met up again after the match to enjoy a little more football chat, and as they posed for photographs with Japanese children to whom they had given their Melbourne scarves, it was hard not to be impressed with the fun-loving spirit and warmth of the Australians. ‘Make sure you come to Australia if Gamba play Adelaide later on,’ I was told. ‘We can’t stand them, so we’ll go and support Gamba with you’. If only I had the money, I would absolutely love to...

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The fairer face of Japanese pubs and stadiums

9 Sep 2008(Tue)

Without wishing to publicise the place too brazenly, I have quickly grown fond of the new British pub that opened recently in Umeda, the lively hub in the north of Osaka City. Usually, I rarely tend to go to many of the locations favoured by ex-pats unless I’m dying for a Guinness or just anything that actually comes in a pint glass, but this particular pub provides live coverage of Gamba Osaka matches on its TV screens as part of a commercial tie up with the club. Having long missed being able to watch the football in the pub whenever I’m not at the stadium, as we would do back in the UK, this new development is most welcome.

 

Naturally, this was my venue of choice to watch the first leg of the Nabisco Cup semi final between Shimizu S-Pulse and Gamba Osaka last week, but I quickly noticed that whenever things got noisy – such as when Shu Kurata somehow missed a gilt-edged chance for Gamba in the second half – the shouts of the supporters were unusually high in pitch. Looking around, I realised that more than half of the patrons – and certainly those focused most ardently on the game – were women. It would indeed appear that the gender distribution among Japanese football fans, which differs greatly to that of the UK, extends to the watering holes as well.

 

One of the first things one notices, as a Brit, upon visiting a Japanese football ground is that even if most of the hardcore supporters will still be male, there are always a large number of women and children in the rest of the stadium. The Premier League may now be prohibitively expensive for the whole family to attend matches together, but even the ‘2008 Supporters Survey’ conducted by the Football League throughout the next three English divisions showed that women only account for one in every five match-going supporters. In stark contrast, the results of the ‘Stadium Spectators Survey’ conducted by the J-League suggest that the proportion of female fans in Japan has been around 40% since the start of the decade – twice the percentage of their English counterparts. This is an interesting social phenomenon that has become apparent within Japan’s fairly unique sporting culture, into which football was only introduced quite recently.

 

A complete analysis of the factors behind this phenomenon could fill a thesis (and did fill a chunk of my own undergraduate dissertation a few years ago), but the baseball culture that was established here first is most significant. While it would be incorrect to suggest that women do not watch baseball too, the custom for Japanese ‘salary men’ to go to the ballpark after work has been established for many decades, and it is no surprise that football has been more successful in attracting most of its supporters from social spheres away from the traditional baseball fans. Even in terms of sporting ethics, the hierarchical relationships that are so deeply embedded in Japanese companies remain clearly apparent within baseball teams and indeed matches, but it has been suggested that the greater reliance in football on the players’ own judgement and creativity rather than on constant direction from above is something that appeals to women and younger people in Japan.

 

Such theories are supported by the particularly high proportion of women among supporters of Gamba Osaka. Taking a mean of the results of the J-League surveys published at the end of the last four seasons gives a female supporter ratio of 47% - well in excess of the national average – while the figures in certain surveys have even recorded more women than men. The baseball traditions in this city run especially deep, and with the Orix Buffaloes and in particular the Hanshin Tigers stirring up popular emotion and dominating the sports headlines, it is perhaps unsurprising that the men have found it hard to tear themselves away from the ballparks. Incidentally, the proportion of women at Vissel Kobe games is also around the 40% mark, but at Cerezo Osaka – based much further away from Koshien in the south of Osaka – the figures tend to fall below the league average at between 3 and 4 in every ten.

 

The fact that the number of female spectators at Vissel Kobe and Cerezo Osaka games fell markedly during their respective seasons in J2 may be evidence of male dominance among the hardcore groups, and there will also of course be certain people interested more in seeing their favourite players rather than the sport itself. However, while the so-called ‘people’s game’ remains largely the domain of men back in the UK, the composition of Japanese football fans shows much more balance, and this can only be a good thing for the sport. Football as a social phenomenon in Japan remains in its infancy, but the healthy mixture of men and women will be an important basis for its future growth.

