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Welcome to Japan

Joel Rookwood visited Japan for the first time to follow England in Group F and was impressed with what he found.

Tokyo

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We crawled off the plane at Tokyo airport in reasonably good spirits, having caught the latter part of Senegal's victory over France whilst in Copenhagen. As we stood waiting to collect our luggage I remember thinking to myself how little I knew about Japanese culture. 'If it's outside the European footballing community I'm not interested' has been my attitude for far too long, I'm ashamed to say. Somewhere along the way however I had been given the impression that Japan is an efficient, organized society with a strong work ethic. So I expected my first impression of the country to be of huge cities saturated with world cup memorabilia. I imagined that no merchandising opportunity would be squandered - that every Yen would be drained from our pockets by Mancunian style exploitation of supporter loyalty. Yet surprisingly the young ladies sporting the 'Welcome to Japan' T-shirts at the airport upon our arrival was as overbearing as it got, with the sporadic merchandising stalls limited to major cities, where they were almost hidden from view.

The refusal (or failure, depending on your perception of their intention) to over- publicize the event was in my view the first triumphant aspect of the Japanese approach, immediately giving the impression that hosting the tournament wasn't merely being treated as a moneymaking exercise.

As numerous teams were playing their opening games within reach of the capital, it was almost inevitable that large numbers of fans would congregate in one area. And so it was Roppongi, a colorful district of Tokyo that provided a base for fans from several nations. Hoards of good natured Irish, embarrassingly well-spoken Swedes, pockets of Africans, South Americans and other Europeans joined the overweight Hackett sponsored Englishmen, and of course the Japanese, providing a wide array of cultural backgrounds. It was unsurprising therefore that Roppongi would provide some of the more memorable instances of the entire trip.

It's hard to say how or who started the multinational singing sessions along one of Roppongi's main streets, but I would say much of the credit should go to the Irish. The rehearsal of their catalogue of anthems could be heard more distinctly than anything else on that first night in the capital. But as small groups and individuals from a number of different countries joined in, it quickly developed into a science from a Stamford Bridge players party, with large numbers of foreign nationals gathered, very few of whom were able to converse with anyone outside their own nationality.

England tattoo.This served to render the simple act of chanting even more meaningful, as people from various backgrounds were granted the opportunity to express a collective identity. The noise attracted large numbers of spectators, and as people sporting the colours of various countries sauntered past, to their amusement, the Roppongi choir instantly bellowed out in unison the particular country's name. As the word spread, this little area above Paddy Foleys Irish bar became the focal point of Tokyo's world cup spirit. Everyone involved understood each other, with football's international dialect transcending barriers brought by differences in national languages.

As the numbers swelled, the considerable police presence sensibly restricted overspill into the busy adjacent road. The Japanese contingent imparticularly grew rapidly with each performance, as groups of excited salarymen loosened their collar and ties and threw a Nippon shirt over their suit jackets to join the carnival. I was in amongst a large group of people, none of whom I'd seen before or was able to hold a conversation with, and yet I felt completely at home. Every hour or so I'd step away from the festivities to catch my breath, marvelling at the amazing sight of the Roppongi choir in good voice. It was at such reflective moments that I realized it would take something special to better this world cup festival. Every performer was privileged to do their part.

It was on those warm Roppongi evenings that I learned most about the Japanese, and what struck me most about this friendly society was the locals' willingness to converse with us. The fact that I was a westerner seemed to serve as proof for the Japanese that I was English. Consequently interactions rarely employed the words hello or goodbye. They would utter the word Bekk-ham to which I would reply 'Owen' (reflecting my own regional loyalties), and every conversation without exception seemed to feature those two words. For many locals, the name of England's captain appeared to be the only word of English they had grasped, or at least the only one they were confident enough to express. This simple exchange facilitated an instant connection, and the fact that the word was also accompanied by a beaming smile served as further proof of their willingness to appear as welcoming as possible.

