Ben is the only European member of the notorious – by J. League standards – Ultras behind the goal at Gamba Osaka, and his ‘The Gaijin of Gamba’ piece for Issue Five of The Blizzard looks at the complexities and contradictions of these hardcore fans’ place within Japanese society. The club’s side of the story, meanwhile, is presented below in an interview with Gamba president Kikuo Kanamori, who casts light on the conflict between Japanese business traditions and a ‘customer’ base more inspired by Italian terraces.
Throughout the inconveniently long, uphill walk from the monorail station to Gamba’s clubhouse in the northern suburbs of Osaka, I am still hugely divided on how I should view Kikuo Kanamori.
On the one hand, I have dozens of friends in the ‘Sledgehamor Bros’ ultras group who have repeatedly and bitterly argued with a club president they see as just the latest in a line of corporate suits parachuted in from the parent company, Panasonic, without the slightest knowledge or experience of football. This reputation was indelibly forged at a miscalculated supporters’ Q&A session shortly after his appointment in 2008 when, with shades of Christian Gross at Tottenham Hotspur, the sexagenarian unveiled the book he had been reading to teach him all about his new sport.
But then, on the other, our first actual meeting at a media event in late 2010 had left me truly – though quite pleasantly – surprised at the level of knowledge and drive he showed with regard to the delicate, long-term process of implanting a professional football club within a modern Japanese society that already had plenty of other things to play with. While admitting I was a supporter myself, I hadn’t let on that I was actually part of that rabble in the centre who would frequently boo him; but having since confused a couple of security guards who knew me as ‘that foreign ultra’ by turning up at the main entrance with a press pass, I wondered if Kanamori might now treat me with suspicion too.
I shouldn’t have worried. The president greets me warmly as he leads me into his office and, after a bit of small talk about his excitement over the imminent start to the 2012 J. League season, he tells me to fire away with anything I like.
BM: How does your club view its supporters? What kind of supporters do you think you have here at Gamba Osaka?
KK: Gamba Osaka is a professional football club, but in terms of physical assets we own absolutely nothing. Even the land on which we built the clubhouse where we are sitting today is rented. In sport, we believe that there are two types of assets that take greater importance than anything else – the first is the supporters, and the second is the team itself. So we view our supporters as one of our two, truly vital assets.
We believe that the customer comes first. Customers represent a central pillar to this company’s management, and so it is our basic policy to create an environment in which our supporters can enjoy themselves and experience as much joy as possible.
However – and this has happened in the past – it is absolutely unacceptable if certain supporters should threaten the safety and security of any other spectators. We consider it our responsibility to create a safe and secure environment, and I believe that we have managed our supporters in a manner that ensures that this can be achieved.
BM: The words ‘safety and security’ lead us quickly to the subject of the fans behind the goal. Firstly, in your view, does the atmosphere that the hardcore supporters generate have any effect in terms of attracting other spectators to come – and keep coming – to Banpaku?
KK: Yes, of course it does. I have been president at Gamba since 2008, but a number of years ago, the support was literally divided. In effect, this meant that one group of supporters would drown out the other. There was no unity in the cheers and songs coming from the fans, and so we worked to change this. I suppose you could say we laid down a structure whereby everyone in the stadium would support the team together. We knew that we had to do something to build this kind of atmosphere, and so the first thing that we did was to ask anyone who refused to respect our way of thinking to leave. There are still a number of people serving life bans because they could not promise us a safe and secure stadium environment.
The second thing that we did as a club was to disclose our management information – in other words, we now communicate details on everything from the club’s business operations to our philosophy for the team in an open and public manner. The aim here is to properly communicate with as many supporters as possible, and I think that this has helped us to achieve greater overall unity today.
The early tone for Kanamori’s presidency was regrettably set by a confrontation in the stands at Urawa Reds which, although probably mere handbags by European standards, went down as one of the worst instances of hooliganism in J. League history. A small number of younger hardcore supporters threw water balloons at the home fans, provoking the Urawa ultras to make their way around the ground and charge the away end. The Gamba skinheads squared up to them, but a standoff ensued when massed ranks of Reds supporters barricaded the exits and trapped the travelling contingent inside for over three hours.
BM: Going back to 2008 – just two months after your appointment as president, Gamba fans were involved in a notorious incident at Saitama Stadium.
KK: Ah, you know about that?
