Gentlemen on the field, fanatics in the stands


July 29, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Signs are everywhere that soccer is one import that is going to do very well in this export-driven economy. Professional soccer-mania has made first-season inroads into schools, night life, fashions -- and murder.

When they fished Masaya Katayama's body out of Nagoya Bay last month, the police knew right away they had a homicide to investigate. Big bruises and cuts on his head and shoulders ruled out both suicide and accident.

What they didn't know was that they were dealing with Japan's first recorded case of a phenomenon many another country has long since experienced -- violence among professional-soccer fans.

The story unfolded within hours and turned on the runaway first-season popularity of the J-League, Japan's new professional soccer conference. Games are already selling out days or weeks in advance.

Mr. Katayama, 18, had been sent to buy tickets for himself and three 18-year-old friends to see Nagoya's Grampus Eight, the next-to-last-place entry in the 10-team J-League.

When the tickets somehow turned up in the hands of four other acquaintances, Mr. Katayama's angry friends packed him into a car, took him to a park and started beating him with two-by-fours.

When a passer-by spotted the fracas, they put Mr. Katayama back into the car, took him to a sea wall alongside the bay and beat him some more. Then they threw him into the water.

Two days later, the three friends were under arrest.

Japan is as well known for the 24-hour-a-day safety of its streets -- and for the very personal nature of much of the violence that does break out -- as some European and South American countries are for their soccer riots.

Even players here behave differently.

Far from putting up the screaming and sometimes violent protests that are familiar at matches in Europe and South America, players here bow stiffly to the referee when they are called for fouls.

"When it happened first, I thought to myself, well, that's strange," said Martin Bodenham, a 14-year English League referee the J-League hired to officiate and give clinics to his colleagues to raise the standard of rule enforcement here.

Barbers in several cities have reported waves of teen-age boys and men in their 20s coming in to get the "Alcindo," a cut that imitates the receding hairline and flowing rear tresses of the Brazilian who is the league's leading scorer.

Several high schools have caved in and let boys graduate despite their Alcindo haircuts, which blatantly violate the usual strict school dress codes.

The first soccer bar, the J-Club, opened in Tokyo's Shibuya night life district last month and has fans lined up outside the door every time there's a league game on television. Its offerings include Brazilian sausages and cocktails in team colors.

Sony Creative, the company that has the license for official J-League products, reports that team flags, at $6 a copy, are the fastest-moving item.

Whether the sport is baseball, soccer or American football, in Japan thousands of fans always feel obliged to show up carrying team flags to wave as they join in organized cheers.

Close behind team flags are $24 team caps and an item scarcely known in Japan before the J-League, the bright-colored misanaga wrist beads that originated in Brazil and Argentina. They cost about $7.

Now, if the J-League can only figure out the rest of its first-year schedule.

The season's first stage was played in a grueling nine weeks, followed by an all-star game.

The second stage, leading to championship playoffs, began this month and, after a break for the World Cup qualifying rounds, will continue at least into November, more likely into December or perhaps January.

With other tournaments, including the Emperor's Cup, scheduled for late fall, the J-League has little choice but to put its fans on hold at least once more.

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