I encountered very few awkward moments on those memorable nights, with one notable exception. I was wearing a light blue tracksuit, singing loudly from the back of the group, when a local came from behind and said 'Argentina', obviously questioning my nationality. He immediately realized I was English, and was so apologetic, it was as if he had just informed me that it was his dad who refereed Liverpool's 1965 European Cup semi- final second leg in Milan (a painful and rigged defeat). I was totally unfazed, even though for many more patriotic Englishmen this would have caused great offence. His reaction of embarrassed shame was undoubtedly driven by a fear that was I'm sure a reflection of the Japanese media's coverage of English thugs at previous football tournaments. One man even asked me if I was a 'fooligan', slipping the question into conversation, as you would query someone's nationality. The impression of the English certainly wasn't entirely positive.

Japanese Green Tea.

The largely uneventful England v Sweden game in Saitama came and went with few experiences being committed to memory, save for the meticulous match organization by the Japanese police. It was to prove a recurring experience that every possible problem had been considered, with at least half a dozen officers assigned to every task, regardless of it's complexity or significance. Having been on the end of some over-zealous policing whilst away with Liverpool in Europe, and having seen the preparations of the Korean police in dealing with pretend troublemakers on TV, I feared the worst from the Japanese police, expecting Kung Fu experts to prevent our every move. Whilst part of the reason that there was no trouble in the opening stages of the world cup in Japan was due to the fact that many hooligans had been priced out of traveling, or had been refused entry, and those that had come didn't want to risk being deported given the huge amount of money spent getting there, there is no doubt that this more subtle approach was well received by fans, the majority of whom will have been more accustomed to battling with such authority figures due to aggressive police tactics at football grounds a little closer to home.

Sapporo

The long haul north for the following game was divided into sections, taking in whatever culture there was available on the way. When we finally arrive in Sapporo we were met by typically helpful volunteers who patiently deciphered our various accents and offered helpful advice in response to a wide variety of questions. Though 'where are the bars?' seemed to be the query they were most frequently presented with upon arrival of the English.

We hit disaster when we arrived at our hotel, discovering that we had mistakenly booked from the previous night, and we were informed our rooms has subsequently been offered to another party. The staff were helpful enough however, and rang around every hotel in town, eventually finding us accommodation for the night. We eventually disposed of our luggage in the rooms and headed for the park where we were due to get the bus to the stadium. We were stopped in the park by two middle-aged Japanese couples who invited us for a kick around, an invitation we couldn't refuse. Every trick in the book was performed, much to their amusement, after which we headed into the more populated area of the park, where I was to unveil my masterpiece.

As a Liverpudlian, we poke fun at the lack of original thinking that goes into England flags. There is actually a ban on having St George's cross flags at Liverpool games. Yet for England, this national symbol is essential. It is the red cross on the white background with the name of the team the flag maker supports. But Liverpool flags, famous throughout the world, are always red with messages in white - always original and usually funny. So last summer when I began the week- long task of painting my flag, I decided to compromise. A white flag with red writing. But no cross. The flag was erected at each game, but on this occasion, it was put on display between two posts and read: 'Ramsey's lions brought football home, Robson's heroes dreamt of Rome, Venables' side restored English pride, now Sven's men will reclaim the ultimate prize.' The England fans in the surrounding area were first to respond, almost grudgingly expressing their respect for the effort, though not many passers-by stopped to take pictures. The Japanese seemed the most impressed by the flag, which seemed strange as they would have been the only people in the area who couldn't understand the sentiment, even if they could understand the language. But they saw that hard work had gone into the design, and knew enough to know that it was an England flag, which seemed to help them buck up the courage to request a photo with me and the flag. The fact that we were kitted out in kimonos would I'm sure have added to the fun for the Japanese, and we were more than happy to be the but of their jokes. The behaviour of England fans at previous tournaments has increased the need for diplomacy, something of which I am always acutely aware, so every display of playful humour helps.

LFC tattoo.The match that followed will I'm sure be considered an epic encounter by every Englishman who attended, and the Japanese were not to be disappointed, with Michael Owen repeating history and winning a penalty, and David Beckham dispatching it. For some though, myself included, the day will always be remembered more for the night that followed it. As we poured into the streets from the ground, crowds of locals were waiting behind barriers, eager to join the celebration of the victory, offering high fives and embraces at every opportunity. Immediately the tone was set for the sequel to the Roppongi carnival.