BM: How did you respond to this situation?
KK: My priority is safety and security… actually, on that occasion I received a great many e-mails, letters, and telephone calls. People were telling me that their children were too frightened to come to the stadium anymore. One female supporter asked me, “Why do you let them get away with behaviour like that?” I agreed with their views completely, and so we took rapid and severe measures. Those who had threatened the safety and security of the stadium environment were immediately handed life bans, and stricter policing was implemented to ensure that these people would never be able to enter inside again.
We were faster than the opposing club on this occasion to take such measures, and I actually got a number of messages from supporters of the other club praising us for our excellent work.
BM: One small ‘ultras’ group was banned for life and disappeared completely, while another, much larger group was asked to voluntarily disband. However, 90-95% of the latter’s members formed a new ultras group and were active again within about six months. Would it therefore be correct to view their punishment as a temporary suspension?
KK: No, not at all. The very essence of that group was altered – they were only allowed to start taking part again once they changed their way of thinking. I told them that it was a matter of whether or not they could serve as leaders for the chants and songs in a manner that allowed everyone in the entire stadium to enjoy themselves. They had to understand that it was not just about them having fun; they had to understand they were leaders.
BM: And thus had a certain responsibility?
KK: Yes. We made those in charge of the group aware of their responsibility. In Japanese, we often use the word hijōshiki [literally something you don’t see every day; something extraordinary], and this is what they were looking for in their support for the team. I told them that wanting something different is fine, but we will not accept any behaviour that threatens the safety and security of others. They asked: “Why do you say that, Gamba Osaka? Why do you say that, Kanamori?” I said: “Because I have the whole operation to think of. So you must understand that this is everybody’s club, including you, but it is not exclusively yours.” These people think that it’s them who have built this club. They don’t believe it’s actually a club for everyone.
But I told them that Gamba is a club for everyone. Even I don’t consider that Gamba is my own club – I believe that it is everybody’s. So I spoke with them on repeated occasions, perhaps ten in the end, to consider exactly what role they had to fulfil. We actually had them come here, to the clubhouse. And I think that, gradually, they have come to understand.
BM: Do you think that their understanding has enabled them to become a more positive influence over the stand behind the goal?
KK: I think they have already become a positive influence. Thanks to the fans behind the goal, around 60% or 70% of the entire stadium are now clapping together, singing together, and excited about supporting the team. I think that the support as a whole has become very impressive indeed.
In my work, I meet with supporters all over the place. And I have met several people who have told me, “I stopped going to support Gamba behind the goal because I didn’t like the atmosphere, but I have started going again now.”
Undoubtedly, the situation has grown much happier for the board, ultras, and normal supporters alike over the past couple of seasons. But it has been a gradual process, with several flashpoints along the way. In March 2010, Gamba fans were looking forward to their first derby in three-and-a-half years following the return to J1 of Cerezo Osaka – a rival whose decision to wear pink strips and accept sponsorship from a major brand of processed pork products had inspired a predictable, derisory nickname. However, just days before the big game, Gamba issued a somewhat draconian statement effectively forbidding all the long-awaited derby songs, as well as threatening life bans to anyone displaying the anti-Cerezo flags that had inevitably been prepared over the winter break.
KK: However, there is still one point of contention that we have. For example, some of the fans behind the goal like to write things on banners designed to make fun of our opponents. Like with Cerezo Osaka, you know…
BM: Like buta (‘pigs’)?
KK: Yeah, words like buta. Saying things like that, things that are abusive to our opponents, is absolutely prohibited
BM: But if it’s only words like buta or, from the Cerezo end, saru (‘monkeys’), then from a British perspective it really doesn’t sound like much of a big deal. In Europe, it’s generally quite acceptable for fans to make fun of each other, so why is it prohibited in Japan?
KK: It’s a cultural difference, isn’t it? The British have a keen sense of humour. People get the joke. But Japan is a nation of samurai and jokes like that aren’t acceptable here – in my opinion, anyway.
BM: Osaka is a city famous for its comedy traditions, though.
