I fell into a burning Ring of Fire – the frustration that leads to passion in Japan’s top league

Given Japan is known for it’s adherence to set rules and servitude, you would be forgiven for thinking that it isn’t the best place to look for football passion. In its own way though, Japan has adopted the beautiful game and made it their own.

If you followed my previous piece on how I find my teams you will know I have a formula which allows me to narrow it down. By chance, this is also quite a nice way to give you a simple overview of the league.

Stadium, Kits, Fans, City.

It has served me well thus far, so I shall stick with it but like with my Korean team, I didn’t end up where I would have expected and it again came down to the last two of these critera.

To be honest “Stadium” thins the herd, kit is a nice little addition but once you’ve seen you like the stadium the important part can begin with “Fans” and “City”.

If you are supporting a club and you don’t know anything about the fans or the city, you’re not really supporting the club.

In terms of stadiums, none really massively stood out other than for the views (i.e. backdrops) they provided. I was surprised at that but basically I just allowed for stadia without a running track and as in previous examples this narrowed it down.

Japan has the curious distinction of the stadiums that appeal to me most being spread throughout their lower leagues,other than one outlier and the clear winner for J1 at least, even before we take into account its insane light shows.

Panasonic Stadium Suita (39,694)

The Panasonic Stadium, home of Gamba Osaka, is my kind of stadium. A “less is more design”, clean lines and a great view of the match. I really don’t ask for much from my stadiums. It shocked me though how much more unique the stadiums were in Korea.

If you want to see more about the light show by the way, here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljmKEn31D-o

It’s of no real consequence to my decision, but it’s still pretty cool.

In terms of J2? Well here’s where I prove my point. I find it much harder to split the following stadiums :

And again curiously J3 also has more to offer in the stadium stakes than J1 and competes quite well with J2 based on the scenery alone.

Truth be told, Iwagin stadium has no place on this list other than the view. As a J3 stadium it of course is one of the best in my eyes but a capacity of less than 5,000 just doesn’t get it done.

There is one stadium that has it all, though you may not be able to see that from the pictures abovem. Minami Nagano Sports Park Stadium, home of AC Nagano Parceiro. For a J3 team, this stadium is ridiculous.

Don’t just take my word for it though, here is a video by the fantastic “Lost in Japan” (defo worth a sub) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_Slx0da5-M

Also, all the stadium pictures were courtesy of TFC, which can also be found on YouTube.

The backdrop to our winning stadium. The only stadium in J League to have it all

Next up, kits. I know a lot of people love this part and boy does J League deliver! Unfortunately I’ve been unable to find J2 and J3 kits easily so I’ll narrow it down to merely J1.

First thing you notice is that Yokohama are well represented on this list. Be it the J League Champions and City Football Group plaything Yokohama F. Marinos – who if it went on body of work would win this – or the team that formed as a protest group against them FC Yokohama after the disbanding of the wonderfully named Yokohama Flugels.

In third place – YFM away kit. It’s just clean, I like that.

In second place – Gamba Osaka away. Really like this kit. It’s unique in its style which appeals to me. A play on the “sash” that I’ve not seen before earns it a worthy second place.

My winner though – Consadole Sapporo. They have missed out on the Levain Cup (Japan’s answer to the League Cup) but a slight – alright extremely scant – consolation for them is they have won my kit competition.

The contrast of the gold and dark blue, the sponsor, the badge and the real clincher, the island of Hokkaido where the team are from on the back. If it wasn’t already winning, that personal touch set it apart. Well played Kappa, she’s a beauty.

Now comes the tricky part. Fans.

I’d like to start if I may by dissauding the original notion that Japanese football teams don’t act out. Some of them do. The most notable of whom are Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka.

Urawa Reds are the most hated team in Japan, apparently. They are considered the “Manchester United” of Japan. Many people say the reason United are “hated” is because of their success but if that were the case here then Kashima Antlers are the most successful side, so why not them

What is it that makes Urawa so hated? Perhaps it is their partizanship. I have no issue at all with this or the fact they don’t care if other teams like them.

