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September 2010

And another thing...

29 Sep 2010(Wed)

Three minor rants to conclude what has been a rather stop-start September. (Apologies for the irregular updates, but seriously, who puts a bank holiday on a Thursday? Last Wednesday felt like Friday and Friday felt like Monday. This doesn’t count as part of the three, by the way.)


(1) Guatemara? Who are they?


As Mario Rodriguez celebrated the goal at Nagai the other week that stopped the new-look Samurai Blue in their tracks, his eye might have been caught by the following text on the scoreboard behind the net:




Despite the fact that ‘Guatemala’ was correctly spelled on the colour screen at the opposite end of the ground, this error ultimately went unrectified for about 40 minutes from kick-off until a quiet bit of editing just before half-time. (There’s a slightly blurred image here; a much better close-up taken from my own vantage point seems to have somehow disappeared from my friend’s iPhone before he was able to forward it to me. I’m sure that wouldn’t happen if I had an iPhone. I don’t know. Again, not part of the three.)


Now, it matters not a jot that several Japanese struggle with English; indeed, it is far more embarrassing that so many Brits and Americans fail to see the hypocrisy in insisting overseas visitors speak our local tongue while refusing to pay a similar courtesy on their own holidays abroad. There really ought not be any condemnation of the stereotypically common confusion between ‘l’ and ‘r’ either, since neither of these English phonemes find a natural home within the Japanese language. Instead, there is an alveolar lateral flap whose sound falls roughly in between the two – denoted as [ɺ] in the IPA but usually written as ‘r’ when convenience necessitates the Latin alphabet – and which causes at least as many initial problems to the foreigners that do actually try to speak and pronounce Japanese.


No, the problem here is that the scoreboard operator did not check – or, most likely, even think to check – the correct spelling. In a century where Google and Wikipedia are never more than two clicks away on a laptop or mobile telephone, such negligence is at best unacceptable. At worst, this was both arrogant and deeply disrespectful to the Guatemalan footballers who were, after all, guests of this country.


The case of the Nagai scoreboard was, of course, no isolated incident. From brand names and football merchandise, to greeting cards (or worse) that read ‘Congratulation!’ and worryingly inappropriate slogans on children’s T-shirts, ‘Engrish’ remains rife in virtually all walks of life in Japan. From personal experience, even when a large company does have the common sense to ask a native speaker to take care of things – there are plenty of us about – it is bafflingly frustrating just how often the English prose is still then unilaterally mutilated by a Japanese ‘editor’ prior to publication or presentation.


If we assume that a certain amount of multilingualism is an essential tool for global communications and competitiveness then the premise is really rather simple. A visiting client or VIP will always feel welcome and more at ease when greeted by a host or guide who has learnt his language, and should cheerfully forgive any mistakes or slip-ups in pronunciation. Nonsense in writing like the examples cited above, however, comes across as inexcusably shoddy and gives foreigners – important or otherwise – every excuse to poke fun and take their business elsewhere.



(2) Another derby insult


On the terraces at Gamba Osaka – when we’re not drying ourselves off with grammatically incorrect towels – ‘pigs’ is the obvious casual jibe of choice to be directed at a local rival that chooses to dress itself in pink and be sponsored by a company named Nippon Ham. However, this is apparently no longer acceptable, for fans from the blue half of this city have now been firmly warned ahead of both derby matches in this, Cerezo Osaka’s first season back in the top flight since relegation in 2006, that any such association will be looked upon most unsympathetically and carries the risk of lengthy stadium bans. When one supporter missed the memo and briefly displayed a cartoon pig flag before this month’s meeting at Banpaku, members of the central supporters’ groups were later forced to cut short their celebrations at the Gamba victory to be reprimanded by stewards who had received official complaints from the opposite end.


I have written about this at length before and would advise anyone who doubts my reasoning to refer to the column I wrote in the wake of this year’s previous derby back in March, but since the attitude being taken towards Gamba fans remains utterly ridiculous, I shall briefly recap. The presence of two football clubs in baseball-mad Osaka may not always be ideal, but the resultant derbies provide the ideal opportunity to promote football in this area through identity and positive rivalry if utilized correctly (it was not for nothing that former Japan boss Ivica Osim recently suggested on SkyPerfecTV that Japanese football should actively pursue rivalries with China and South Korea in order to develop beyond its recent achievements). Any actual violence or songs that are genuinely insensitive, racist, or otherwise inciting to trouble must of course be severely condemned, but a certain amount of humorous ‘banter’ is both an inevitable consequence of Japan’s attempts to adopt the culture of the global game and indeed a desirable part of its whole appeal. And besides, who actually gets really, seriously offended when a team of footballers gets compared to barn animals?


Here’s my idea: you keep on calling us ‘monkeys from Suita’, and we’ll keep on calling you ‘pigs’. And I’ll gently tease my Cerezo-supporting friends on Monday when Gamba win, and they’ll tease me back when we lose.



(3) Does anybody else care anyway?


During the normally excellent Yabecchi FC on Sunday night (why Japan generally does highlights programmes so well when its live coverage is usually so poor, I’m uncertain), a wry smile came across my face when the producers denied us a second look at Lucas’s 30-yard winner for Gamba Osaka at Kawasaki Frontale – in what, behind a 5-1 win for leaders Nagoya Grampus at Nihondaira, was easily the second most significant result of the weekend. “I bet we’d have got a replay if that had been Urawa,” I muttered cynically to myself.


