The inauguration of the Japanese J-League opened the door, and football culture came flooding in. In a flash, Japan's sporting landscape transformed, and the changes were most evident in the stadiums. Stands that week in, week out had barely been attracting a few hundred spectators during the era of the JSL (Japan Soccer League: amateur-level corporate league) were now swimming in seas of eye-catching team colours and swaying to the tune of terrace songs. The Japanese football fan was born.
The Japanese supporter was not, however, an overnight phenomenon. As the Japan Football Association steadily implemented its plans for a professional league, fans across the country, ears pricked for the latest on the new league, began preparations of their own. In much the same way as the JFA looked to established foreign leagues for pointers on business management, marketing, and personnel development, Japanese fans began to model themselves on supporters in the heartlands of Europe and South AmericaAlthough the majority of Japanese fans are currently in their 20s and 30s, with the average age at 34.7, when the J-League first began it was the younger 20-somethings that were leading the way.
Sowing the seeds
Shizuoka Prefecture, home to Shimizu S-Pulse, the team boasting the oldest average supporter at 40.2, has a long tradition of producing great players. In 1924 the first headmaster of Shida Junior High School decided to adopt association football as a school sport and the seeds were sown. Now Shizuoka not only produces more J-League talent than any other part of Japan (11% of the total), is also the launching-pad for many of today's Japanese internationals.
One TV programme above all others had whetted the appetites of many supporters in their 20s by the time the J-League was born. "Mitsubishi's Diamond Soccer", a Japanese version of BBC's "Match of the Day", aired between 1968 and 1988, and attained cult status among many young Japanese. Every Saturday, matches from England, Germany and all over the world brought into the average living room a sight that had never been witnessed before: green grass as far as the eye could see, colourful jerseys, silky skills, and terraces packed to the rafters. Mesmerised, many who had never even been to a JSL game before, packed the stands for the Toyota Cup, first held in Japan in 1981.
For better or worse, Japan has always been quick to adopt new concepts, taking them directly from the source before moulding them to homegrown tastes. As western culture took hold in the Far East during the "Bubble" period, from the late Eighties to the early Nineties, the number of young Japanese people flying off to Europe and the States, propelled by the strong domestic economy, rocketed. Among this number were Japan's football fans, eager to step inside the legendary stadiums from Rio to Rome and experience football at its very roots.
Of the 10 teams that contested the J-League in its first year, Urawa Red Diamonds and the frenzy stirred up by its fan base made a lasting impression. As early as 1991, two years before the J-League began, Urawa Reds started encouraging fans to register in groups of at least three as official supporters' clubs. They also created annual handbooks and matchday programmes for sale at the grounds and gave local residents priority for ticket reservations.
The success of the supporters' clubs was due to the fact that joining with friends was always easier than signing up alone, and that meant more members and a livelier atmosphere. Indeed, the average number of fans travelling to Urawa Reds as a group was 7.5 compared to the league average of 3.5. In addition, the heavy local flavour of the Reds' fan base strengthens the sense of unity among supporters and ensures that loyalty to the home team is spread from friend to friend, colleague to colleague.
Music in Urawa, as at other clubs the world over, plays an essential role in terrace life. And no artist, no matter what the language, is safe, not even Elvis and his ballad "Can't Help Falling in Love". The chorus of Rod Stewart's "Sailing" has become "We are Diamonds", now adopted as the club's official song, and new songs and terrace chants are written as quickly as the pen moves across the page.
Influences from places as far flung as Italy and Brazil, confetti showers Argentina-style and Catalan chants have been crafted together to create a cosmopolitan atmosphere unique to the J-League. However, there is always a dominant style. Teams based around key Brazilian players such as Zico at Kashima Antlers played to the Latin beat of their own samba band and chants of "Ole, Ole, Ole". Samba was also the music of choice for supporters of Kawasaki Verdy (now Tokyo Verdy 1969), home to Ramos and Kazuyoshi "King Kazu" Miura, two players with Brazilian pedigrees.
Music also plays an important part in supporting the national team, particular favourites being "Vamos! Nippon", "The Entertainer", "Aida", and "You'll Never Walk Alone", mainstays of stadiums all over the world. The standard range was expanded slightly and given a topical feel by ULTRA's NIPPON, a supporters' group established in 1992. For Japan's FIFA World Cup debut in France '98 the ULTRA's songwriter tweaked the song "Tout tout pour ma cherie", originally by Frenchman Michel Polnareff, into a tune more suitable for cheering on their team.
Eurovision pop songs
In 2002, the message was friendship and cooperation as the ULTRA's joined forces with Korea Republic supporter group the "Red Devils" to record the Official FIFA World Cup song. And now, with Germany 2006 just a few tantalising months away, their next project appears to be a Japanese version of German Eurovision pop phenomenon "Dschinghis Khan".
For those in the vanguard of Japan's drive for a vibrant supporter culture there are still too many seats taken up by spectators eating their packed lunch or having a chat, only half-interested in the match. Until more of these fans want to be down where the action is, behind the goal, cheering on the players, Japan's hardcore fans will feel that football culture has not truly arrived. Not until fans are giving their all, game in, game out, behind the team all the way instead of turning up just to catch a glimpse of the latest superstar. However, football is gaining a stronger and stronger foothold in Japan with every blow of the whistle and the day when Japanese stands are dancing to a Japanese tune may not be too far away.
An excellent example of what supporter power is capable of lies on Japan's secluded western coast. Niigata Albirex joined J2, the second division of the J-League, in 1999. The average attendance soon topped 30,000, shattering the league record and carrying the team to the J2 title and promotion only four years later. With a fresh take on terrace style and unstoppable home form, the team has been cutting an impressive figure since arriving in the top flight.
Maybe it is because the club is out on the western seaboard, far from the hectic Tokyo metropolis, but the atmosphere inside Niigata's Big Swan Stadium is laid-back and relaxed, almost like watching the match at home. Laid-back they may be but Albirex fans enjoy "borrowing" a tune or two as much as their counterparts across the Japan Alps. After having their track "Love Song" adapted by the Niigata Kop, Japanese rock band PENPALS decided to enlist the supporters' help on their new track "BELIEVE". The result was a supporter style song essentially English at heart but with definite Niigata overtones.
There are currently 30 clubs in the J-League, 18 in J1 and 12 in J2. In 1996 as the J-League grew in popularity, the dream grew to envisage a J-League with 100 teams within the next 100 years. Football culture in Japan is still evolving. How it evolves and how Japan shapes its development is what makes the future so exciting.