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.