The culture of Japan is famously hierarchical. Alongside the universally familiar scenarios of manager-employee and sensei-pupil, the natural order of jōge kankei — literally ‘relationships of above and below’ — even extends to individuals within the same social group, in which the clearly defined statuses of sempai and kōhai refer respectively to the more- and (usually younger) less- experienced members. While a 19-year-old university student, say, may defy certain conventions with her choice of loud clothing or orange hair dye, she will still feel obliged to show deferential behaviour towards her 20-year-old friend in the year above. But even then, it is still not quite that simple. Fundamental to a deeper understanding of Japanese social customs are the intrinsically — though not exclusively — associated concepts of uchi and soto.

Essentially meaning ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, these terms distinguish between the social groups relative to a given subject. The statuses ofuchi andsoto are not necessarily static, however; they can vary according to the social setting or context, and it is important to maintain an awareness of all of this in order both to act and speak in the appropriate fashion. For instance, within a business environment, the customer obviously represents an ‘out-group’ that needs to be deferred to and treated politely (at least, if you want to keep their custom), while everything to do with your own company then automatically becomes your ‘in-group’. Although it may normally be your duty to remain humble and respectful when dealing with your boss in the second person, he is relegated to the status of mere mortal once again when you refer to him in communications with your customer, as you both represent the same ‘group’ in the context of dealing with another.

Roles can even be switched entirely in external settings if, for example, the guy from the office who gets to sit in a fancier chair happens to be a member of the same sports or martial arts club, where you then happen to be the more experienced sempai. So engrained is the requirement for correct behaviour with respect to groups and statuses, that companies will often require employees to sit through refreshers on things like the correct deployment of 15°/30°/45° bows and on who goes where at the table, in a car or even in a lift, depending on who else is present. Even to the Japanese, the fluidity of the groups can become confusing — a classic sociolinguistics problem places you in a friendly game of golf with your boss and his best mate, who is managing director at one of your major clients. If this customer remarks that your boss is playing a blinder, should you react with humility or shared deference?

The reason that this is a sociolinguistic issue is also the most immediate factor behind why all of this is so important. In an excellent illustration of how language and culture can develop in an interrelated manner, with one often having certain parameters defined by the bounds of the other, Japanese has clearly distinct manners of speech which represent perhaps the most constantly obvious signs of social context and which directly affect all sentence predicates. Even a verb as simple astaberu (eat), which may be used ‘as is’ in informal settings within the ‘in-group’, should be extended totabemasu in polite conversation, replaced byitadakimasu for humility, or bymeshiagarimasu to elevate the status of the eater.

To give a quite extreme example, one might casually say, mite ne when telling a friend to “look at this”, but the perfectly standard, go-ran tamawarimasu yō o-negai mōshiagemasu carries essentially the same lexical meaning — only with some brilliant extra nuances which, to translate the untranslatable, might read, “I humbly and politely express my humble request for you in your nigh-on imperial majesty to do me the honour of taking a most honourable look.” This is still just the tip of the iceberg, but to cut to the point, there is a clearly inherent requirement for Japanese mentally to establish their relations with every other participant in the conversation before they even open their mouths.

While rule-breakers will stand out like a sore thumb, the need to keep up correct appearances can inevitably get stressful, and in a few rare cases itisrejected. As a teenager breaking through with the J. League side Bellmare Hiratsuka in the mid-1990s, the future Roma and Bolton Wanderers midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata caused a stir by refusing to use respectful language when addressing older club-mates. His reasoning was that if Japan was serious about adopting the world’s game, then be they captain or new boy, every member of the eleven should be considered and therefore act as an equal. ‘Hide’ probably only got away with this attitude because of his precocious footballing talent, though he did rub a few senior journalists up the wrong way when he applied it to them as well. Even today, it is still considered maverick for teammates not at least to get theirtaberu andtabemasuright. Fortunately, though, Japanese football has found a happy medium beyond the days where some university and even Japan Soccer League players might select a recipient for their passes based on age and thus seniority.

The obvious exceptional case in such a racially homogenous nation is the foreigner who, unless of East Asian origin, will always remain soto to the stranger because of the way they look. Indeed, the written character for soto is also the first in the Japanese word for ‘foreigner’ — gaikokujin, correctly or gaijin, casually and sometimes pejoratively. But a more valid distinction arises the moment you open your mouth. If you make the effort to learn a bit of the language, you will often enjoy significant favour. The fact that the honorifics are generally the hardest thing to master, meanwhile, means foreigners are not really expected to know how to use them anyway. In my experience, this then brings the wonderful positive that getting away with using less formal language serves in turn to make the situation more relaxed; breaking down barriers and allowing a greater degree of intimacy to be achieved more quickly. Paradoxically, being more soto can actually help you become more uchi.

