For nearly two decades, Shunji Usui has been a fixture at Urawa Red Diamonds matches at the Saitama Stadium in the suburbs of Tokyo, a face in the crowd among the most avid — and sometimes rabid — fans of any Japanese soccer club.
In recent weeks, though, Usui’s pride in the former Asian champions has been tempered by embarrassment that the team he loves has been held up as a symbol of the kind of intolerance critics say has been emboldened by the conservative politics of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
On March 8, a banner with “Japanese Only” scrawled on it was hoisted on a stadium gate behind one goal, an area packed with thousands of the club’s hardcore fans. Despite complaints from onlookers, it remained in place until the end of the game.
In response, the Mitsubishi Motors-owned club was given the harshest punishment in the two-decade history of professional soccer in Japan — a J-League order that it play before an empty stadium.
That cost Urawa more than US$1 million in lost ticket sales. In addition, more than 10 Reds supporter groups, including UB Snake, the group responsible for the banner, were disbanded.
When the Reds returned home for a domestic cup game this week, flags and drums were banned, essentially putting fans on probation. The only banner allowed was one held up by a club official warning fans against discriminatory behavior.
“There are people who hate foreigners in Japan, and there are people who hate foreigners in this stadium,” said Usui, 53, a teacher at a local school. “By quietly standing by, we gave them a platform to voice such views, so it’s fair enough that now we have to pay for this.”
Although Japanese soccer has not suffered from the sort of hooliganism that has so often blighted the game in Europe and South America, Reds fans have a record of rowdiness.
In 2008, the club was fined nearly US$200,000 after a scuffle involving Gamba Osaka fans. In November last year, Urawa were fined US$96,000 after fans set off firecrackers near the bus of a rival team.
Supporters have also displayed the Rising Sun flag, a symbol used by the Japanese army during its colonization of Asia in the first half of last century that is seen by many as a painful reminder of Japan’s militaristic past.
However, the most recent incident in Urawa, which comes as Japan begins preparations for the 2020 Olympics, reignited a debate about Japanese identity and attitudes toward foreigners.
Many Urawa fans — and players — were quick to denounce the exclusionary banner.
Last week, more than a quarter of the 20,000 Reds fans who turned up for the first open-door home match since the incident signed a declaration condemning discrimination.
Urawa centerback Tomoaki Makino tweeted a picture of the controversial banner to his 177,000 followers and criticized fan behavior.
“My biggest regret is we didn’t take the flag down quickly enough,” Urawa president Keizo Fuchita said last week, vowing a zero-tolerance policy in the future.
However, critics see a worrying trend that goes beyond soccer.
Last year, hundreds of nationalists marched through the streets of Tokyo’s Korean district, Shin Okubo, with signs labeling Koreans as “cockroaches” and saying “Sink Koreans in the Tokyo Bay.”
Some human rights lawyers say Abe’s visit in December last year to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s wartime leaders, and controversial statements about history by those in his circle have created a climate that encourages far right sentiment.