Law-abiding nation has no room for hooligans

Asian Times: Tokyo
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The Independent Online

A Japanese police constable's day is typically spent giving directions to passers-by and filling out report forms for lost property.

A Japanese police constable's day is typically spent giving directions to passers-by and filling out report forms for lost property.

Small wonder, then, that Japanese police are in crisis because they do not have enough cells to accommodate the hundreds of football hooligans who are expected to be arrested at this summer's World Cup.

Host cities are preparing plans to transport detainees to spare cells across the country after studying the pattern of violence at the last World Cup.

In France in 1998, hundreds of arrests were made. More than 489 English hooligans were arrested or expelled from France before England's match against Colombia in Lens – the highest figure for a single day. If that was repeated in this year's World Cup, which Japan is co-hosting with South Korea, local holding cells in many tournament venues would be overflowing.

Japan is famous for its low crime rate. But recently a modest domestic crime wave has put detention facilities under unprecedented strain. Seventy per cent of the country's holding cells are occupied, and in some of the cities most likely to see World Cup violence, they are close to overflowing. In Shizuoka, where one of the quarter-finals will be played, the detention centres are already 97 per cent full. In Ibaraki, where both Argentina and Germany will play, there is room for fewer than 100 extra detainees.

Particular anxiety surrounds England fans, who are regarded by many Japanese as synonymous with hooliganism. England will play Nigeria in Osaka, Japan's second city, which has a population of 2.6 million. But the average Osaka detention centre has a capacity of only 1,040, with only about 160 places spare at present.

The Osaka prefectural police are racing to finish a new office building in time for the June tournament, which would give them an extra 71 cells. But the National Police Agency (NPA), which is co-ordinating security arrangements for the World Cup, has advised local forces to prepare for the worst by co-operating with one another by transferring arrested hooligans across the country.

"Transferring arrested hooligans would be our final contingency plan," an NPA official was quoted as telling the Yomiuri newspaper. "There's always a possibility a suspect might escape during the transfer. The most important thing is to prevent hooligans from entering Japan, and to avoid riots."

British and Japanese police are engaged on a huge intelligence-gathering exercise, intended to identify potential troublemakers before they get to the grounds. British courts can now impound the passports of known hooligans five days before an international match – a uniquely draconian power which they are unable to exercise over armed robbers, paedophiles, or even terrorists. Japanese immigration officers can refuse entry to anyone with a drug conviction and anyone who has received a prison sentence of 12 months or more, even if it was suspended, and Britain's National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) will pass on this information.

Once the fans have landed NCIS is offering Japan the benefit of its intelligence operation. A 24-hour operations centre will relay information about the numbers, destinations and means of transport of arriving fans. The NCIS's so-called "spotters" – plain-clothes police officers able to recognise known hooligans – will assist their Japanese colleagues.

Japanese law-enforcement authorities insist they will take the sternest possible measures against hooligans. "Not all countries charge hooligans," a senior NPA officer told The Independent. "Some of them arrest them and then send them home after they've cooled off. But we won't let anyone escape without being criminally punished."

The British Foreign Office minister Denis MacShane said on a recent visit to Tokyo: "If anyone goes over the line, it won't be a question of saying, 'Naughty boy, get on the plane'. They will see the next World Cup in four years' time eating a bowl of rice in a Japanese prison."