I first encountered the Black and Blue ultras at Gamba Osaka back in autumn 2003, as a recently-arrived exchange student at the Osaka University of Foreign Studies. Even more so than the rest of Japan, the western Kansai region is definitively baseball country, with the fanatically-supported (albeit surprisingly unsuccessful) Hanshin Tigers and their legendary Kōshien ballpark evoking greater spiritual resonance as symbols of local pride than perhaps any other sporting entities across the archipelago. In its attempts to introduce professional football into a modern society with plenty of other, pre-existing distractions, the J. League had established a ‘hometown’ rule that emphasised local roots and social contribution instead of American-style franchise models and, even in its first decade, this had been a great success in places like Urawa (Reds), Kashima (Antlers) and (Albirex) Niigata. But for Kansai, it was impossible to escape from the ubiquitous, yellow-and-black shadow of RBIs and strikeouts.

Of course, the local footballing authorities probably didn’t make it easy for themselves when Gamba — sensibly the sole Kansai representatives in the J. League’s original 10 — were joined in rapid succession by another Osaka club, Cerezo, as well as Kyoto Purple Sanga and finally Vissel Kobe just up the road. Coinciding as it did with a bursting of the early-1990s Zico/Gary Lineker/Kazuyoshi Miura bubble, this expansion saw attendances at Gamba’s Banpaku stadium drop by nearly two-thirds between 1994 and 1996. Baseball had an intriguing influence on the makeup of those who remained, too. While the suited ‘salarymen’ kept loyal to Kōshien, a nationwide trend for younger people and women to start favouring football was particularly pronounced out west. Official J. League surveys have suggested the overall gender ratio is 60:40 for male and female supporters; in Kansai, and at Gamba in particular, it is virtually an even split.

I did, in any case, require a football fix and with Kyoto a little too far to visit regularly, my first Saturday in the country was spent at the magnificent Kobe Wing Stadium, which hosted three matches in the previous year’s World Cup. Positioning myself just to the left of the central gathering of fans behind the goal, I watched as two conductors stood at the front with their backs to the pitch and encouraged their followers to belt out enthusiastically – if not entirely convincingly — a repertoire containing a fair amount of bastardised English and Portuguese. But even the presence of the one-time Genoa forward Miura, then 36 (he is now 45 and, incredibly, still active with Yokohama FC in J2), could not prevent a 3-1 defeat to Júbilo Iwata, while the fans’ defiance was literally stretched with their version of Vindaloo by Fat Les; three whole syllables lost to replace the familiar lyrics with “We will fight with you… Vissel!”

The experience was rather like a first date that had only gone OK — I might have accepted a second but only if they made the move and given that nobody had spoken to me all afternoon, that seemed unlikely. Cerezo, meanwhile, had me craving an escape through the toilet window. Even if most people had purchased the team’s bright pink shirts, the ambience was inescapably pantomime-like, with barely any hardcore to speak of and many ‘supporters’ preoccupied with their bentō lunch boxes. It may have been homemade rather than hospitality, prawn sushi rather than prawn sandwiches, but the overwhelming majority of the small attendance seemed to be there on a day out and not because of any inherent, emotional need to support the team. The only real noise came from the few hundred travelling Oita Trinita fans at the opposite end, carried over by the Nagai Stadium’s terrific acoustics.

With Gamba, however, it was different. There was an instant spark — even if that did come in the form of a 21-year-old bloke whose aged, crimson complexion suggested that the paper cup of beer in his hand was not quite the first he had purchased that lunchtime, let alone that season. Arriving at Banpaku with my Dutch coursemate Alex, our first instinct’ had been to marvel at the quaint surroundings of a facility that hadn’t quite made it onto the Fifa shortlist; its 23,000 capacity being slightly variable depending on how many were willing to squeeze themselves onto the grass banks behind either goal. In truth, this wasn’t really an issue as we enjoyed plenty of space to stretch our legs, until our slurring new friend Shinsuke spotted the unlikely opportunity to practice his English. “Let’s go,” he beckoned; leading us to join his friends, front and centre.

There were no salarymen in sight. Instead, I was now surrounded by a group of perhaps two dozen imposingly-built, shaven-headed gentlemen in black clothing depicting images of skulls with daggers thrust through them, a prominent ‘vaffanculo, and various other Italian words whose meaning I neither understood nor imagined to be especially friendly. Fortunately for our immediate safety, the men themselves actually were — and very much so, once Alex and I had acclimatised to their harsh Osaka dialects and demonstrated our own, fledgling knowledge thereof. We shared a kampai (‘cheers’) with our paper pint cups — which never do make as satisfying a clinking sound as the real thing — before the designated ‘call leader’ made his way through to take his place atop an upturned beer crate and set the crowd in thunderous motion: “Are we going to make some noise today? Are we here to get behind the lads today? Are we ready to go? Gamba, Gamba, Osaka Gamba!”