What I do have an issue with is their xenophobic bordering on – if not already – racist message that was displayed in their stands back in March 2014. “Japanese Only” it read in English.

The Japanese FA were quick and decisive in their reposnse. Urawa were made to play a game without any fans in attendance. It isn’t fair to accuse a whole team or area of racism, that’s certainly not what I’m doing.

When asked the fans said it was to discourage non Japanese fans from sitting in their section and ruining their chants. I’ve certainly seen this sentiment throughout English football, so judge not lest ye be judged.

Urawa Reds as an organisation however can be judged because they apparently didn’t see this as an issue at first and allowed the banner to hang. It was only after it was flagged up and the people of Japan in particular made it an issue that Urawa responded.

So to Gamba Osaka. A small group of fans waived a flag with a Nazi like “SS” logo. Gamba’s staff immediately took action and had the flag taken down, thankfully.

The J League rightly fined Gamba for for not preventing this from happening but Gamba were more pro active in their approach. Gamba banned all those associated with the flag from attending any games and banned the use of flags or banners within the stadium, a ban which at the time was indefinite. Banners and flags allowed again and are more strictly controlled.

Like them or not though, it’s hard to argue that there are any more passionate fan bases in Japan than Gamba and Urawa, which is probably part of the reason they have the rivalry they do.

I’ll let you decide for yourself which one you prefer but it’s a two horse race for me. Much like Liverpool and Manchester United being the biggest game in England, so it is that Urawa Reds v Gamba Osaka rivalry is the biggest game in Japan. So much so, this game is referred to as “the National derby”.

Is it a derby? Well no, not really, neither are. While you could say that Liverpool v United is at least a North West derby, Urawa in the east is approximately 400 miles away from Osaka in the west.

Both “derbies” are built on the old adage of familiarity breeding contempt of course but from what I can guage, while Liverpool and United’s is about being the two most successful teams in their country, Osaka and Urawa’s is simply about having two passionate sets of supporters who don’t like each other.

Again, the brilliant “Lost in Japan” sums it up much better than I ever could:

http://lostinfootballjapan.com/saitama-a-football-mad-corner-of-japan/

Other teams are available of course but a lot of Japanese support is too tepid or “support by numbers” for me from what I’ve seen. That is certainly not the case with either of these.

So now we come to our winner, which one did I choose and why?

Adding up the scores, you would think Gamba Osaka. They had my favourite J1 stadium, my second favourite kit, and were top 2 in the passion of their fans. We’ve seen before with my Korean choice that is it not always that straight forward.

Well this time, it actually is. There were a few concerns. The SS sign was a big red flag – or in this case Nazi flag – but it was an isolated incident from idiots that were removed and banned for life. I can’t hold that against the club. In fact I admire the way they dealt with the issue and there have been no such incidents since.

I was also a bit worried about the “Italian” influence. I don’t like it when teams try too hard to be something they are not and I certainly don’t like it when they are trying to be Italian hooligans, or any hooligans for that matter.

Luckily having read the excellent Ben Mabley’s piece on this https://www.theblizzard.co.uk/article/gaijin-gamba a lot of my concerns were allayed and he also goes into a far more nuanced reason of why this frustration for some with Japanese culture, manifests in the way it does with Gamba in particular.

Ben’s article told me all I needed to know about the Gamba fans, and how basically they – just like us – were looking for an outlet for the frustration of their working week and football is it. That’s where the passion comes from, no different than our own when football was still a game for the prodominantly male working classes.

Every video I watched and article I read there was a common theme running through them all, people from Gamba are cheeky, funny, passionate and friendly. It sounds very similar to another part of the country over here I know. This coupled with having always wanted to visit Japan and with me now knowing that the place I want to visit most is not Tokyo, but Osaka. I have found my Japanese team.

I could only sign off with a haiku:

A forced spring lockdown
Can a man have too much time?
Gamba Osaka!

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