Last week I provided an editorial on Japanese fan culture for Goal.com Japan. That’s here, while the English version is below.
What it means to be a fan differs from country to country and person to person.
To some the title must be earned through years of dedication to the cause, travelling far and wide to cheer their team on through thick and thin.
Others, meanwhile, treat it more as a commodity; they buy their ticket, replica kit or scarf and instantly earn the right to share in the glories or boo through the bad times as they see fit.
Essentially though, fans are free to support their team however they choose.
Japanese supporters are often cited as being among the best in the world, providing a colourful, vibrant and vocal background to matches involving domestic sides and the national team.
As well as turning out in well-organised numbers – the J.League records impressively large crowds, with J1 averaging over 15,000 in the 2011 season – the nation’s supporters are also frequently held up as an example to the more aggressive fans elsewhere in the world. Unsavoury incidents are kept to a, fairly tame, minimum.
This is all well and good. Sometimes, though, a bit of an edge can really add to the atmosphere.
Nobody wants to see violence in the stands, of course, and it is crucial that stadiums are family-friendly – especially in countries like Japan where the creation of new supporters is vital to the continued development of the game.
However, friction, antagonism and humour are a staple of all the biggest football rivalries – think Liverpool and Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Often the atmosphere in the stadium and repartee between those sets of opposing fans is as highly-anticipated as the clash out on the pitch.
An engagement with on-field events enables the behaviour of those fans to ebb-and-flow with the game, and in turn the activity in the stands can affect the players (positively or negatively).
However, this requires spontaneity; something that is all-too-often lacking in Japanese stadia.
Instead of giving in to their emotions and allowing themselves to get caught up in the game many Japanese fans prefer a far more stable, almost robotic, style.
Whether their team is 3-0 ahead or 3-0 behind the same tried-and-tested chants and choreographed routines are churned out, with any passion being kept firmly in time with the fan leader’s instructions.
The order and hierarchy that typify Japanese society should be left at the turnstile though.
Fans should not be required to comply with sets of rules concerning how to support and when to sing which song. They should be allowed to throw themselves into the game and let themselves be carried along – or not, sometimes silence can be just as, if not more, powerful than chanting – by the game.
If your team is not playing well and you fancy a sit down and a bit of a whinge, then go ahead.
Further to this, a little bit of baiting of the opposition wouldn’t go amiss.
Japanese fans are so focused on sticking to the performance and cheering on their own team that they seemingly forget there is an opponent there to be beaten.
Supporting your players can certainly help in that aim, but why not create an intimidating arena for the opposition?
There are often half-hearted boos as the opposing team line-up is read out, but once the game has kicked off any goading of rival players appears to be strictly off limits.
Kashiwa Reysol offer one exception, with their fans utilising their close proximity to the pitch to great effect whenever an opponent strays too close – but they are almost unique in that respect.
Urawa Reds traditionally has a similar reputation, but their plummet down the table seems to have left their fans with more important things on their mind of late.
The authorities have certainly not helped in this respect, with sporadic instances of rival-baiting being heavily clamped down on – Urawa and Gamba Osaka have both been punished for ‘inappropriate’ banners in recent seasons.
Quite why they have felt the need to do this is something of a mystery to me, and allowing for a slightly more heated atmosphere in the stadiums could give the J.League – which is improving every year – yet another boost.