Even after three years of full-time study of this country and its ways, the whole environment was distinctly removed from any image of Japan that I had previously held. Goals — of which the first arrived after just eight minutes — were celebrated rambunctiously in a mosh pit-like melee at the front of the grass with little care for spillage, beer or emotional. Singing was constant, mandatory and largely based upon familiar melodies from Serie A and the rest of Europe — enabling me to make an immediate go of joining in with the appropriate smattering offorza,olé, andalé. The use ofvaffanculo — being all about context and status, Japanese doesn’t really do its own swear words — was liberal, though Gamba’s eventual 3-1 victory over Nagoya Grampus Eight meant that it was only required to abuse the home team’s unpopular manager before kick-off and then on one other occasion in displeasure at the referee for a cheaply conceded free kick.

Numbers were admittedly low, both in the Black and Blue section and in the ground as a whole, where a crowd figure of just over 10,000 left huge spaces in the two main concrete stands. Over to my left, there was another, slightly larger gathering that seemed to consist primarily of the more reserved young males and schoolgirls I had expected to encounter, with their own leader who started few chants unilaterally and mainly just mimicked what ours did. But it was quickly apparent that I had just lucked my way inside the most — only? — intoxicatingly unrepressed group of football fans in western Japan, and that both they and their sister organisation, the Brigate Neroazzurre stood to our right, were quite serious about their adopted Italian theme. Appropriately, it was with the demeanour of a wannabe mafioso that ‘Michel’, eyes hidden behind dark glasses, stepped down from his beer crate pedestal and coolly shook my hand as he departed for whatever important duty awaited him behind the stand.

Shinsuke and his companions were generously enthusiastic to further our acquaintances at the next home game against FC Tokyo — a minor grudge match against representatives of a “cold, unemotional” capital with which these Osakans were quick to contrast and disassociate themselves. Emphatically won over by their joyous release of tension at the narrow 1-0 victory, I joined them again in the pouring late November rain for a 5-1 final-day drubbing of relegation-bound Kyoto — a sorry fate for a side whose Park Ji-Sung-inspired Emperor’s Cup success back on New Year’s Day 2003 had represented a first ever trophy for any of the miserably underachieving Kansai quartet. This latter fixture brought my first real opportunity to chat to the Black and Blue leader, with whom I exchanged contact details on the pretext of conducting an interview for dissertation research during the winter break. Instead, Michel was the one to e-mail me — with an invitation to join the group on their road trip to Kashima for the opening weekend of the 2004 campaign.

Late one Friday night the following March, I sat with the naughty boys at the back of the bus for an 11-hour journey whose gruelling nature, they assured me, would be eased both by the beer cooler and by the promise of freshly barbecued horumon — beef offal or, literally, ‘discarded stuff’ — for breakfast. Michel, whose real name had fallen into virtual disuse since he had declared his pre-J. League love for Juventus and their French number 10, introduced me to his friend who simply went by ‘Inter’ — Alessandro Altobelli presumably having failed the test for an effective, easy-to-pronounce nickname in Japanese. Alongside him on the rearmost row were ‘G’, as in “G for Gamba”; ‘Massimo’, whose handle dates back to an old part-time job at an Italian restaurant; and the joint leader ‘Dai-chan’, a tough-looking, godfatherly presence further back in the stand and such a master of the Osaka dialect’s rolling R’s and sentences that a foreign name just wouldn’t have suited.

Dealing out the six-pack of Kirin which I had contributed, Michel reminisced about the football fever that had fleetingly gripped Japan — including Kansai, when it was just Gamba — a decade previously. At first, everyone would just sit or stand wherever they could get tickets, but over time, friendships were developed among fans that regularly populated the same sections. Soon enough, a number of ‘leader types’ emerged in different parts of the stadium who, whether previously enamoured with European football or simply caught up in the freedom of expression that Banpaku permitted, took it upon themselves to get the crowd singing. Once they got really clever, these leaders then started communicating via walkie-talkies — literally to ensure that everyone was singing from the same song sheet. When the J. League’s early novelty wore off and attendances began their sharp decline, it was generally the ones who sung that stuck around.

One by one, the chanting groups relocated to the predictably christened Curva Nord behind the north goal, to form one big super-group called Gambino in 1994. However, as numbers fell, so did the level of consensus as to how best to support the team. The characteristically Japanese, regimented style sat uncomfortably with Michel and his faction, who instead wanted to develop an Osakan interpretation of the rather more emotive following manifested across Italy and the rest of Europe. After five years, they broke away, leaving the ‘boring, normal ones’ in official Gamba merchandise to their own devices on the left-hand side of the curva. Surprisingly, given the intimidating imagery they had chosen for their own, original designs, none of the guys seemed aware that their English name ‘Black and Blue’ could carry connotations of bruising — it was simply chosen, explained G, after the team’s colours and to leave the Italian neroblu free for use in songs.

