After watching one Japanese club bounce along to the tune of 1980's heavy metal, Robin Cowan yearns for an adoption of a similar attitude in the English game.
As football protest songs go, Vegalta Sendai supporter’s rendition of an 80’s hair-metal anthem - ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ by Twisted Sister - is definitely up there with the most bizarre. The 1984 hit, originally an affront to conservative and middle American values, has been adopted by the J League 1 strugglers and serves as a suitably ludicrous Japanese equivalent for ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’.
Amazingly, the Vegalta support’s penchant for hair-rock doesn’t end with Twisted Sister. Kiss’s ‘I was Made For Loving You’ is another regular favourite with the fans in yellow and blue, while every attack and corner is accompanied with a “Hey-ho! Let’s go!” taken from The Ramones’ ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’. It’s not just heavy metal classics either, I have no idea how they came about Jennifer Beals’ iconic 80’s perm as justification for an over-enthusiastic interpretation of the theme from Flashdance.
The Vegalta fan’s weekly performances singing the permed and bouffant hits of the 1980’s, gives an insight into the wonderfully odd character of the city of Sendai. Customs and characteristics can vary greatly from city to city in Japan. The differences in personality traits between Tokyo and Sendai are easily as distinct from each other as that of London and Glasgow. Possibly being isolated in the north, with only Consadole Sapporo representing any kind of competitive neighbour, has bred a certain eccentricity into the Sendai support while on their long away trips south. The Vegalta fans certainly give a warm, animated and good-humoured account of people from the Miyagi prefecture. It’s this reason I think it’s fair to say, upon arriving in a new place so many of us head for the nearest stadium - the measure of a collective culture can best be found within a football crowd.
While being completely unique in their choice of songs, Vegalta share with most fans in Japan a visual enthusiasm for supporting their teams. Although the old cliché of the straight-laced, grey suited Japanese salary man may have some validity on weekdays, the wild and outlandish clothes and hairstyles on show in Harajuku of a Sunday mirrors exactly the sentiment of nation’s football supporters. In these rare glimpses of freedom and given the setting to do so, all that’s bottled up in the pressures, rigid customs, and etiquette of Japanese society is let out in a blaze of colour and expression, making Japanese football a spectacle far greater than the sum of it’s parts.
The other consistency found in football stadiums at odds with wider Japanese society is a real egalitarian attitude when it comes to the shared experience. Just as you must leave behind symbols of wealth, status, or lack of such as you disrobe for the communal hot spring bathhouses, you do so as you don your colours to support your team. Sporting events are typically within the reach of nearly all in society, both in price and availability. To see a top flight match in Tokyo will cost you as little as 1,600¥ (around £12), all the more of a bargain when you consider a beer in a Roppongi sports bar will set you back around 1,000¥. Children can go to matches for as little as 500¥ and any ticket can be bought on the day at your local convenience store, making football an event truly open to all.
To draw a comparison between football in Japan and in England, the last game I attended in the UK was at The Emirates Stadium. Arsenal’s plush home ground, compared to the Japanese attitude of making the game open for all, can be seen as an analogy for English society’s love of hierarchical exclusivity. Arsenal expertly segregates the supporters by a binding ‘class’ type system - to have the privilege of buying a ticket for a home match you first have to surrender £30 per season to be a lowest of the low “Red Level” member. For the unfortunate, being ‘Red’ puts you at a disadvantage to being Silver, Gold, and Platinum when it comes to what dates you are permitted to buy tickets and the quality of the seat you can expect to be left available. So if you’ve handed over your membership fee and you want to buy a ticket for an utterly mouth-drying game with say Stoke City or Wigan, you’re still not allowed at the trough until the Silver, Gold, and Platinum members have had their fill.
Then you’re advised to allow ten working days for your membership card to be processed and dispatched (each ticket may be subject to £10 surcharge for premature booking naturally) and now that you’re dying to fill out your tax return form for a bit of light relief, you can buy a minimum priced £48 ticket for a seat directly behind the goal. From there you can experience Arsenal’s famous county cricket-like atmosphere disturbed intermittently by the clinking of Champagne flutes from the executive tier above. Maybe it would be kinder upon attempting to secure tickets, for a well spoken gentleman to approach and suggest that you may feel more at home at Barnet.
Arsenal aren’t the only club to put exclusiveness at the heart of English football and although there is the obvious cause and effect - better players = higher wages - I would defy any fan of an English Premier League team, banished from their club’s stadium to the solitude of their own living room, to interrupt a Vegalta fan’s fun long enough to sing the praises of the superior quality of English football.
As I stood watching the heaving mass of the away Vegalta Sendai fans in a former World Cup stadium hoping they had Bonnie Tyler on this game’s set list, I couldn’t help but reflect on the sad fact that returning to London would mean top flight football would be far less within reach. The Vegalta fan’s latest performance of ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ couldn’t have felt more poignant.
To see what the fuss is about, simply view this.
Robin is a regular contributor to IBWM and you can follow him on Twitter @RobinCowan.