As a person who believes geographical allegiances should be local rather than national and who has only the dilettante’s interest in competitive sports, I find the fanatical devotion characterizing the World Cup as amusing as the tournament itself. The World Cup produces intense feelings, which manifest themselves in a variety of aspects including facial paint, lucky charms, bizarre costumes, wild inebriation and customized cheering. For most followers of the competition, the World Cup is an opportunity to feel a uniquely communal agony or levity, dependent on the outcome of a match to which the fan has had no part in but who undergoes the winning or losing as if it were one’s own experience.
In Japan, this loyalty involved some ungodly match times due the time difference East Asia enjoys in relation to South Africa. When Japan advanced to the Round of 16 after defeating Denmark, 3 – 1, thousands of fans erupted into the streets to celebrate the victory. It was just after 5:00 AM on a muggy Friday morning and Hachiko Crossing, the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world, had erupted in such pandemonium that the casual non-fan might have been forgiven for believing that Japan had defeated Brazil to win the tournament itself rather than just the first of five rounds, a feat accomplished by fifteen other teams. Were such celebrations a spontaneous outburst born from low expectations? Was it a fit of pride, anomalous good news for a nation suffering through two decades of slow growth that has seen their economic cachet dwindling against China and other emerging East Asian markets? Or was it simply inevitable that thousands of young fans staying up all night drinking beer would want to get down and party when their team won?
To say the least, witnessing such an outburst in Japan is highly unusual for a culture famed for its social reticence. The Japanese may open themselves to others but rarely do they thrust their joys so deliriously upon strangers. The peculiarly Japanese cartoon types— exuberant in blue superhero suits, Yukio Hatoyama gag masks, and bright blue afro wigs (blue being the team color)— worked the fans like deft cheerleaders, gathering crowds and stirring them into a frenzy. Thousands of people streaming from Shibuya’s teeming bars towards the central train station threw off their exhaustion to improvise a jig with strangers, actions they would view with bewilderment in more sober circumstances.
The atmosphere had that rare whiff of danger, as one might expect in an environment compounded by sleeplessness, alcohol, and a sports victory. Yet this danger did not seem so much physical as it did psychological. You could hear it being screamed and sung in wild cacophonous eruptions, “Nippon! Nippon! Nippon!”— a cry as aggressive as any outburst of “USA! USA! USA!” to those not given to national self-mythologizing. They say one man’s meat is another man’s poison; thus the peril, which sometimes requires the competitive energy of a sporting event to make evident, is nationalism.
Like nearly all countries, Japan has its share of right-wingers, nativists, and xenophobes. Though they are ostensibly a minority, their soapboxes and bullhorns, ubiquitous at train stations and embassies, mean they are politically loud. However, they seem to be a dying bunch, grumpy old men with long memories of losing a great war.
I was thus surprised then to witness Japan’s Imperial Flag brandished by a heap of twentysomething soccer fanatics. There it was billowing in the morning wind with all the suggestiveness of history dyed in the bright red rays emanating from a rising sun. You might call it beautiful if you didn’t know better but for those who do, it symbolizes Japan’s catastrophic attempt at empire: colonies in Manchuria and Korea, gory battles in Iwo Jima and Okinawa and of course, the apocalypses of Hiroshima and Nagasaki— the fluttering cloth becoming an object of collective pride for hundreds of young, intoxicated, impressionable young men.