“We all came from similar backgrounds around Osaka and the rest of Kansai,” he continued, “and we all felt the same about demonstrating our local pride through football. So the decision to do things the Italian way was definitely a conscious one. Quite a few of us were into Serie A before Japan even had a professional league and the fact that ‘Gamba’ itself is Italian for ‘leg’ [as well as being the stem of the Japanese word for ‘come on!’] made it easy for everyone else to get on board too. Since we were essentially starting from zero, the passion we saw in Italy was a great model for us to base ourselves on; especially once the initial buzz and era of packed stadiums was over.

“In fact, a handful of us still try to spend a long weekend in Italy during the Japanese close season to see what we can learn. We sit with the fans of Inter or Atalanta, and we actually bring tape recorders to capture their songs. After the games, we get the Italian ultras who recognise us to write down their new chants, and then on the plane back, we ask one of the air hostesses to tell us what the lyrics mean in Japanese. We then write our own versions, mixing Japanese or Osaka dialect with a bit of Japanised Italian as well, and these have since evolved into the songs we use today.”

Massimo shed further light on the Osakan ultras’ ethos. “Everyone in Black and Blue knows their stuff. That’s why we want to see good football. We’ll always get behind the team and we’ll rightly applaud them when they win, but why should we be clapping if they lose? The baseball fans might do that for Hanshin Tigers, but that’s not the kind of standard we want to follow. It really annoys me that certain people still think this is normal. I believe our way works, though. Gamba did have an advantage in that people could come to Banpaku before the other local football teams existed, but it’s more than that — people tend to go for the atmospheres they prefer. Everyone likes us, and that’s why Michel and the rest of us have been able to lead proceedings on thecurva. That’s why you’re here as well, right?”

The idea, in particular, that paying spectators in Japan should feel obliged to salute the performance, regardless of its quality, appeared genuinely to grate with the one-time pasta waiter and hinted at a deeper-lying issue. Somewhere south of Nagoya, about four hours into the journey but still almost 300 miles from our destination, the atmosphere on the coach had grown hazier and contemplative. Bloodshot eyes and skin alike beginning to clash with his red Hawaiian shirt, Massimo swivelled around on the seat in front of me and seized the opportunity to get a desperate — if slightly slurred — admission off his chest.

“Ihate Japan,” he said in determined English, before switching gradually back to his native tongue. “The so-called country ofwa. What do you callwa?”


“Harmony! Right. Well, I hate my boss too. He’s a fucking idiot. We don’t have any freedom. We work hard all week, and then we suddenly get told to come in at the weekend. They expect us to do overtime or extra shifts, and they don’t even let us know our shifts until the last minute. I really want to travel, but we get hardly any paid holiday and then they get funny if you want to use it in successive days — even just a couple. It’s just so frustrating here. They never cut us any slack. And, of course, you’re supposed to respect seniority in Japan so you can’t ever get angry with your boss when he’s refused you one of your entitled days off, either. Even if he’s stupid or unreasonable, I can’t shout at him when I’m upset, because I’d be the rude one and I’d get fired.

“This stress gets to you, you know? So Gamba is the one outlet I have. Here, I can let myself go. I can have a few drinks and a laugh. I can shout for 90 minutes, tell the players what I think if they’re rubbish, or call the referee a wanker if I want to. Japanese society is tatemae — saying and doing things for appearances’ sake — but this is the one place I can be open with my honne — what I really want to say — instead.”

Perhaps ‘unrepressed’ was not the right word after all, then — or, at least, the circumstances beneath the ultra surface were rather more complex. The Black and Blue guys, quietly nodding at Massimo’s diatribe, may have considered their fire and freedom as symbolic of Osakan identity, but it had undoubtedly been fuelled by the oppression they felt within Japanese society. The ability of this small group of people to express themselves on the terraces set them apart from the more regimented or family-oriented majority, but the difference was also a similarity: their Saturday football was becoming the same social opiate as has been the case for working-class, hardcore fans in Europe and Latin America. How, I sleepily wondered to nobody in particular, could the inevitable perpetuity of similar stresses be affecting the rest of the nation?

Evidently reluctant to leave things on such a serious tone, meanwhile, Massimo decided to wish all of his friends a good night in person by stripping to his leopard skin-print thong and clambering through the bus with feet balanced on the headrests either side of the aisle.

I had gone into that longest of Saturdays in Kashima — the return journey was another all-nighter starting a few hours after the final whistle — feeling like an invited outsider but was quickly led to snap out of it. Michel gently mocked my wariness of intruding upon their breakfast ritual of surprisingly tasty offal washed down with a rather-too-early can of Asahi Super Dry and made sure I was on hand thereafter to help decorate the away end with flags and banners before the general public were admitted three hours before kickoff — a process that needs to be repeated even for home matches since J. League clubs tend not to own their stadiums. Given their lack of time off work, I could only admire the commitment of those who did this every week, even if I did fear somewhat for their wives and children.