Sure enough, no more than ten seconds later, viewers were treated to as many as three different camera angles from which to enjoy Reds midfielder Yosuke Kashiwagi’s opener from similar distance in their mid-table clash with Albirex Niigata. Even a well-taken but otherwise quite unspectacular second goal from Sergio Escudero got a second airing too.


Now, I know what I’ve just said about football in Kansai having its troubles, but come on, throw us a frickin’ bone here. It’s a bit depressing when the sports media bias towards Kanto becomes quite this predictable.



* As of next month, this column will no longer be translated into Japanese by me personally but by a native speaker; in the interests of efficiency, timeliness, and – having just re-read rant (1) – total linguistic accuracy.

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Japan still lack in attack, but time to back Zac

13 Sep 2010(Mon)

The difference, off the pitch anyway, with the last time that the Japanese national team had ventured west to Osaka was striking. While much of the crowd for April’s humiliation against a young Serbian eleven had slunk into the stadium mere moments before mumbling their way through Kimi ga yo with equally little gusto, on this occasion the platforms both at Nagai Station and at the connecting hub of Tennoji were chock-a-block with fans as early as 6.15pm – a full hour and a half before kick-off and way, way earlier than most Japanese usually like to leave their desks. Back in spring, beer was purchased largely as a medium into which to stare ruefully between increasingly frequent boos and other bursts of vitriol; now, the purveyors of Kirin were back in their rightful place as catalysts to the party. Proud supporters raised their paper cups (which never do make as satisfying a clinking noise as the real thing) and happily forgave all misplaced passes and needlessly conceded goals (well, one) down on the pitch in front of them.


Which was probably just as well. In most other circumstances, winning by only the odd goal in three against a Guatemala side ranked 119th in the world (one place below the Faroe Islands) and which failed to even qualify for the most recent edition of the CONCACAF Gold Cup in that notoriously competitive North, Central American and Caribbean region would have been considered categorically disastrous. Japan may have demonstrated a perfect start to the game, confidently racing into a 2-0 lead through two well-taken Takayuki Morimoto goals in the opening 20 minutes, but the bubble was then burst completely when Mario Rodriguez’s quick reply heralded the dawn of more than an hour’s worth of absolutely nothing.


Even then, it wasn’t as if anybody minded. There are bigger and more important tests to come ahead of January’s curiously-timed Asian Cup, while more significantly for the paying public, the euphoria of South Africa remains fresh in the memory. If even the players were unsure as to the game’s wider significance, this wouldn’t have been helped by the sight of new boss Alberto Zaccheroni sat in the directors’ box while Hiromi Hara – elected to serve as caretaker for the September friendlies when Japan were still manager-less – issued instructions from the touchline.


The appointment of Zaccheroni as successor to the ultimately (and surprisingly) successful Takeshi Okada is an interesting one. At a stage where Japan need to build on a last 16 appearance at an overseas World Cup that surely ranks as their finest ever footballing achievement, the Japan Football Association had two options – to follow the Huh Jung-Moo/South Korean route and target a domestic coach like Akira Nishino to further the overall development of Japanese football more organically, or to again look overseas for someone with that little bit extra to take the Samurai Blue to the next level. In Zaccheroni, the JFA have unquestionably hired the manager with the most glittering CV in their history.


However, the Italian’s most notable successes – third place in Serie A with little Udinese in 1998, and a Scudetto crown at AC Milan the following year – are sadly now as dated as the famous 3-4-3 system with which he achieved them. Since failing to hold onto his job at Milan’s city rivals Inter at the end of the 2003/04 campaign, ‘Zac’ had only found employment for a total of less than ten months in six years before the JFA came calling. An incomplete season at Torino in 2006/07 was followed by a mid-season appointment at Juventus this January with the mission of recovering the Old Lady from the depths of sixth position to which they had fallen under occasional SKY PerfecTV pundit Ciro Ferrara. One seventh-place finish and a 4-1 Europa League defeat to Fulham later, Zaccheroni’s contract was never likely to be renewed.


Tactically, Zaccheroni quickly abandoned his back three at Juventus for a variation on 4-3-3, but if his influence on the Guatemala friendly was as significant as reports on deep and lengthy discussions with Hara seemed to suggest, then it appears likely that his Japan will favour the 4-2-3-1 style employed by Okada until immediately before the World Cup. This column was an unequivocal advocate of the change to 4-1-2-2-1 but this reversal makes inherent sense for two reasons. Firstly, with Asia now the sole focus until summer 2013, Japan will be expected to dominate most opponents again and thus the defensive frailties of a ‘double volante’ pairing of (or akin to) Yasuhito Endo and Makoto Hasebe will likely be less of an issue. Secondly, the new boss now has plenty of time and opportunity to bed in younger players like Morimoto, Shinji Kagawa, and Hajime Hosogai; and perhaps foster a team that is comfortable playing in the en vogue formation of the 2010s even against the very best.


We can only hope that Zaccheroni has a firm enough grasp of his ideal system to impart it upon his players, but like with prime ministers and presidents, it is in everybody’s best interests to support him – at least initially – even if we might not all have chosen him ourselves.

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