It seemed to go unnoticed by just about every England fan how admirably the Argentines swallowed the loss, presenting no trouble despite having travelled a considerable distance to witness a painful defeat at the hands of their oldest foes. Their graciousness in defeat enabled the Japanese and the English to unite in drinking, clapping, and singing long into the night. A famous victory was claimed that night in the Sapporo Dome, but again it was the locals who made the occasion truly memorable. Football matches of various degrees of importance are won and lost every day all over the world, but when a carnival atmosphere follows, the experience develops from a tale you'll casually relay to friends in your local pub upon your return, to one you'll rehearse time and time again at the request of intrigued grandchildren. Sapporo, I thank you.

Osaka

After a failed attempt to climb Mt Fuji, and a brief trip to pay our respects at Hiroshima - we arrived in Osaka, evidently before the vast majority of other England fans, given that there wasn't a westerner in sight. It was two days before England's final group match, an evening that undoubtedly proved to be our most enjoyable in the city. After checking in to a capsule hotel, we took to the streets in search of the heart of Osaka. As Japan had just defeated Russia an hour earlier, we were expectant.

As with Sapporo we went in search of another Roppongi, an all night international singing session. But only Japanese could be found on the streets that night, as young fans raucously celebrated a famous victory, an antithesis to the scenes occurring simultaneously on the streets of Moscow (from where I am currently relaying this reflective account!) in reaction to the match. But Osaka gave us Japanese fandom at its best - enthusiastic, excited and good-natured. Whereas in Roppongi and Sapporo the travelling fans were the backbone of the carnival, the instigators of the incessant chanting - here in Osaka we were unnoticed. This was Nippon's night and rightly so. We just stood and watched.

Whilst this occasion did lack the international representation of Roppongi, it did introduce me for the first time to an expression of Japanese regional pride, as cries of 'O-saka' rang round the area. Being from such a socially distinct city as Liverpool, I am always sensitive to such expression, and for me it facilitated an instant connection with the people of the city, as if Osaka had opened up to me and showed me it's soul.

That evening not only illustrated pride in regional identity, but also that the Japanese don't merely crawl out of the woodwork when the foreigners are in town. This was their party, and the enthusiastic Osaka masses, decked out in blue from head to toe served to suggest that a strong Japanese presence when foreign nationals are in the vicinity isn't merely an attempt to appease potential hooligans. The Japanese genuinely love their country, their players and a good sing at least as much, if not more than anyone else.

Watching football in Europe you sometimes see fans less willing to express themselves. In truth fans of many European clubs are spoilt. They've become accustomed to bi-weekly performances of great football - and an air of arrogance and complacency has slipped into their mentality. But for the Japanese supporters, the level of enthusiasm is Bobby Robson-esque. The game is still a novelty here, and the raw expression of emotion is something you rarely see in Manchester, Munich or Madrid.

East meets West.Prior to the World Cup a slightly skeptical Frank Skinner travelled to both host countries to assess FIFA's wisdom in granting Korea and Japan the opportunity to stage such an event. He returned in favour of the bid, and since leaving the Far East, I too have reached the same conclusion. Good natured and enthusiastic at their best, polite and tolerant at their worst, the Japanese will have gone up in the estimation of fans all over the world. Brilliant stadiums and efficient organisation outweighed a slightly questionable ticketing procedure for which all parties deemed to be at fault seemed to have blamed everyone else. Personally the nights of Sapporo, Osaka and particularly Roppongi were far more meaningful and satisfying than any game or result. The chances of Liverpool ever playing in Japan are slim; with a World Club Championship my only realistic hope of ever returning to this great country. But the memories obtained during the World Cup will live on forever: Nippon I salute you.

A week before flying out to the World Cup in Japan, I graduated from John Moores University in Liverpool with a degree in football science. As I will be commencing a doctorate in football fan culture in Liverpool in September, I thought a slice of World cup football culture would be ideal preparation.

The three games I saw in Japan put my total up to 50 for the season, with the preceding 47 games all involving Liverpool, my hometown club. The above account details my experiences of Japan before, during and after England's three group games.

Joel Rookwood
Liverpool Red Diary
Euro Red Diary
Euro 2004

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