Having shared their pain at having an unlikely victory snatched away by a last-gasp leveller from Toru Araiba — the Kashima right-back who had left Gamba over the winter because he “wanted to win things” and earned his own big vaffanculo banner for doing so — I proudly donned my new Black and Blue scarf for further road trips to Okayama, Nagoya and Kobe as well as every home match before the end of my university placement in September. An away derby with Cerezo in mid-June was a memorable celebration of victory and Schadenfreude; though really, any team that insists on playing in pink and accepts sponsorship from a major brand of processed pork products thoroughly deserves to be greeted with a drift of cut-out pigs impaled on pitchforks anyway. And I’ll confess my guilty pleasure, having spent secondary school as more of a football geek than someone who was actually good at playing football, at finally being one of the cool gang.

One night, in a bar near my dormitory — from which I could see the Banpaku floodlights if I peered around the window a little — Michel suddenly dared me to join him on the beer crates as ‘call leader’ for my final fixture before returning to complete my studies in the UK. The main man ended up serving a two-match ban for getting a little too lippy with a security guard at Vissel Kobe, but remained true to his word by ensuring that I would stand alongside his regular partner, Aki, instead. To face and instigate the songs of two thousand people on the grass bank was a terrific buzz, fuelled further by a ceaseless stream of alcoholic farewell gifts that made preparing for my flight the following morning somewhat arduous, but in hindsight I had underestimated the challenge. Choosing from a repertoire of maybe 40 chants was like trying to remember all 92 English league teams in 10 minutes — you might know them all, but the same four or five keep popping into your head. I felt an uncomfortable sense of responsibility for Gamba’s dismal 3-1 defeat to Tokyo Verdy.

Nevertheless, the unique experience — and real honour— cemented my intention to return to this warm-hearted and vibrant metropolis after graduation. Throughout the development of our friendships, there had naturally been a constant desire to learn on my part, while for Michel and the others, the rare opportunity to engage with a foreigner from a traditional football country undoubtedly worked in my favour too — even if most of my frontline experience in England had been at Taunton Town. Perhaps, then, this was a perfect example of how a soto status can actually prove to be a source of interest and a paradoxical benefit on the road to becoming uchi. Alternatively, in terms of football being the global language that the cliché might have us believe, I had already been more uchi than I had realised all along.

For a while, I entertained the thought thatuchi-sotowas less relevant in Osaka, or at least among the Black and Blue ultras, because of their rejection of Japan in favour of local identity. But the thought process that later led me to conclude otherwise stemmed back to an initially unremarkable 4-0 victory over Shimizu S-Pulse in April 2004. Despite an attendance of only just over 8,000, the queue for the monorail platform at full-time stretched back more than half an hour because of the crowds of people who had been enjoying the sakura cherry blossoms in the Expo ’70 memorial park next door. These pink flowers are among the most classic examples of Japanese cultural iconography and ‘full bloom’ predictions dominate the weather forecasts as they make their way northwards from Okinawa to Hokkaido. Glorified picnics or piss-ups they may be, but everyone from elderly couples to skin-headed football supporters will eagerly partake of prolonged sessions ofhanami — literally, ‘viewing the flowers’.

This enjoyment of the cherry blossoms forms part of Japan’s deeply-rooted fascination with nature and, in a broad sense, with the seasons. The flowers provide a focal point for celebrating the colours of the dawning spring, which is then mirrored by a similar appreciation of deep autumnal tones in the leaves, or kōyō, come November. But while such seasonal awareness lends itself to stirring themes of beauty and impermanence in art or literature, as well as a host of cultural festivals and other annual traditions that retain their significance today, it can sometimes reach the point of overemphasis. As a Westerner, I have been asked by countless Japanese football fans, students, and even the chancellor of a university how I got on adapting to their ‘unique’ collection of four, wholly distinct seasons. A hint, in reply, that it may not actually be all that different to the UK is frequently met with bamboozlement; soon evolving into the assumption that British humour is odd indeed.

The ‘distinct’ part of the myth, however, is promulgated to the point where, in effect, it may as well be a reality. Public transport, schools, and other communal spaces are artificially (and powerfully) cooled or heated according to a calendar, which is rigidly enforced regardless of what it may actually say on the thermometer. Similar trends apply to clothing, whether by prescription — such as the widespread ‘cool biz’ office style for the hot summers — or free will. One lunchtime on campus, I was the subject of exasperated laughter from two Japanese friends in winter coats for wearing short sleeves in late February; it was an unseasonable 22°C outside.

Wide-scale generalisation, and the unquestioning acceptance thereof, are by nature terrifically effective tools for the perpetuation of half-truths and stereotypes. In Japan, such tendencies often appear particularly pronounced — even enjoyed — and while acknowledging the risk of hypocrisy in such a statement, this is a phenomenon to which many expats soon develop a sensitivity since the distinct identity of Japan is commonly the central theme. Comparisons with the rest of the world can suddenly become most sweeping. Having grown up in rural Somerset, I am especially partial to an unfathomably oft-repeated myth that states that Japanese roads are narrow, but roads in other countries are wide. Even when the contrasting example is not quite stretched to cover the entire planet, I was once privy to a simple lovers’ tiff that was amusingly extrapolated to hypothesise fundamental incompatibility with the entire nation of Norway.

