Japan says welcome to the World Cup. But not if you are English

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The Independent Online

Whatever weapons they carry, however vast their hordes, and whatever dire deeds they perpetrate, when the invaders arrive in the city of Sapporo, no one will be able to say the citizens were not prepared. For weeks now, Japan's northernmost big city has been in a state of anticipation and, with just weeks to go, everyone knows what to expect.

Whatever weapons they carry, however vast their hordes, and whatever dire deeds they perpetrate, when the invaders arrive in the city of Sapporo, no one will be able to say the citizens were not prepared. For weeks now, Japan's northernmost big city has been in a state of anticipation and, with just weeks to go, everyone knows what to expect.

Thousands of extra police are being drafted in from all over the country, and are conducting regular training drills with new weapons and armour. Children are being warned not to play outside, and shopkeepers are contemplating special insurance to cover the inevitable destruction. The newspapers and television are full of stories describing the berserkers and their habits, and innkeepers are refusing bookings from anyone with a foreign face. Japan is just three weeks away from hosting the football World Cup, the biggest and most boisterous sporting event on the planet.

And while the rest of the world is limbering up with enthusiasm, the co-host is virtually on a war footing.

The reason is summed up in the three syllables of a word that has effortlessly entered the Japanese language: hooligan, or fuurigan. No one knows whether the crowd violence that marred the last World Cup in France will be repeated this year, but a glance at the Tokyo media suggests that it is a certainty. With 21 days to go until the opening ceremony, living in Japan is like being in a convent full of Anglo-Saxon nuns as a fleet of rapacious Vikings appears on the horizon.

No group of fans, of course, is viewed with more dread than those of England and it is English hooligans which have inspired the most hysterical trepidation. At the British embassy in Tokyo normal duties have been suspended, with staff from different departments put on full-time World Cup duty, travelling around the country to reassure cities hosting England games.

In its last attempt to calm fears before the beginning of the tournament, the British Council will enlist the help of the 1,200 Britons employed as English teachers in Japanese state schools. They will be sent 175,000 phrase books, designed to allow young Japanese to communicate with visiting fans. But so far their best efforts have failed to cut through the atmosphere of trepidation, naive misunderstanding and polite, but frank, racism.

Television crews have travelled to Britain to conduct interviews with dubious-looking "hooligans". In Osaka, a panel discussion on the subject organised by the embassy was hijacked by the master of ceremonies, a former TV presenter who embarked on a long rambling discourse on Britain's warlike history. "It was just awful," said a British journalist who participated. "He turned to me and said, 'It's true, isn't it, that Britain has never lost a war?' Eventually the lady from the embassy had to tap him on the shoulder to change the subject."

The situation is illustrated by a very simple problem facing every fan: how to find somewhere to stay. At Sapporo, the most potentially tense of their first round matches, England and Argentina fans may be reduced to sleeping rough in parks and community halls because Japanese hotel owners are refusing to give rooms to foreigners on the grounds that they may be hooligans.

In a telephone survey by The Independent, more than half of the hotels in Sapporo with vacancies refused to take a booking from a British reporter, although they accepted it from a Japanese.

The city authorities are trying to organise rough accommodation in community centres, sports halls or public parks, similar to the shelter provided to victims of earthquakes. But the plan may fall through because local people are refusing to allow such camps to be set up in their communities.

Nobuaki Sato of the Sapporo World Cup promotion committee, said: "We are telling people that most English people are decent folk, but the media are whipping up fears about hooligans and the people of Sapporo are very scared. People in towns adjacent to the ground are very frightened, so it remains to be seen whether we can realise our plan."

There are 60,000 hotel beds in the Sapporo area and no more than 40,000 fans are expected for the three first-round matches to be played there.

Followers of the four other teams playing at the Sapporo Dome – Germany, Italy, Ecuador and Saudi Arabia – have had no trouble finding accommodation. But the odds are stacked against any foreigner – even a Japanese-speaking one – who tries to make a booking for England vs Argentina.

A booking clerk at the Kanemasho Inn, who had refused a room to a British caller, confided to The Independent's Japanese reporter: "We have been told by the president of the inn not to accept any foreigners. The problem with them is that we don't know who are hooligans and who are not." Mr Suzuki, of the Hotel Toho, said: "We do have rooms, but we're not accepting foreigners. I'm afraid that we can't guarantee that there won't be one or two of them because they may have got a Japanese to make the booking for them. But you shouldn't worry too much."

A spokesperson for the British Council in Tokyo said: "We have been dismayed by the attitude of the Japanese media, who have focused on the negative aspects. Of course, there have been problems in the past, but the picture that's being painted is that all England fans are hooligans. It's just not true."

Although the Japanese media has fanned the flames of fear, part of the blame for the hysteria may be attributable to the police. Soon after the World Cup was awarded to Japan and Korea, senior officers began discussing tactics with foreign colleagues. Some urged the adoption of European methods of policing football: low key and co-operative, with relatively small numbers of officers, and a large part of the job done by well-trained stewards. But the argument has clearly been won by the traditionalists, who favour a show of force by large numbers of armed police.

For months, "training exercises" have been held in which officers posing as hooligans have been routed by riot police. Officers have been equipped with web-guns for entangling hooligans and "pole-mounted wire noose traps" for tripping them up.

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