Japan braces for World Cup hooligans

The influx of rowdy European soccer fans has Japanese preparing for the worst

With the start of the World Cup finals in Japan next Friday, the mood of excitement at hosting England's soccer superstars is increasingly mixed with a feeling of dread about the fans that follow them.

Japan has hosted major international sporting events before – notably the Olympics in 1964, '72, and '98. But the soccer crowd is being treated as a very different proposition than the Olympic set.

Security concerns about "furigans" – hooligans, or rowdy soccer fans – are reasonable. England and Germany, two nations notorious for unruly fans, play their first-round matches in Japan. Last Friday, England banned more than 1,000 suspected soccer hooligans from traveling to the World Cup.

European police are working with the police in Japan and Korea (the two host nations) to identify potential troublemakers. European police will provide spotters to keep an eye on the airports, seaports, and the streets near stadiums.

But the threat is also being hyped by the Japanese media, playing on cultural stereotypes and misconceptions.

After seeing repeated television footage of hooligans on the rampage in Europe, homemaker Hiromi Omae says she will take no chances when England plays Nigeria in her home city of Osaka, on June 12. "I'll make sure the kids stay home, keep the dog indoors, and then lock the door and wait until they go away," she says. "I don't mean to be rude to the English, but from what I've seen, the hooligans are terrifying."

Local elementary and junior high schools will close on match day so that parents do not have to worry about their kids being caught up in any street violence.

Shopkeepers have taken out special hooligan insurance policies to cover expected damage to their premises. The shopkeepers association at Nishitanabe, five minutes from Nagai stadium, took out the country's first hooligan insurance policy last week. For 4,500 yen ($36) each, the retailers are jointly covered for 10 million yen ($80,000) worth of damage during the duration of the World Cup.

Hikaru Okayama, who heads the association, says the insurance will help them welcome England. "After police showed us videos of the rampages in France, many of our members initially wanted to simply shut up shop when England came, but we decided a ghost town would not be a very hospitable place for visitors," he says. "So we'll stay open, but take out insurance just in case."

Near the Sapporo Dome, where England will take on Argentina on June 7, worried car dealers plan to move their vehicles to a safer place and shutter up on match days. Barber shops are considering closing their doors because scissors are deemed to be potential weapons. A public screening of World Cup matches has been restricted to residents only.

Although terrorism is considered the greatest security threat to the tournament, risks posed by hooligans are being taken very seriously. Police in Sapporo have staged mock riots and acquired "net guns" to ensnare hooligans in a spidermanesque web. The district court in Sapporo has cleared its schedule at the start of June because it expects a flood of arrests.

The reaction to the threat of hooliganism is in part a reflection of Japan's inexperience with such behavior. Overall crime rates in Japan are low, and violence is almost unheard of in the domestic J. League. Fans of the national team are known to take rubbish bags to the stadiums to clean up their litter.

At its most extreme, Japan's overreaction smacks of racism. In Miyagi – a provincial area that will host three World Cup matches – a councilor warned the local assembly to brace for an influx of foreigners who sell cocaine and run off without paying their hotel bills.

"Given the exceptional mood of the event, we must also face the possibility of unwanted babies conceived by foreigners who rape our women," says Takayoshi Konno, who is in the same Liberal Democratic Party as the prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi. Mr. Takayoshi told the Monitor that he sees no reason to feel any less worried even though England will not play in his town.

The British Embassy and the England Football Supporters' Association have mounted a campaign to counter the impression that Japan is about to be invaded by a horde of barbarians.

Two British ministers have flown to Japan to reassure local authorities that known hooligans will have their passports seized. The estimated $7,500 cost of the journey to the Far East is expected to deter all but the most serious supporters.

In London, British police officer Adam Hogg, who will be in charge of assisting Japanese police, told reporters recently that he expects 6,000 to 8,000 British fans will attend the World Cup.

"Ninety-nine percent of England fans are not interested in violence. The other 1 percent will not be allowed to come," said Kevin Miles of the Football Supporters' Association. "How would Japanese people visiting England like it if they were assumed to be criminals even before they arrived in the country?"

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