The basic pretext here, of course, was that both parties were representatives of their respective national identities and that Japan in particular should be so clearly distinct as to render everything else ‘foreign’ – a standpoint prominently supported by the school ofNihonjinron. Literally meaning ‘theories/discussions about the Japanese’,Nihonjinron basically asserts that the uniqueness of the Japanese culture and mindset stems from the characteristics of a distinct, homogenous race with its own separate history. This isolation, it professes, therefore accounts for everything from thought patterns being shaped by the native grammar and vocabulary, to behavioural influences that stem from that most classic peculiarity, the four seasons. Critics both overseas and domestically, however, reject the more extreme elements ofNihonjinron theory as nationalistic nonsense.

It is, of course, often hard to determine the point at which nature stops and nurture takes over. Gøran Vaage, a post-doctorate fellow of sociolinguistics at Osaka University, explains how Japan’s apparent desire for categorised generalisation operates on a popular level. “Here, we will often get light-hearted programmes on television that label each of the nation’s prefectures according to certain human character traits,” he said. “You can discover the blood type of your favourite celebrity or footballer just by looking them up on Wikipedia, such is the obsession with its significance. Of course, this may be similar to a more worldwide fascination with zodiac signs, but the situation in Japan is exacerbated by a lesser preoccupation with cold logics and absolute truth.”

Inevitably, Vaage’s latter point is closely related to a desire for harmony and if the givens with which we are presented — especially by our superiors — are less likely to be questioned, it is easy to see how their significance within cultural conditioning will grow, even excessively, over time. The end result, perhaps, is a Chinese whispers effect that alters the angle from which many Japanese may approach ‘differences’ and characteristics that may indeed be distinct and beautiful — which is clearly far removed from (and quite preferable to) lazy jingoism.

Either way, this idea of harmony promoting such mass conscience takes us back to the hierarchical nature of Japanese culture and to the ‘groups’ that tend to come with it. Harmony, loyalty, and jōge kankei (‘relationships of above and below’) come in all manner of groups, from sports clubs to society in general, but while such qualities may lead people to the notion of groups, one might just as easily claim that the idea of grouping results in the development of these qualities. Do the Japanese like to group, or is it just that they like to be grouped? Does the implication of group culture by the whole idea of homogeneity within Nihonjinron itself, for that matter, confirm that this is all nothing more than cyclical abstraction and thus everyone else can actually have four seasons too? Throw in the intrinsically coexistent concepts of uchi and soto, and it turns out that this whole group thing is actually very complicated indeed.

The vertically structured relationships and inherent suppression of individuality within the supposed ideals of groupism represent, essentially, the specific elements of Japanese society that my friends in Black and Blue detested. Their Saturdays at the football, however, allowed them to rebel against the Japanese norm — the anger and helplessness they felt at surrendering their freedom to the whim of their employers — through their own eccentricity and appreciation of a sport that was theirs before it was Japan’s. It was only ironic that what had worked out as the most natural way to go about doing this was to form a group of like-minded people with similar traits.

The Gamba ultras may not have been as regimented as the Kobe fans or as orderly as those at Cerezo, but they still acted together and, with Michel and other figureheads clearly present, there was still a semblance of hierarchy. While Black and Blue were indisputably correct in asserting their greater capability and suitability for the central role in whipping up the atmosphere behind the goal, the resultant pecking order embodies a perfect uchi-soto duality with the members of the less rowdy Gambino group and indeed the other, non-affiliated supporters. Put this way: it was a brilliantly Japanese way of being un-Japanese.

However complex the deeper reality may be, the underlying concept of an ultras-inspired hardcore grounded in social discontent and, more obviously, their superficially non-Japanese — even anti-Japanese — manifestation inevitably leaves us with an elephant in the room. Much like the streets and bars that surround them, J. League stadiums are extremely safe by global standards but the Gamba Osaka fans’ alternative approach has earned them a certain notoriety both locally and nationwide. An unwaveringly ‘Italian’ philosophy dictated that the guys in Black and Blue cared little for their public perception but it has frequently brought them into conflict with the club itself. Back in 2004, Dai-chan saw this as the epitome of all that was wrong with the country.

“Most of the people working in the Gamba offices don’t know anything about football — they’re just businessmen from Panasonic [of which Gamba is effectively still a subsidiary] moved sideways at the whim of the company,” he said. “They look at us and we’re obviously not like them, you know? They don’t afford us much respect and they’ll happily ban people if they can find an excuse. We might even have a positive impact on crowd numbers and on the team, but to the management, it’s as if we’re just a hassle.”