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About time for the nitty-gritty

3 Sep 2008(Wed)

Things are finally set to become interesting in the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup this week, with the two legs of each semi final being contested on Wednesday and Sunday. The structure of the competition may not be quite as ludicrous as in 2004, when it took four months just to play out the group phase, but with fans barely able to remember the first leg results of the quarter finals by the time the return fixtures were played some five weeks later, the stop-start nature of the tournament remains a problem. The Nabisco Cup ranks a distinct third in the clubs’ domestic priorities behind the league and the Emperor’s Cup, and one gets the impression that, rather like the English Carling Cup, it is only when teams find themselves in the semi finals that they then decide they may as well try and win the thing.

 

However, with Kashima Antlers and Urawa Reds already eliminated, three of the last four teams will be aiming for their first trophies in a long while, and indeed the only one of the so-called big three of recent years to remain is the freefalling Gamba Osaka. Gamba have dropped well behind the top five in the league table, and their goalscoring problems and reshuffled forward line may be particularly liable to exposure in the ACL, meaning that the Nabisco Cup represents the best chance of a trophy this year for Akira Nishino’s side. They are, of course, the defending champions, and will want to extend their fine recent record in a competition where they also reached their first final back in 2005.

 

Gamba’s opponents, Shimizu S-Pulse, are currently 14th in the league and, on paper, the weakest side left in the competition, but they have recovered to an extent from their poor form before the summer interval and will be glad of a break from the pressures of the relegation battle. Despite going down to an unfortunate defeat at the hands of leaders Nagoya Grampus in their last league game, Shimizu had scored eleven goals in six unbeaten games immediately beforehand, suggesting that they have put their striking problems of the spring well behind them. S-Pulse were a bit of a cup team in the J League’s early years, building on successive final defeats in 1992 and 1993 to finally win the Nabisco Cup in 1996, but the team has not won a single title now since the Xerox Super Cup in 2002.

 

The other semi final pits together two sides battling for the league championship, even if their respective candidacies for the title may not have been widely predicted back in pre-season. It is three years this week since Peracles Chamusca took the helm at an Oita Trinita side that had not won in four months and brought about an immediate reversal of form to save them from relegation, and the team are enjoying another nigh on miraculous season again this year. Now fourth in the table, and just a point behind the leaders, Oita are unbeaten in two months and are arguably the league’s form side. The club has never won a trophy other than the J2 title that brought with it a ticket to the top flight in 2002, but the supporters will want to continue enjoying their taste of unknown territory having never experienced so much as a quarter final before this year.

 

Standing in their way on the road to Tokyo, however, are the league leaders, Nagoya Grampus. One of the J League’s ten founder members, Nagoya have generally underachieved since they won their second Nabisco Cup back in 1999, but the return of former hero Dragan Stojkovic to his old stamping ground this year as manager has seen Grampus undergo a minor revolution. The team’s performances can still be inconsistent, with thrashings of Urawa contrasted by defeat to Albirex Niigata, but they showed against Kashima eleven days ago that they can remain strong when it matters most, and the increasingly excited supporters will have their sights set not only on that elusive first league title, but perhaps even a double.

 

With so many points of interest surrounding each of the remaining four teams and their forthcoming battles, it is a shame that the competition’s earlier rounds were unable to stimulate anything approaching similar levels of supporter awareness and interest. The scheduling clashes with the national team games may be unavoidable but only serve to throw the significance of the Nabisco Cup into further question, and it may well be necessary for the J League to go back and reconsider the future of this tournament. Personally, I wonder if its appeal couldn’t be raised by doing away with the group stage and inviting the J2 clubs back into the fray, thereby at least guaranteeing some less familiar match-ups and the greater immediate significance of pure knockout football, but either way, it will only become harder for the Nabisco Cup to attract attention if it relies too much on talking points in autumn.

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