KK: Yes… but comedy implies something slightly different here. I am not from Osaka myself, but with Osakans’ humour it is fine to make jokes at the expense of people on your side who will laugh with you. Anything intended to hurt another party is not acceptable. As a people, the Japanese are highly reserved and, essentially, we are not taught things like jokes and humour. It is not part of our culture. I sense it may be creeping in slowly of late, but if I speak with people from the UK, it is still completely different. Your jokes are very different, right? For example, a Brit might tell a joke that makes fun of the French, or makes fun of the Germans. You tell these stories to laugh about different national stereotypes. You might not always like it if it happens to you, but at least in Europe there is a culture where you can joke and laugh with each other. You can’t do that in Japan.
BM: Even so, I have often spoken with supporters who say, “This is Osaka, humour is part of our culture, we want to be able to joke with each other too.”
KK: Look, I personally don’t see the enjoyment in being abusive to others. Tell me a different joke that’s actually funny and that’s fine. But those who want to make fun of our opponents tend just to want to hurt them.
In fact, one of the main reasons I say this is that fully 51% of our fans, supporters, spectators are female. We also get a lot of children coming here. So it is an absolute no go. Women dislike the pictures of skulls and the words like buta that poke fun at our opponents.
BM: This process of change among the supporters has inevitably been a long one – indeed, a year after the Saitama incident, there were two matches where fans stayed behind to protest for a long time afterwards. Had you imagined that you would be dealing with this sort of thing when you became president?
KK: No, I certainly didn’t imagine that per se. But my previous job was in manufacturing, and you will always get things like quality complaints or various other accidents occurring in that line of work. Essentially, this amounts to the same thing.
At first, however, my colleagues at the club were of the opinion that the president going out to confront the supporters would only lead to further trouble. They believed that if the guy at the top gets directly involved then we would never be able to put an end to it. I too felt the same initially, but with the second protest, I started to think differently. As I said before, our most important assets are nothing more or less than our team and its supporters, and I will therefore have failed in my duties as president if I do not respond to our customers’ problems both properly and personally.
So I went up to the spectator area behind the goal. But when I did that, they told me that the stand was their sacred ground and that the Gamba president shouldn’t come up there. I said “OK… let’s talk outside, then”, and we went to speak outside. The fans had stayed behind until 10.30pm or 11pm for me to go over. Then we agreed to speak outside, and only then could our staff start clearing up the stadium.
However, we do now have a good dialogue. This was not the case when I first took over. But through this series of conversations with the supporters, I gave them clear answers regarding their abusive behaviour and such like, and they started to ask further questions and offered their opinions in response. As things changed and we became able to speak with one another, I knew that we would be able to come to an understanding in the end.
BM: You were the target for some pretty direct abuse yourself at first. That has to be quite unusual for someone in such a position of authority here in Japan?
KK: No, I don’t know about that. In a Japanese company, the manager will always go down to the frontlines. When there are problems or complaints on the frontlines, the manager will listen to the engineers or the workers on the production lines and will take their requests very seriously.
BM: But had you ever been abused like you were by the ultras?
KK: Well… during my corporate career I was in charge of dealing with the labour unions, so I used to go to all the joint consultative committees and collective bargaining meetings. Maybe that experience is helping me now! Either that, or possibly the student protests when I was younger.
Whether or not every category of Japanese football supporter to have evolved over the past two decades is seen as entirely desirable, the J. League clubs have faced a unique challenge in establishing community roots 100 years or so after this process was completed somewhat more organically in late-19th/early-20th century Europe. The dominating, yellow-and-black shadow of the Hanshin Tigers baseball team has undoubtedly presented particular difficulties in Japan’s third largest city, where both Gamba and Cerezo have always struggled to fill their modestly-sized stadiums.
BM: Changing the subject slightly, Osaka is a famous baseball-loving city but is shared by two professional football clubs – Gamba and Cerezo. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
KK: It’s a very good thing! The reason being that that we have someone to compete with. There is a Japanese expression sessatakuma, which essentially means ‘developing through competition with others’. We never want to lose to Cerezo. Cerezo never want to lose to Gamba – or, from Cerezo’s point of view, they are keen to catch up with Gamba. Our determination never to fall behind is very strong indeed, and it makes us work harder as a result.
BM: Do you ever work with them?
KK: Yes, in some areas. Specifically, in terms of considering how to develop Japanese football as a whole; and then, for example, how best to organise tournaments for primary school children or build new facilities for people to play football. In areas like these, the clubs will come and discuss things together.
