Hellish humidity and £6 pints

View from Japan: Asian supporters pick up their own litter, applaud the opposition and admire England
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The Independent Online

When David Beckham's injury-time free-kick hit the back of the net, Katsumi Kashimura jumped for joy along with the English expatriates packing out the Tokyo Sports Cafe.

Sporting his England scarf, the 32-year-old Japanese computer engineer promised to cheer on England at the 2002 World Cup even should they clash with Japan. "England is football's country. I love the English and I love football," he said. "Of course I will support England next year."

Not many Japanese would go that far, but people here want the World Cup finals to be perfect and they welcome news that the "mother country" of football will participate.

Professional football was launched almost from scratch in Japan just eight years ago. Japan reached the World Cup finals five years later and is now set to co-host the sport's greatest tournament. Despite being hit hard by the 1997 Asian financial crisis, South Korea has also steamed ahead with its ambitious plans to build stadiums worthy of the event.

It remains to be seen whether the decision to share the finals between South Korea and Japan will be vindicated. At the time, it seemed a visionary move that could help heal wounds from Japan's brutal occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. However, relations have soured over the last year. First, Japan upset Korea by marketing the competition domestically as the Japan-South Korea World Cup despite an agreement to put South Korea first in the title. Then, Koreans were enraged as the Japan government approved a history textbook for schools that airbrushes Japan's wartime record.

There is also the difficulty and cost of travelling between the two countries. Booking a flight from Japan to Korea is not easy at the best of times. With potentially thousands of fans trying to cross over at short notice, the congestion could leave many fans disappointed.

In June this year, Japan and South Korea tested out their preparedness by hosting the Confederations Cup at some of their new stadiums. Transportation problems left many fans late for games and some stranded at stadiums for hours after. But even worse was that the semi-final was blighted by torrential rain.

Organisers are working on the transport, but can do little about the weather. No one would ever recommend you to visit the Far East in June. Driving rain can last for up to three days, accompanied by sickening humidity and heat. Britons who have lived in Japan for years do not get used to it, so a couple of weeks of "acclimatisation" is not going to bring about peak performances from players from cooler climes.

The signs are that England may play their group games in Seogwipo on South Korea's Cheju Island, where the perceived hooligan threat from their fans can be most easily contained. The nightlife may not be much on Cheju but, if England are based there, fans should not resent their quarantine. The stadium is set magnificently between the ocean and the dormant volcano Mount Halla. The island is popular with holidaying Koreans, is cheaper than Japan and does not suffer from the pollution and traffic of Korean cities.

Nineteen of the 20 stadiums to be used in 2002 are purpose-built, and both countries have clearly set out to impress. The stadium in Sapporo, for example boasts a remarkable "floating pitch" which can be slid indoors or out depending on the weather. Ironically, because it is so far in to Japan's north, Sapporo is the host city with the least inclement weather in June. But question marks remain about the wisdom of spending vast sums on stadiums that have no clear purpose beyond the World Cup. Cheju, for example, has no professional team and half the population of the nearest town could fit inside its stadium.

There will be no question of empty seats in Japan. The first round of ticket applications in Japan was over-subscribed by over 100-1. Application forms were snapped up so quickly that Tokyo residents queued to snap up reprinted forms. That despite the £40 price tag for a seat at an unspecified first stage game.

Those Japanese fans could almost serve as a model for the ideal supporter. They are enthusiastic without being jingoistic. Female supporters typically make up around half the crowd. Even when they lose, they applaud the opposition. Some stay behind after games to clean up litter.

Heavy drinking, jeering at opponents and swearing at referees are all considered boorish. While most resident Britons are delighted that England will at last be playing a tournament in the same time zone, some fear that English fans will destroy the widespread belief in Japan that England is a country of gentlemen.

Neither of the hosts hold out much hope of World Cup glory. Japan have made great strides since the 1993 launch of the J-League and boasts some excellent players under 25, such as Junichi Inamoto, who signed for Arsenal this year, and Shinji Ono at Feyenoord. Fans expect that Japan will continue to grow in strength. But for both host teams, qualifying for the knock-out stage is likely to be the goal and reaching the last eight is only a theoretical possibility.

This may rob the tournament of some of its atmosphere. South Korean fans are enthusiastic followers of their national team, but lose interest once they are out. The Japanese are quick to adopt other teams, but tend to watch in silent appreciation.

Which is a shame, as England are a natural choice for many Japanese fans. The Japanese admire England and the passion of the English game. In a television poll after the last World Cup, the Japanese voted England's heroic 10-man stance against Argentina as the best game of the tournament.

Japan's reputation as the world's most expensive country is well-earned. A pint in the Tokyo Sports Cafe, for example, costs almost £6. Hotels, taxis and meals generally cost between 15 and 50 per cent more than in the UK. There are cheap ways of doing things, but travellers unfamiliar with Japanese are ill-equipped to find them. The language barrier is not helped by the fact that most Japanese and South Koreans have zero conversational English.

One word of English that Japanese are now familiar with is ''hooligan". Japanese insurance firms are offering special hooligan policies to bar and shop owners in potential trouble-spots. But police in both countries are taking lessons in dealing with the threat. British police gave seminars in Tokyo and Seoul this summer on policing crowds. Japanese police took meticulous notes on the use of spotters and on how to distinguish between a drinking fan and a drunken hooligan. The South Koreans, with their considerable experience of student demonstrations, were warned that heavy-handed policing can ruin a peaceful atmosphere. The Japanese were told that waif-like teenage stewards may not be enough to keep control of a crowd.

So travelling fans can expect to pay a small fortune to watch football in steaming heat. Transport and policing may fall short of perfect. But England can look forward to competing in a World Cup that will be played out in magnificent stadiums built by two countries who desperately want the first World Cup to be held in Asia into a marvellous festival of football.

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