In eight years and almost 200 matches since, I have never personally witnessed anything that could be classed under the ‘hooliganism’ label which, regrettably, many Japanese still associate with English football. However, it was not until some time afterwards that I learned that 25 October 2003 had represented a landmark occasion for theCurva Nord. The straw that broke the camel’s back for Michel and his faction to resign en masse from Gambino four years previously was the unilateral expulsion of two members following a skirmish with some Shimizu S-Pulse supporters. But the split only made things worse and took a quite literal form in spring 2000 when a fight broke out between rival Gamba fans over the placement of banners for a home game with JEF United Ichihara. Thereafter, ropes and security guards were used to divide thecurva into two — Gambino on the left, Black and Blue and Brigate Neroazzurre on the right — with each side singing different songs simultaneously. This patently self-defeating status quo persisted until an uneasy truce was announced about an hour before I stepped foot inside Banpaku for the first time.

That said, despite the reunification and the relative harmony that subsequently ensued, a difficult process of evolution has been forced upon Osaka’s hardcore supporters — and their sometimes controversial presence and status — as the second decade of Japanese football’s professional era has progressed. Akira Nishino, the manager booed so mercilessly as Gamba limped to a sadly typical tenth place finish overall in 2003, suddenly instilled a successful version of Kevin Keegan-style attacking football that resulted in unlikely title glory in the final minute of the 2005 campaign. The grass banks were concreted over that winter with proper terracing, which has been sold out ever since as regular silverware followed. Both team and fans attracted a higher profile. Although our membership grew also, the prominently central Black and Blue now represented a smaller minority within the overall whole.

Success brought intensified rivalry both on and off the pitch — none more so than with the 2007 Asian champions Urawa Reds. In May 2008, a small group of teenagers affiliated to the main ultras under the subsidiary banner ‘B.B. sez. Tokyo’ had the bright idea of chucking water balloons at Reds fans adjacent to the away end at Saitama Stadium. With tensions further inflamed by a confrontation between the two sets of players at full-time, the Urawa hardcore made their way around the ground to charge the Gamba supporters. Several hundred others barricaded the exits to trap the travelling contingent inside for over three hours.

Watching on television — by chance, I had stayed in Osaka to catch the FA Cup final between Portsmouth and Cardiff City — I was disappointed to see several of my friends in Black and Blue shoving their counterparts back from the opposite side of a flimsy plastic ‘segregation’ fence. Mere handbags by European standards, perhaps, but the incident nevertheless went down as one of the ugliest and most infamous in Japanese football history. It also presented an unwelcome early problem for Kikuo Kanamori, the Gamba president who had been appointed less than two months earlier to take the newly trophy-laden club’s off-pitch development to a higher level. In March 2012, he kindly invited me into his office to reflect upon the whole affair.

“[After the Urawa incident] I received a great many e-mails, letters, and telephone calls,” he said. “People were telling me that their children were too frightened to come to the stadium anymore. One female supporter asked me, ‘Why do you let them get away with behaviour like that?’ I agreed with their views completely, and so we took rapid and severe measures. Those who had threatened the safety and security of the stadium environment were immediately handed life bans and stricter policing was implemented to ensure that these people would never be able to enter again. We were faster than the opposing club on this occasion to take such measures, and I actually got a number of messages from supporters of the other club praising us for our excellent work.”

The B.B. sez. Tokyo group were barred completely, while after a hurried succession of emergency meetings both with and without the club, it was agreed that Black and Blue should voluntarily disband. For the rest of the league season, we took a more reserved position towards the back of the stand, leaving the leadership duties to a reluctant but cooperative Brigate Neroazzurre. Shamed into silence, several of our senior members were nonetheless unhappy with the club and Kanamori for their readiness to take credit and quickly produced interim Non Mollare Mai (‘never give up’) T-shirts with a covert, secondary message in Arabic that supposedly translated as, “The president wears a wig.”

For the latter, victorious stages of the Asian Champions League and the subsequent Club World Cup, however, Michel was back at the front and the surviving Black and Blue members formed a ‘new’ group called ‘Sledgehamor Bros’ — Dai-chan insisted upon a somewhat anachronistic compound with the Old English hamor — in early 2009. I put it to Kanamori that his sanctions might as such be seen as a temporary means of letting the ultimately short-lived public outcry blow over.

“No, not at all,” he insisted. “The very essence of that group was altered — they were only allowed to start taking part again once they changed their way of thinking. I told them that it was a matter of whether or not they could serve as leaders for the chants and songs in a manner that allowed everyone in the entire stadium to enjoy themselves. They had to understand that it was not just about them having fun; they had to understand they were leaders. We made those in charge of the group aware of their responsibility.

“In Japanese, we often use the wordhijōshiki [literally ‘something you don’t see every day; something extraordinary’], and this is what they were looking for in their support for the team. I told them that wanting something different is fine, but we will not accept any behaviour that threatens the safety and security of others... These people think that it’s them who have built this club. They don’t believe it’s actually a club for everyone.”