BM: Gamba were initially the only J. League club in the entire Kansai region, but now there are two teams in Osaka and four in the region – reducing Gamba’s official hometown from ‘Osaka’ to the smaller suburban city of Suita. From this year, however, you have expanded your catchment area to cover three other northern suburbs as well. What were the goals behind this development?
KK: When we say ‘Gamba Osaka’, the ‘Osaka’ to which we are referring is the whole of Osaka Prefecture, and we never actually had Osaka City or indeed any other city in mind from the very beginning. If you look at the records and the history of our club, Gamba was founded with the intention of representing the entire Osaka Prefecture. But in terms of actual club activities, we didn’t have enough resources or presence at first so started off by working from the suburb in which we are located. Over time, we have grown stronger, and now we can officially represent four suburban cities. Soon, we also plan to develop into two others – Minoh and Settsu – that are very keen to get involved too.
BM: Individually, the names of the various separate suburbs carry very little spiritual resonance, but there is a massive sense of local pride and identity associated with ‘Osaka’. Is it a problem that the presence of Cerezo means that Gamba cannot make an official claim on Osaka City?
KK: I don’t really see that as a big problem. Looking over the next 20 years, our strategies will actually cover a somewhat broadly-defined hometown with a significant emphasis on grass roots. In the relatively near future, we will actually be able to cast our eyes over the whole of Osaka Prefecture in a number of activity fields.
My own view is that this relatively near future will arrive once we have built our new stadium. This is something that will be unique to all of Osaka – a genuinely football-specific stadium. I doubt that any other team will be able to build anything to match, either. Ours will be a 40,000-seater facility, designed as a truly modern version of a traditional British football stadium. In this sense, it will become a social foundation of its own accord – if you have a good stadium, everyone will come along. There will be all kinds of matches, too – as well as our Gamba games, we plan to host international matches and the finals of major junior high and high school tournaments here too. It is my plan that the new Gamba Osaka stadium here at Banpaku should naturally become the spiritual home for football in the Kansai region, just as Wembley is for England.
BM: So in doing so, the long-term plan is for Gamba to be the true representatives of Osaka. Was there never a suggestion of pitting the north against the south, where Cerezo are based?
KK: Never. That’s never been part of our thinking.
BM: Finally, since becoming president you have been vocal about your intentions to enhance the matchday experience – indeed, one of the first changes you made was to introduce a wide variety of world food stalls at the existing stadium. Now, for the new stadium, the original design of four identical, three-tiered stands has been revised to place a two-tiered stand behind the goal…
KK: It’s practically one tier, with just a few extra rows placed on top. We had to work to ensure the best possible angles.
BM: Did this change arise as a result of supporter opinion?
KK: That was certainly part of it. That, and the fact that this stadium is going to be built as a joint effort between the Japanese football authorities, the business community here in Kansai, and Gamba Osaka. We discovered that if we wanted to host Japan national team games here, then it was an absolute requirement for at least 10,000 supporters to be able to support the team from behind the goal. Our own fans were also very clear about their desire for us to do whatever it took to create a Kop-like stand for them. The reason that we initially drew up a three-tiered design was that we wanted to place VIP seats in the middle layer. But these have now been cut out to create a different look for that stand, and I think that will now be the style that we go with.
Postscript: 2014 is the scheduled completion date for Gamba’s new stadium, which is being funded purely through donations from corporate sponsors, local organisations, and individual supporters. However, after a catastrophic opening third of the 2012 season, there are now real fears that the previously perennial trophy contenders will be cutting the ribbon in the second tier. Kanamori’s surprise appointment as manager, Brazilian unknown José Carlos Serrão, was unceremoniously dumped after losing every one of his five games in charge; but the president was subjected to another angry post-match protest after a 3-2 home defeat to Sagan Tosu on 25 May left Gamba six points adrift of safety. Diplomatically torn, I elected to quietly watch events unfold out of sight at the back of the ultras section.
Edited by Jonathan Wilson, Issue Five of The Blizzard is out now and features articles by a host of top writers including Philippe Auclair, Simon Kuper, and Lars Sivertsen. The Blizzard is a 190-page quarterly publication that allows writers the opportunity to write about the football stories that matter to them, with no limits and no editorial bias. All issues are available to download for PC/Mac, Kindle and iPad on a pay-what-you-like basis in print and digital formats. Find out more at www.theblizzard.co.uk or follow on Twitter @blzzrd.
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