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With Katsuyoshi Shinto, manager of Yokhama FC


At Expo '70. Memorial Park, just before a Gamba Osaka home game

Glen McCabe

University of Canterbury

Glen completed his MA thesis on soccer culture in Japan in February 200, and is now undertaking further postgraduate study at Tsukuba University. His three weeks in Japan last September was partly funded by an Asia 2000-NZASIA Research Award.


The Structure and Support Base of Japanese Soccer

My fieldwork visit to Japan ran from Friday 13 September to Wednesday 9 October 2002. During these three weeks, I explored many economic and social aspects of contemporary soccer in Japan.

First, I investigated the public face of soccer culture by going to matches, a total of seven. Of these, four were home games of Gamba Osaka, two of Yokohama Football Club (the two clubs I chose as case studies) and one of the Shonan Bellmare club. I watched from a variety of positions (for example, on the home and away end embankments and from seated areas), noticing the distinction between the more active fans behind the goals and the passive majority, and the effect these differences had on the spectacle as a whole.

Soccer in Japan is still largely seen as just one of several options in the entertainment market, and so the type of matchday atmosphere is crucial to the clubs' success or failure. Presence at matches thus gave me valuable insights into the health of the clubs, as well as supporter attitudesI also tried wherever possible to make conversation with fellow spectators.

Those who would talk openly to foreigners made some revealing off-the-cuff comments about their feelings towards the home team, or about the often-flimsy reasons ("I like the colours of their uniform") why they come to matches. And at my first Yokohama FC match, one such conversation led to an invitation to the annual team BBQ, where I talked with several players, the manager and the club's founding general manager.

The attitudes of team members, and the differences between the attitudes of managers and players, gave insights into how the various actors perceive their place in the sports/entertainment market, and how teams such as Yokohama FC are moving rapidly away from a corporatist orientation towards gearing their organisation to relations with the local community. I also talked to a mid-ranking manager at Gamba; he explained his club's 'corporate-style' organisational emphasis on success, an approach that contrasts strongly with Yokohama FC's family emphasis.

I also investigated the academic study of soccer in Japan. Meetings with eight researchers at four universities (Tsukuba, Hitotsubashi, Ritsumeikan and Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences) gave me invaluable perspectives on sports policy, soccer-related grassroots volunteer movements and Japanese body culture, as well as much soccer-specific statistical information and sociological analyses. The information I collected has broadened my understanding of the environment in which soccer in Japan operates; it also sheds light related to the analysis of my case studies. And the contacts gained through these meetings will prove invaluable when I need to tap further specialist advice and feedback.

The difficulties I encountered included the high cost of doing anything in Japan, and gaining access to interview subjects. Especially at larger clubs like Gamba, direct approaches are largely futile, and I had to rely on limited contacts in academia to arrange interviews.

Even so, the fieldwork made an invaluable contribution to my post-graduate programme. Prior to going to Japan, secondary sources such as journal articles and TV documentaries had given me what I thought was a good grasp of the sociological realities of soccer in Japan, such as the impression that popular teams drew huge crowds every week. By actually going to matches, however, I was able to see half-full stadia; in fact, some were less than half-full. Secondary sources, in other words, can be less than reliable.

Secondly, discussions with specialist researchers helped me to probe issues I was unsure about, and to fine-tune the focus of my thesis. I now have a better understanding of the differences between Japanese and Western academic approaches to the sociology of soccer, and better appreciate the differences between Japanese and Western contexts in relation to factors such as regional affinity. I was also able to discuss key planks of my thesis' analysis with specialists, – issues such as the interaction and sysnthesis of structure and support aspects of Japanese soccer. Associate Professor Whang Soon-Hee at Tsukuba was particularly helpful, giving me detailed advice about which paths might lead to feasible conclusions.

The fieldwork was an opportunity to collect detailed information about both background and soccer-specific issues that I could not have had access to in New Zealand. As a result of my visit, I now see a clear connection between local government policy towards sporting facilities and its effects on grassroots support; previously I had considered this connection to be fairly insignificant. And although many clubs now maintain web sites, data about spectator attendance, for example, is still only available in print form – another reason why last September's visit has greatly assisted my research.

The most important aspect of my visit to Japan last year, however, was the opportunity to meet with key actors and develop relationships with them. Such meetings are critically important for foreign researchers. Electronic communications can help maintain such links, but they cannot initiate them. This applies to links with both Japanese academic sports-study specialists and the proferssional athletes. Nothing can replace the personal connections that a visit to Japan makes possible.

And I now have the opportunity to harness these contacts, because from April 2003 I will be doing two years' graduate research at Tsukuba University. Funded by a Japanese Ministry of Education (Monbukagakusho) scholarship, with the opportunity to enter a Master's or PhD course, this is an outstanding opportunity, of which I am very proud. I will have the chance to interact with leading researchers on a regular basis, and thus my fieldwork in 2002 has been critical to not only the success of my Canterbury MA thesis, but also my career prospects. Many thanks again to NZASIA and ASIA2000 for your support.