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Tuesday, July 18, 2000

Get in the game with 'Ultra Nippon'

Special to The Japan Times
ULTRA NIPPON: How Japan Reinvented Football, by Jonathan Birchall. Headline, 2000, 256 pp., 16.99 pounds (cloth).

Hundreds of books have been written about the J. League since its launch in 1993, and now one has been written in English.

Jonathan Birchall's "Ultra Nippon: How Japan Reinvented Football" is a quirky grand tour of the 1999 season that exactly captures the surreal world of the Japanese game. He enjoyed himself. So will the reader.

The book's main thread follows the fortunes of Steve Perryman's Shimizu S-Pulse through to the second-stage title and defeat by Jubilo Iwata in the championship final.

It also looks at roughly concurrent stories like the merger of the Yokohama Marinos and Yokohama Flugels and the founding of Pierre Littbarski's Yokohama FC as the result of a fan revolt.

From the beginning, we know that we are in a different world. Birchall describes S-Pulse's opening game of the season. There are sea cadets on the field signaling SHIMIZU S-PULSE in semaphore (and no one shouting insults), fireworks, orange balloons, a samba band in the stands and, "as the players posed for photographs, a seven-foot tall, bright yellow, fluffy rabbit with floppy ears pranced about on the sidelines, holding a bunch of balloons shaped like another V sign." Welcome to the J. League!

Birchall gives us both foreigners and Japanese in engaging detail. We hear the East End barrow-boy talk of Perryman and his assistant, Phil Holder, and meet Leslie Mottram, the super-fit referee who taught PE to incarcerated youths in Scotland.

The book includes many quotes of the kind that don't normally make the morning papers. Here, for example, are Sanfrecce Hiroshima manager Eddie Thomson and Perryman slagging each other off from their respective benches, as S-Pulse play in Hiroshima:

"Stevie, you'd better get Ossie back because you're not going to win the league like this," shouts Thomson.

"You know why no one comes to watch you play? Because you're f*****g boring!" is Perryman's reply.

The foreigners have landed, and Birchall gives us the perplexity of both the Japanese, with their ideas of harmony, and the foreigners, with their, let's say, more direct approach, as well as the problems faced by interpreters. These are especially acute at S-Pulse because there is no Japanese equivalent of the f-word.

Birchall is best on the Japanese fans. They may sound like European fans from a distance, but close up they turn out to be groups of hierarchically organized social clubs unlike anything in the West -- and so nice, too! They go en masse to the river for a Sunday barbecue, play their samba rooting songs for the opening of a local supermarket, help to roll the longest sushi roll ever and dance at the summer festival. They also sort their trash at the games. Hooliganism is definitely not part of the repertoire.

The degree of internal control within these spontaneous supporters' associations is remarkable, with the unit leaders meeting before games to plan strategy and coordinators leading every new chant.

Birchall throws off his Anglo-Saxon reserve and even masters most of the stepping, jumping and clapping routines himself, taking special pleasure in the Japanese fans' rendition of the march from "The Bridge Over the River Kwai." He eventually graduates to meeting the supreme president of all the Shimizu S-Pulse supporters clubs, "a tall, authoritative-looking man, perhaps in his late 50s, with gray hair, who was wearing brown-tinted sunglasses."

But not all is so controlled and harmonious after all. The tensions in Japanese culture shine through in the merger of the Flugels and Marinos, which led to a fan revolt and ended with the fans founding a new club with the help of foreign money. This is what happens when the irresistible force of the spontaneous Japanese group meets the immovable object of the "don't ask the frogs when draining the pond" style of Japanese management.

Birchall entertainingly describes his conversation with a senior manager at the Flugels who just couldn't understand why the supporters were upset when their club was merged with its biggest rival. They weren't the ones who were losing their jobs! Birchall makes some especially acute comments on the curious situation of supporters in a sport not invaded by, but created by, big business.

There are many quibbles. In his delightful, bumbling style, Birchall is utterly cavalier with the facts. Don't believe him about the spellings of Japanese or Japanese-English words, the Kobe child murders, the origin of the three rice-ball brothers (the big fad of 1999), the year of Pearl Harbor -- but who cares? This book is about the culture of Japanese football, and most of the generalizations are spot on.

In one place, Birchall describes the familiar sinking feeling known to all journalists when looking over his match notes. "Cerezo's two forwards, Hwang and Morishima, were apparently looking dangerous . . . Ichikawa was showing great imagination." In what possible sense can words sum up a match?

Or a culture for that matter? Birchall has made a delightful try that deserves a place on the growing list of literate and entertaining football books.

Mike Plastow is Japan correspondent for World Soccer magazine.

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