Kayoko Shimada - looks at mutual misunderstanding 03/09/02

This article originally appeared in Japanese in June 2002.

Living in England, I am constantly reminded of how little interest people here have about Japan. Questions such as 'Japan is in Hong Kong, isn't?' or 'What part of China is Japan in?' are not uncommon. Even when I say that I am Japanese, the standard follow-up question is: 'Which part of China are you from?' In the past when I heard this, I thought it was joke. When I realized, however, that it wasn't a joke, I was dumbfounded. There are of course people in England who are well versed in things Japanese, and I have English friends who speak better Japanese than I do, but they are a tiny minority.

When Arsenal and England defender Ashley Cole was out with an injury and unable to take part in practices, he told the tabloids that, 'I studied Japanese by watching Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee videos. I tried what I learned through the videos with [former teammate Junichi] Inamoto and I made myself understood.' I burst out laughing when I read that. The videos must have been dubbed into Japanese!

Once England (and Ireland) had qualified for the 2002 Korea/Japan World Cup - and would be playing in the very same Japan about which until now few knew much about and cared little - the media started doing stories about Japan. The theme of these stories was invariably how expensive everything in Japan was. Articles suggesting that there will be fewer fans making the trip because of the high prices are unfortunate. And from reporters from a country in which lunch at McDonalds costs 5 pounds ($7.70) and a pint of beer 8 pounds ($12.40). Such misleading journalism will no doubt make supporters think twice before heading off.

In any English city, two-and-a-half pounds ($3.90) for a sandwich is standard. I've become numb to this by now; however, when I first arrived here I was blown away by such prices, and often would walk out of stores without buying anything. Similarly, many students and tourists from Japan are equally stunned by prices in England. After researching the cost of living in England, many Japanese students change their plans and decide to study in other, less expensive countries - a fact that is obviously not well-known in England.

What I have been concerned about in England - the low level of interest in Japan and exaggerated reports about how high prices in Japan are - is, unfortunately, mirrored in an equally clueless Japanese press corps. In Japan, the media has obsessed about hooligans. When I returned to Japan prior to the World Cup, there was a great deal of special programming devoted to the upcoming tournament. These programs hammered home the theme that England=hooligans. Many of the programs aired footage of a terrible incident that took place in Heysel, Belgium, which stunned me.

The tragedy in Heysel occurred before the Liverpool v Juventus European Cup Final in May 1985. During fighting between Italian and English supporters, a stadium wall collapsed and 38 Italians and one Belgian died. As a result of sanctions, English clubs were banned from taking part in international matches for five years. It is of course true that English hooligans perpetrated and caused the fighting and subsequent deaths. Thanks to the lessons learned from this tragedy, though, today a woman on her own can safely go to watch night games in the Premier League. The atmosphere in English stadiums has completely changed from the crumbling all-male cauldrons in the 1980s, which were frequently witnessed tribal violence. The Japanese programs never mention this. To date I have been to over 200 matches in England - domestic features, Cup matches, international matches - and have never once witnessed serious trouble.

In Japan, I have heard that insurers have created special 'Hooligan Insurance': if so much as a pane of glass gets broken, it's covered. In spite of this, rumour has it that many shop owners are planning to stay closed during the World Cup. When interviewed, such owners said that the local police showed them videos that were 'like watching a murder in progress.' No doubt they were shown the same videos of Heysel that I have seen on television - and as a result are no doubt wont to take refuge.

When my cousin came to Manchester for a visit, and we met in town, he exclaimed, 'I just saw the weirdest guy! He was walking around without a shirt on - in the middle of the city!!' Now that I have been here for a few years, I have stopped noticing such things. Even if I see a shirtless man, I don't think anything of it. For Japanese, though, it is a surprising sight. Similarly, something that surprises foreigners in Japan is that there is no need to open a taxi door by yourself; the driver does it from inside with a lever. I have heard amusing jokes about foreign tourists in Japan being hit by the taxi door as they tried to open it.

What I have in fact experienced in taxis myself and am worried about is the difference in how to pay the fare. In England, you pay the driver after you have arrived at your destination: you get out of the car and then hand him the money through the window. In Japan, however, you always pay from inside the car before getting out. If English fans get out of a Japanese taxi before paying -as they would back home in England - the driver might think they are trying to avoid paying and therefore may lunge after them.

In order to avoid problems, the British Home Office has called for restraint among fans traveling to Japan and, on its web site, posted a list of 'dos and don'ts' in Japan. Among other tips, the Home Office has the following suggestions: 'Do not display tattoos, which do not connote fashion in Japan,' 'Even if it is hot, do not parade around cities without your shirt on,' and 'Don't drink and cause disturbances.' In spite of these efforts by the British authorities, it is unfortunate that no parallel effort appears to have been made by the Japanese mass media to use the World Cup to teach about cultural differences. In place of informative and intelligent journalism, hyperbole and unrelenting coverage of hooligans have dominated in both the press and on television.

Finally, what I am most worried about is Japanese people misconstruing ordinary drinking and carousing by English fans as 'hooligan behavior.' The media has already made people unnecessarily paranoid and tense; moreover, Japanese are not familiar with the way English people drink and enjoy themselves. In such circumstances, many Japanese may report to the police English people who are merely having good fun. Is there anyone out there besides me who thinks that instead of simply showing over and over again horrendous videos of the tragedy at Heysel - and scaring the hell out of local people - it might be helpful in reducing cultural misunderstanding if the media would introduce those different customs that may indeed cause mutual confusion?

translated by R. Sanborn Brown

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