Controversy in football sparks debate all around the world. Well, except in the J.League… (日本語版はこちらです)
Japan is not a country known for having an especially scrupulous media, and in 2014 the NPO Reporters Without Borders ranked the country 59th in the world on its press freedom index.
The prevailing ‘press club’ culture is largely responsible for keeping the majority of news within clearly-defined and firmly-controlled boundaries and, while it is admittedly a far bigger issue than the football themes at hand in this article, the difficulty in covering the ongoing problems at Fukushima Daiichi provides the most clear example of the obstacles reporters in Japan must overcome to report the full truth behind stories.
Censorship – or provoking self-censorship – should clearly not be tolerated in truly open societies, although it is usually clear to see why those enforcing it are doing so.
Not so in the case of the J.League.
Quite why the division feels the need to clamp down on discussion of anything controversial that takes place in its games is something of a head-scratcher, as well as being an increasingly pointless exercise.
In just the first three rounds of J1 action there has been at least one incident a week worthy of – some might say necessitating – discussion, only for each to be delicately glossed over and ignored. Move on, people, there’s nothing to see here!
On the first weekend the ball had clearly gone out before Patric opened the scoring for Gamba Osaka against FC Tokyo, a week later Yoshito Okubo equalized for Kawasaki Frontale against Vissel Kobe – although this time the ball hadn’t crossed the line – and then Kazuma Watanabe won Vissel a penalty last weekend against his old side FC Tokyo, even though his former teammate Shuichi Gonda hadn’t made the slightest contact.
Of course, these things happen, mistakes get made, and football sparks controversy. Except in Japan, it doesn’t, and for reasons best know to them, the J.League would like to keep it that way.
“I think it’s better if they do [analyse it],” Yoshito Okubo told me after he benefited from Yoshiro Imamura’s error at Todoroki on March 14th. “You have to have discussion. But they don’t, right? In Japan. They defend the referee. That’s a bad point about Japan, I think. When there’s this kind of scene you have to discuss it to try and stop it happening next time. But I don’t think they will.”
He was right, of course, and although J.League Time did show a freeze-frame of the ball not crossing the line there was no discussion of the incident. As was the case with Patric’s goal and Watanabe’s blatant dive, which were both shown but not debated.
Okubo’s claim that the silence is to protect referees would appear to be the only explanation for the J.League’s blanket ban on open conversation. Far from helping Japanese officials this process of wrapping them in cotton wool may well be hindering their progress, however, leaving them unprepared for the level of scrutiny they will be under when officiating in international competition.
Consider the ludicrous reaction to Yuichi Nishimura’s World Cup cameo, for instance. The 42-year-old was subjected to a barrage of abuse and ridicule for awarding Brazil a soft penalty in their opener against Croatia and, as a result, was not given any more games at the competition. That decision was probably made by FIFA to shelter him from any further controversy, but if he had been more used to having his decisions placed under a spotlight then maybe he wouldn’t have needed to be taken out of the line of fire.
On social media, however, these scenes are increasingly – and repeatedly – being highlighted, shared, and discussed. Indeed, the ease of doing so is being facilitated by the league’s own official broadcasting partner Skapa!, whose excellent on demand service enables fans to watch, re-watch, and share (via Twitter, Instagram, Vine and so on) the controversial incidents whenever they like – usually instantly.
That service is now available overseas as well, and as fans abroad – who are far more used to venting their spleen about controversial incidents – also get in on the act of drawing attention to mistakes and the like it can surely only be a matter of time before the powers that be at the J.League relent and give free-rein – or freer, at least – to the domestic media.