We should remind ourselves, at this point, that hooligan-esque incidents remain isolated and that J. League terraces, much like Japanese society as a whole, are still extremely safe by global standards. Conversations with other fans and a perusal of online message boards reveal that philosophies and phenomena akin to those observed at Gamba and the other examples cited above are indeed present on many goal-ura stands across Japan; however, they are by no means indicative of the whole nor even the majority. In 2011, the important thing to note is that just as the on-pitch development of professional football in this country has moved out of its formative years and into a potentially more defining era, the very same can be said of the supporters.
As such, the directionality of their evolution is at a crucial stage. Copying the Italians was fine ten or twenty years ago; it is now time to ensure that the atmospheres created by the ōendan are both flavoured by and representative of genuine local identities. On a direct level, this could see the phasing out of overly ubiquitous Serie A chants in favour of melodies from Japanese popular music and wittier, bespoke lyrics (this certainly shouldn’t be difficult in a city with Osaka’s comedy traditions, for example, and the lyrical element at least is now showing gradual signs of improvement). In a much broader context, meanwhile, the established supporters have an opportunity – and a certain responsibility – to engage more deeply with society by actively seeking to incorporate its more positive elements, such as the inspiring togetherness and determination manifested in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
At clubs like Yokohama F Marinos, this is already happening. Brendan Wimsett speaks of a heart-warming example of supporter involvement within the local community: “My impression of the ōendan has done nothing but improve with each passing year. I don’t know about other clubs, but we have a special community which is also a recognised NPO called ‘Hamatra’. Hamatra is basically both an online networking site (SNS) and also a group that is responsible for printing out free fanzines which they give out to all supporters that come to the games. Though Hamatra is essentially a community, most of the editorial work, event management, social activities et cetera are actually handled by core members of the various ōendan.
“(These include) little activities like putting up posters to promote the club and litter picking activities around the city; right up to bigger tasks like arranging for several buses to take a load of supporters up to Tohoku to assist with the earthquake relief. All of these community-aimed activities are organised with an aim to bring the supporters together and make us feel a part of something special; at the same time as giving something back to the city we all love. These types of activities are largely made possible due to the huge efforts put in place by the ōendan members.”
Clearly, Hamatra appears an excellent model for the rest of the country to follow. In terms of generating atmosphere, appealing to others, and serving as a valuable outlet for emotional release, there is still room for ultras-inspired ōendan on Japanese terraces; but any portents of racism, violence, or hostility must be identified, publicised, and eradicated. The task now for the J. League supporters’ groups is to exercise their privilege of leadership for the benefit of the many, and – together with the clubs they follow – ensure that a healthy balance be found between the various cultural elements, objectives, and ideals that mingle on the terraces in the coming years and decades.
Many thanks indeed to Steve Barme, Michael Hudson, Mike Innes, Mario Kawata, Brendan Wimsett, and the various anonymous ōendan members for their very kind input and cooperation in the compilation of this article.