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The Press and the World Cup

Soccerphile recognizes little of the Japan described by the British press in the build-up to the World Cup.

Anyone who hoped the media build-up to the World Cup would produce thoughtful insights into Japan and South Korea must be feeling sorely disappointed. We are now in the midst of another silly season, an excuse for the world's media to speculate as it waits for the tournament to get under way. This is no bad thing. Football fans expect the press to lead discussion, however banal, of everything and anything connected with the game they love. The weeks before a major tournament wouldn't be the same without it. But fulfilling a duty to satisfy popular hunger for servings of pre-World Cup sweetmeats is no excuse for some of the gruel that has found its way into coverage of the hosts.

Few expect the likes of British tabloid newspapers The Sun and The Mirror to do much other than confirm popular prejudices about the Koreans and the Japanese. In tabloid land, Korea is a nation of dog eating taekwondo experts; and the Japanese, a demure people that gets its gastronomic kicks tucking into fish so fresh it is in danger of wriggling off the plate. While the tabloids predictably play up the dietary threats to England's players and fans, the broadsheets are indulging in their own version of the stereotype game.

Sun Sport bannerTake the following article that appeared in, of all newspapers, The Times. In his dispatch from Tokyo, Matthew Syed recounts the popular verdict after showing a photograph of the England captain to "Japanese women of all ages" outside Shinjuku station in Tokyo.
"David Beckham – him vely sexy," they reportedly said. Syed continues, ‘"vely rovery" (very lovely) was the unanimous view, even from the older ones who neither knew him, nor his wife, from Adams (Tony Adams, that is).'Over the course of a quarter of a page, Syed (Britain's best table tennis player, apparently) attempts to raise cheap laughs with daft, inaccurate comments about the Japanese.

Since he is not the first, and probably won't be the last, to poke fun at the way some Japanese pronounce English words, it should be pointed out that the vast majority of English speakers do not mix up their ls and rs. This is not because they are adept at acquiring new sounds to suit their vocabulary, but because neither sound exists in Japanese. Rather, the ra, ri, ru, re, ro of Japanese phonetics are pronounced with a tiny flick of the tongue against the roof of the mouth, creating a sound somewhere between an r and a d. Syed's interviewees were either displaying an entirely new linguistic phenomenon, or he is guilty of artistic license, not to mention ignorance.

Not surprisingly, the hosts' plans for dealing with hooliganism have been exercising the minds of many columnists. Depending on whom you read, police in Japan will either place yobs in a judo hold for the crime of sporting a Preston North End/Mum tattoo… or simply run away, reputation for politeness intact. Tony Parsons, ruminating in his Daily Mirror column about growing angst over English thugs among "these hygienic, innocent people," states, "The average member of the Tokyo riot police could snap the average football hooligan's arm like a matchstick with one neat aikido move." No they could not, Tony. Because the average member of the Tokyo riot police knows as much about aikido as Dixon of Dock Green. The hard men of Robert Twigger's "Angry White Pajamas" fame are not average riot policemen.

Then there is the question of money. Japan, we are reminded, is prohibitively expensive. True, it is not cheap, and Tokyo and Osaka have been recently named the two most expensive cities in the world. But English fans who choose to forego hotel restaurants and hostess bars might find themselves pleasantly surprised. This is not the place for a price list; suffice to say that the cost of staying in Japan for a couple of weeks needn't break the bank.

Yet horror stories abound. In an interview following his return from England's base camp on Awaji Island, David Davies, executive director of the English Football Association, claimed he had paid 12 pounds for a cup of coffee. Where on earth was he spending his free time? Even decent hotels rarely charge more than about four pounds. In any case, a perfectly drinkable cup of coffee from one of the dozens of chain coffee shops usually goes for just over a pound. Hardly daylight robbery. Or should that be "lobbely"? In a typical exaggeration, Tim Hardingham wrote in The Observer, "If you step into a taxi, you'll be 10 pounds worse off before you start moving." Well, a shade under four pounds, actually, and the meter doesn't start ticking until after the first kilometer or so, but what's six quid between friends?

Guardian banner.

Most English football supporters have a right to feel irritated by their portrayal in the Japanese tabloid press as beer-swilling menaces intent on wreaking havoc in a town near you, but spare a thought, too, for the typical Japanese fan. The most interesting observation many British newspapers have been able to come up with is their penchant for clearing up litter after matches. They must be every football club's dream, for as Roy Collins wrote in The Guardian: "Calling for players' or managers' heads is anathema. They are more likely to tell a side thrashed 6-0, ‘Thank you very much, you tried your hardest.'" In fact, sit-down protests are not uncommon, and as anyone who has bothered attending a J. League fixture on a Saturday afternoon will know, fans of teams who have just been played off the park are capable of indulging in temper tantrums with the best of them.

Still, some of the World Cup build-up has been a pleasure to read. Simon Kuper's discussion in The Guardian, for example, of the co-hosts' anti-hooligan measures was well done and placed Korea-Japan relations in a historical context. Several broadsheet correspondents and columnists have dealt with the build up intelligently, while not overlooking the potential to play up the idiosyncrasies of countries that are, after all, a world apart from previous World Cup hosts. But by serving up so many lazy and often inaccurate descriptions of what to expect in June, the press has done traveling fans, and the host countries, a great disservice.

Soccerphile Media Watch - Press Yellow Cards

Calls us pedantic if you will, but we like to keep an eye on the press for you.

Rachel Cugnoni in The Guardian:

"The Koreans, of course, are famously talented rioters but the Japanese have no experience of it."

Soccerphile: Except for student riots in the 1960s and the violent demonstrations against the construction of Narita airport in the 70s and 80s that is.

"Japanese fans are perhaps the tidiest in football, with stadiums often looking cleaner after the match than before."

Soccerphile: An old cliché this one. Simply not true for anyone who's attended a J-League match recently, especially in Osaka. When on international duty however, it seems fans get their garbage together.

David Lacey and Michael Walker in The Guardian:

"It will be the rainy season in Korea but Japan is more temperate."

Soccerphile: Other way round, unfortunately, chaps.

BBC Website:

"Football may be an international language, but expect to hear Japanese commentators say things like: "Suparashi gouru" (Great goal!) and "Shuuto" (he shoots)."

Soccerphile: Whoops…that's subarashii with a ‘b' and there is no connection at all to the English word ‘super'. Also, shuuto is a noun not a verb.

"The World Cup should have a South American flavour as Japan has a large community of second generation Brazilians, Argentineans and Peruvians."

Soccerphile: True up to a point this one. There are 278,209 registered foreigners of South American descent in Japan out of a total foreign population of 1,556,113. Of Japan's 10 venues Shizuoka Prefecture has the highest number of Latin Americans. Japan's total population is 126,686,000. (1999 Census figures)

"Oita does not have a team in the J-League and organisers admit they are working to make football more popular there."

Soccerphile: Oita Trinita are in J2.

Helen Studd in The Times:

"Few are aware that Japan is almost totally cash-based and that its banking system will not allow them to make credit-card withdrawals….Without cash, fans will be unable to pay for match tickets, travel, food and accommodation, and may have to return home."

Soccerphile: See Soccerphile's article Banking & Money in Japan for a full list of banks that do accept foreign-issued credit cards and, before you think of leaving, don't forget the 25,000 post-offices nationwide that also take them.

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