Japanese journalists have made more of a mark here than their players. In the first of two articles on Asia, Justin McCurry explains what they are writing about

Japanese footballers, or so the punditry zeitgeist goes, are a talentless bunch, courted by the likes of Bolton and Portsmouth only to generate income – buy one, and get planeloads of spendthrift groupies free. In Japan, most of the salivating is being done not in boardrooms, but in tabloid newsrooms, where the ad­ventures of Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, Junichi Inamoto et al generate acres of copy – some of it funny, much of it banal, but all of it gratefully received by the football-loving public.

This may surprise those who have followed the play­ers’ progress in Britain. Inamoto’ s appearances for Arsenal have been limited to the Gunners’ half-hearted attempt to lift the Worthington Cup. Akinori Nishi­zawa, who joined Bolton on loan, spent most of his time pondering the comfort of the Reebok Stadium seating, and returned to Japan halfway through his con-tract to play for Cerezo Osaka in the J-League second division. In other countries, some Japanese players  have had a happier time. Shinji Ono has settled in quickly at Feyenoord, and Naohiro Takahara has at least seen first-team football at Boca Juniors.

When Kawaguchi, the national team goalkeeper, signed for Portsmouth for a club record £1.8 million in September, few Japanese commentators doubted he would succeed where the other exports to England had failed. He soon proved them wrong. Having con­ceded 25 goals in 13 appearances, “Yoshi” is no longer flavour of the month with Graham Rix and may soon find his sojourn on the south coast coming to a premature end.

British newspaper reports invariably mention Kawaguchi’s height (he is “only” 5ft 10in) and the hordes of Japanese journalists watching his every move. According to the Pompey Pages website, 150 reporters, many of them Japanese, attended Kaw­a­guchi’s post-signing press conference, and dozens continue to pack the Fratton Park press box whenever he plays. At Highbury, there is bemusement at the scores of hacks dispatched from Japan to write about a player who is unlikely to make his Premiership debut this, or any other, season.

Most of the Japanese reporters currently on tours of duty in north London and the Hampshire coast hail from the spootsu shimbun, newspapers which, al­though mainly broadsheet in size, are decidedly tab­loid in content and design. They peddle a sensation-alist mix of sport and celebrity gossip, financed by adverts for “massage” parlours. Their coverage says much about the herd mentality of sections of the press in Japan. Here, reporters are assigned to press clubs attached to government ministries, police headquarters and the like. Young hacks, eager to prove them­selves, spend day after day waiting for, and then writing up, official briefings. Even the more inquisitive among them are reluctant to chase stories for fear of missing the official line.

Tabloid sports writers face similar pressures and, as a result, write about everything and nothing. The daily avalanche of stories that followed Kawaguchi’s move was typical. Kawaguchi makes great save in first home win screamed the Sankei Sports after Yoshi’s first, and so far only, clean sheet. But the copy flowed elsewhere, too. First there were reports praising Nishi­zawa’s scoring feats (in pre-season training sessions) and assurances that he would make the first team.

These were followed by a sudden interest in the fortunes of Bolton and Arsenal reserves, where he and Inamoto played most of their competitive football. Week after week, readers were treated to such head­lines as Inamoto, Nishizawa still not on the bench. Mention was also made of the economic bonanza the signings would trigger in the form of merchandise sales and football tours from the far east, though few reporters in Japan openly subscribed to the view that Yoshi & Co were little more than golden geese.

With so little to say about the games themselves, the broadsheets limited themselves to occasional space fillers, but the tabloids were undeterred, deciding to supplement terse match reports with puff pieces on the minutiae of life as a Japanese expat, something of a national obsession.

Hence such headlines as Ambulance worker mobs Kawaguchi! – a story about a female paramedic who stopped her (otherwise empty) ambulance and made a beeline for the Pompey heartthrob as he left the training pitch. “Was there a ser­ious injury to at­tend to?” asked the Sankei Sports. “No,” it reassured us, “all she wanted was Kaw­a­guchi’s autograph, which he duly scribbled on the back of a medical chart.” The same news­paper ran a transcript of Kawaguchi’s attempts at a press conference to ad­dress the burning issues of the day in Eng­lish: “Fish and chips? I have never been eating. I’ll try.”

The intense media spotlight has its risks. The hounding of Hidetoshi Nak­ata following his move to Per­ugia after France 98 and the persistent speculation regarding his future after struggling for form at Parma have left him resentful of the Japanese press. Fluent in Italian, Nak­ata knows he can bypass his compatriots to make a point, and interviews he does give to Japanese papers belong to the Alan Shearer school of illumination.

The same won’t necessarily happen to Kawaguchi or Inamoto. Both come across as pleasant young men, eager to accommodate the press, who are happy to re­ciprocate with a stream of personal, but wholesome, trivia and updates on their physical condition. Any­thing to prevent their editors from calling time and hauling them back Tokyo to cover the weekend’s big J2 clash between Omiya Ardija and Mito Hollyhock.

Yet despite the inanity of much of their output, the spootsu shimbun have helped raise the profile of the English game after years of deferential stories about Brazil and Italy. David Beckham and Michael Owen compete with Luis Figo, Nakata and Ronaldo for space on the covers of Japan’s vast array of football weeklies. Inside there are regular features on Eng­­lish fan culture, life in London, Manchester, Liverpool and, yes, Portsmouth, and the role of the pub in the quintessential match-day experience. In GQ Japan, photos of shaven-headed, tattooed supporters and play­ers from a Sunday league team appeared under the headline Football dandyism.

So for once, England’s players will have the tabloids, albeit Japanese ones, to thank for the massive local support that will greet them when they step on to the pitch for their World Cup opener against Swe­den in Saitama on June 2.

From WSC 181 March 2002. What was happening this month

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