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July 2009

Yes, Prime Minister

27 Jul 2009(Mon)

Diplomacy in Japan is always a source of fascination to the foreigner. One the one hand, you have half a dozen different ways of saying the same thing, depending on how polite or grovelling you want to be; the ubiquitous cushioning-the-blow approach to negotiations that apologetically suggests the whole thing ‘might be a little difficult’ rather than just saying ‘no’; and a wonderful service industry whose foot soldiers will always go out of their way to ensure that the customer is well treated, whether they work in the Hilton Hotel or at McDonald’s. And then, on the other, you have the politicians and representatives of major organizations – you know, the ones whose actual job it is to be diplomatic – making inappropriate comments or embroiled in other sorts of scandals as if it were going out of fashion, and apparently believing that the people or countries they alienate simply need to lighten up a bit.


Oversensitive or not, you’d have thought that the top brass in Tokyo would have learned to be more careful by now. In a country where replacing the prime minister every year is almost routine, a series of gaffes by the current incumbent, Taro Aso, have helped shatter the Liberal Democratic Party’s popularity so spectacularly that its half-century stranglehold on the Japanese government now looks set to be broken by Yukio Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan. The Aso Cabinet got off to an inauspicious start last autumn when Nariaki Nakayama, the newly-appointed Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, was forced to resign after just four days having referred to the Japan Teacher’s Union as ‘a cancer’ and unwisely suggesting that his country was ‘ethnically homogenous’. Since then, however, the main man himself has taken things to a new level, with highlights of Aso’s brief reign including accusing doctors of lacking common sense, criticising parents, and wiping out a key sector of the LDP’s support in one fell swoop by questioning why he should have to pay taxes for the ‘feeble’ elderly when all they do is ‘eat, drink, and make no effort’. None of this has really come as a shock, however, given that Aso’s previous bid for the premiership was marred by allegations that he had questioned the legitimacy of a rival candidate, Hiromu Nonaka, on the account of his buraku – a social minority group descending from persons with ‘impure’ occupations in Japan’s feudal era – heritage. Ironically, the man who beat Aso to the top job in 2001, Junichiro Koizumi, went on to become the first and, as yet, only of Japan’s 14 prime ministers since 1987 to survive in the role for more than three years.


All this political turmoil provided a rather fitting backdrop to the extraordinary scenes at Banpaku the other week, when Gamba Osaka chairman Kikuo Kanamori was forced onto his own soapbox in an attempt to placate angry supporters on two separate occasions in just five days. On the first such instance, a dismal 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Shimizu S-Pulse, the chairman’s day had appeared to be going so well, with a speech (albeit recorded, and clearly in an awful lot of takes) about plans for a new stadium being happily applauded by most supporters before the game. However, sceptical observers would opine that he had managed to speak for ten minutes without really saying anything, and when the overall tide turned viciously against the Gamba management following a fourth home defeat on the bounce, Kanamori’s demeanour was anything but stately. Approaching the 1,000 or so angry fans that had waited behind for an hour after the game, the first words he uttered through his little microphone were ‘shut up’, before subsequently suggesting (once the predictable reaction had died down) that the paying public that had sung tirelessly for 90 minutes in spite of the dross on the pitch might want to be a bit more supportive themselves.


A fifth home reverse, this time in the Nabisco Cup against Yokohama F Marinos, was enough to trigger an encore performance, and though weekday commitments reduced the number of protesters to around 300, it was not until almost midnight before the stand was finally emptied. In retrospect, Kanamori deserves credit for facing the fans in the first place, and indeed for his steadfast loyalty to team manager Akira Nishino when others might have pulled the trigger immediately. Having played by the rules of Japan’s hierarchical society for 60 years, it must be difficult for him – and for prime ministers and others in similar positions – to deal with criticism from the masses when those around him will always defer to ‘Mr. Chairman’. However, just as in politics, every football club depends on good relations with its public, and sadly, even if he did back down and show greater cordiality later, Kanamori’s initial prickly stance merely reaffirmed supporters’ suspicions that their chairman doesn’t quite get it. Had the run of losses continued this weekend against bottom club Oita Trinita, one can only wonder just how long into the night the backlash may have continued.

