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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Tokyo

Globe and Mail Update
Saturday, June 8, 2002
From the Field
York Geoffrey


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Pictures from Tokyo

Japanese policemen make a wall to control pedestrians and young football supporters in downtown Tokyo as thousands of supporters gather to celebrate Japan's victory over Tunisia for the 2002 FIFA World Cup on Friday, June 14, 2002. Japan defeated Tunisia 2-0 and qualified to the next round.
Photo: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP

Soccer fans sing and dance in Tokyo's Shibuya commercial district after Japan defeated Tunisia in their 2002 World Cup, Group H match in Osaka, western Japan, on Friday, June 14, 2002. Japan won 2-0 to advance into the second round of the World Cup finals.
Photo: Shizuo Kambayashi/AP

Supporters of England's World Cup team step backward as Japanese police officers request them to leave during their celebration over the team's 1-0 victory over Argentina in Tokyo's Roppongi entertainment district early Saturday morning, June 8, 2002.
Photo: Shizuo Kambayashi/AP


I was reminded of the clashing cultures whenever I entered one of Tokyo's subway stations, where the authorities have been displaying a series of "manner posters" to correct the near-flawless behaviour of the Japanese commuter. The latest manner poster, Number Eight, seeks to perfect the umbrella-carrying style of the passengers in Tokyo's spotlessly gleaming subway system.

With a helpful illustration, the poster urges commuters to point their folded umbrellas downward, not outward, when walking up the stairs in a subway station. "If you hold it the wrong way, it can be dangerous," the posters admonish.

Even the subway stairs are marked with arrows to tell you where to step. And on the street corners outside, I watched Japanese pedestrians waiting obediently at red lights, never sneaking an illicit step over the curb, even when the streets were completely empty of any traffic.

This is a consensus-ruled society, where individual rights are subordinated to the principle of wa (harmony). And so a culture shock was inevitable when Japan braced for an invasion by an anticipated 400,000 foreign soccer fans for the World Cup. Drunken singing and loud chanting could be perceived as something close to hooliganism in a country that has never seen a hooligan before.

Just outside Tokyo, I talked to farmers near the new Saitama soccer stadium, the second-biggest soccer-only stadium in Asia. They were locking their gates and huddling inside their homes to escape any contact with foreign fans. One farmer told me how he had spent 48 years on the same vegetable farm and it had been perfectly quiet until the construction of the new stadium and a nearby train station for the World Cup. I would prefer it to have stayed quiet," he confessed to me.

Not just rowdy soccer fans but even foreign journalists are seen as rude and aggressive in this consensual society where conflict is avoided at any cost. Most Japanese are reluctant to venture an opinion to a journalist, especially in a group setting. When I tried to interview ordinary Japanese on controversial political issues, they usually responded by ducking politely, giggling nervously and avoiding the subject.

A Western diplomat told me that he has given up talking to school classes in Japan because he feels as if he is talking to a vacuum. The students are so passive that they rarely venture any questions or comments. And when Japanese students travel across the Pacific Ocean to attend schools in North America, he said, they find it hard to adjust to normal classroom debates, which they see as disturbingly confrontational.

With such a sharply different worldview, Japan's anxieties about foreign soccer fans -- especially the English, with their track record of violence -- were perhaps understandable. The result was a massive security buildup, including thousands of police officers equipped with a vast arsenal of high-tech weapons.

On the eve of the World Cup, however, the Japanese seemed to realize that their over-reaction was threatening to put a damper on the festivities. They eased into a more relaxed mode. When England played its first match, I saw Japanese policemen joking cheerfully with the boisterous English fans.

And while my colleague John Doyle reported problems with Japanese officials on a railway journey, I never found them less than perfectly helpful, friendly, efficient and restrained. Many fans made the same comment to me. The Japanese organizational work, so far, has been remarkably successful.

The biggest scandal in Japan has been the thousands of empty seats in some stadiums because of a ticketing fiasco. Japanese leaders are furious that their stadiums had so many empty seats while their fans were desperately searching for tickets. The ticket distribution had been assigned to a little-known British company. Many here are convinced that the scandal could have been avoided if Japanese organizers had been in charge of distributing tickets.

In the face of the Japanese obsession with order and harmony, is it possible that soccer is finally beginning to challenge this traditional culture? There are signs this might be happening.

Japan's national soccer team is a symbol of the new generation. With their orange-dyed, shaggy hair and rebellious image, the members of the soccer squad are an influential group at the vanguard of Japanese generational change.

The final proof came at the Saitama stadium, when 55,000 Japanese fans went wild with drums and chants as they cheered their team to a 2-2 draw with Belgium. It was Japan's first point in World Cup history.

Observers described the atmosphere as "orderly hysteria." It was almost the kind of hysteria that the Japanese had feared from foreigners.

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