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The halfway house

8 Jul 2009(Wed)

As the 2009 J. League season reaches its halfway point this week, four key questions:


(1) Can anybody stop Kashima?

Before last week’s tricky away matches in Nagoya and Kawasaki, I was looking back four years for a historical precedent to suggest that early-season dominance from Kashima Antlers may not necessarily be decisive. Now that they have come through this double-header without even a dent made to their eight-point lead, a collapse of 2005 proportions may just be the only thing that could prevent Oswaldo de Oliveira’s side from retaining their J1 title once again. After the narrow win at hapless Oita Trinita, a 3-0 thrashing of Grampus was the perfect way to banish all memories of their misery in the ACL, but to spend an hour with ten men and still come from behind to steal a draw at Frontale – their best-placed challengers – was a demonstration of championship quality and resilience. If the confidence is back already, then losing to FC Seoul may indeed be a blessing in disguise – Kashima are free to concentrate on domestic success without the punishing international schedule that has derailed Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka in the past.


(2) Do Albirex Niigata have the staying power?

When early goals from Kisho Yano and Pedro Junior gave Albirex a 2-1 win over Kashima back on the second weekend of the season, the shock scoreline appeared an aberration that spoke more for the Antlers’ worries than it did for the hopes of Jun Suzuki’s unfancied eleven. Fast forward four months, and the famously passionate fans in Niigata have barely stopped celebrating, with their team rarely out of the top three and currently back up to second on goal difference ahead of Kawasaki. Four straight defeats in the Nabisco Cup during the recent international break had some wondering if the bubble hadn’t burst, but since the resumption of league action, Albirex have gone on to enjoy wins over Gamba, Nagoya, and now a 4-0 thrashing of Kashiwa Reysol. Closing the gap to Kashima may be too big an ask, but having finished down in 13th last year, the challenge now is to remain in the chasing pack and battle for ACL qualification. The decision of Japan striker Yano to stay will be a major boost to their chances.


(3) Have Montedio Yamagata run out of steam already?

Eight days before Albirex stole the headlines on March 15, it was little Montedio Yamagata who were the toast of the nation. On the opening day of their first ever J1 campaign, four goals in the final quarter of an hour helped them complete an incredible 6-2 romp away to Jubilo Iwata. The Tohoku side went on to register 15 points in their first nine games, remaining in the top five until May and earning manager Shinji Kobayashi the kind of praise he had not enjoyed since taking Cerezo Osaka to the brink of J1 glory in 2005. In the seven league matches since, however, they have contrived to draw one and lose six; a run that has taken them all the way down to sixteenth position and facing an immediate return to whence they came. Kobayashi has experienced a sudden fall from grace before – Cerezo were dismally relegated a year after their title challenge – but his chances of turning things around with Montedio are handicapped by limited resources in comparison to the more established teams battling for survival around them. The next two games – away to 13th-placed Yokohama F Marinos and a return meeting with Jubilo – could set the tone for their entire summer.


(4) Which familiar faces will be returning to J1 next year?

After 25 matches in this year’s J2 campaign, four former top flight sides have broken away from the rest and look set to battle for three tickets to return to former glories. The goalscoring form of Japanese international midfielders Shinji Kagawa and Takashi Inui has won Cerezo Osaka plenty of plaudits so far this year, but they were overtaken at the top last weekend by Shonan Bellmare, who have spent a decade in the second tier since their golden era of Hidetoshi Nakata and Hong Myung-Bo ended with mass departures in 1998 and relegation a season later. Third-placed Vegalta Sendai were unable to reward their excellent supporters with victory in last year’s relegation/promotion playoff against Jubilo, but just like Ventforet Kofu in fourth, are desperate for a second crack at J1 having still only completed two top flight seasons in their history. An unprecedentedly gruelling 51-game league calendar will make the remainder of the season tricky to predict, however, and the goals of Masashi Oguro make Tokyo Verdy the most likely of ‘the rest’ to pounce should any of the top four start to flag.

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