Certainly, the homecoming of the rebranded Sledgehamor Bros to the front of the terraces was only really the beginning of a fractious period of rebuilding, behind the scenes, on the path to rediscovering their essence as ultras for Osaka. The aftermath of the Saitama incident fostered a siege mentality among the senior members in particular, whose default guideline — “What would the Italians do?” — only grew more embedded as a result. When Gamba suffered a club record run of six successive home defeats in summer 2009, Michel and Dai-chan instigated a curva-wide protest for two hours after the final whistle which culminated in further heated discussions with the president until well beyond midnight. Kanamori suggests that his corporate experience in dealing with labour unions helped him to diffuse the situation but the supporters’ paranoia only intensified the following March when, five days before a long-awaited first visit to Cerezo since their 2006 relegation, we were banned from using our supposedly ‘incendiary’ derby songs and the word buta (‘pigs’) in particular.

A bit of self-policing was necessary in order to stave off the threat of future punishments but it has taken time to find the right balance. As recently as July 2011, I received a bollocking from Michel for not being seen to help tidy away the banners — a 10-man job performed by 40 — and then from Dai-chan for not having followed ‘due procedure’ in inviting non-members (who were quickly expelled) to the empty back row of the Sledgehamor Bros section one weeknight. Previously, friends were welcomed; there never used to be a procedure to begin with.

I questioned whether this new-found expression of rules and authority didn’t represent retrogression toward some of the negative aspects of Japan’s culture that were formerly seen as targets for rebellion. Now that most original Gamba ultras were into their forties, perhaps it was inevitable that their non-conformist spirit be dulled by the infusion of assumed seniority. But was the hostility to outsiders really necessary? Without an equivalent political agenda, did we really know why we were still mimicking this idealised impression of what goes on in Italy? More worryingly, the older members now hold hierarchical influence over many more underlings who almost certainly do not — a root cause, surely, of those water balloons back at Saitama.

Happily, Dai-chan’s olive branch soon reassured me that nothing, including his own authority, must be considered unchallengeable. “You shouldn’t expect any special treatment, Ben, but that’s because you’re not a special guest,” he said. “You’re one of us and your opinions are as important as anyone else’s. Thanks for speaking up — keep them coming.”

Without doubt, the curva has steadily grown into a more united and uniformly atmospheric place to be over the past year or so, following a couple of false starts in the previous two seasons. A supporters’ alliance has been formed between representatives of Sledgehamor Bros, Gambino and Brigate Neroazzurre calmly to discuss issues pertaining to the support as a whole and to determine a general, overall direction which can then be presented in constructive talks and negotiations with the club. Shortly before kickoff at home matches, Michel now makes a point of encouraging the main and back stands to get involved too by pitting them, and their respective halves of the curva, against each other for a light-hearted volume contest. Even the use of Italian is being gradually phased out, with sweeping changes unveiled at the start of both 2011 and 2012 to replace lyrics like forza and facci un gol with properly pride-inducing Osaka dialect. (In fact, Dai-chan even hired a recording studio to put his surprisingly impressive voice to the updated words for a new supporters’ website, which is open to anyone.)

Even Kanamori is delighted that the positive dialogue eventually established between management and supporters has brought them to an understanding. “I think they [Sledgehamor Bros] have already become a positive influence,” he said. “Thanks to the fans behind the goal, around 60% or 70% of the entire stadium are now clapping together, singing together and excited about supporting the team. I think that the support as a whole has become very impressive indeed. In my work, I meet with fans all over the place. And I have met several people who have told me, ‘I stopped going to support Gamba behind the goal because I didn’t like the atmosphere, but I have started going again now.’”

The only remaining source of real contention, as both parties are quick to acknowledge, is that we are still not allowed to refer to Cerezo as ‘pigs’, be it verbally or pictorially. Kanamori rejects my suggestion that it’s only a bit of banter — and actually pretty tame at that — saying, “The British have a keen sense of humour. People get the joke. But Japan is a nation of samurai and jokes like that aren’t acceptable here. As a people, the Japanese are highly reserved and, essentially, we are not taught things like jokes and humour. It is not part of our culture.”

My friends are unanimous in their response — this is, and always has been, the whole point. Japan may be one thing, but Osaka is another. Jokes and humour are so much a part of the local culture that, even if you must bracket this city with the rest of the country, the Osaka accent and dialect that were routinely mocked by those from the capital a generation or so ago are now seen as funny in a highly desirable sense because all the good comedians on television are from round here. It is only sad, say Dai-chan and company, if the rest of Japan is unable to join in; and, as nobody is slow to point out, the Gamba president does not actually hail from Osaka. At our annual meeting ahead of the 2012 season, the consensus is that we should be ourselves but pick our battles and for the first time, the previously tacit ‘Sledgehamor Bros philosophy’ was actually formalised in writing:

- Sledgehamor Bros emphasises camaraderie, and acts together as a united team no matter what;

- Members shall always keep Sledgehamor Bros in mind and maintain a constant awareness of its activity, which should be considered as part of all members’ lifestyles;

- The basis for Sledgehamor Bros activity is ‘Osakan identity’;

- ‘Osakan identity’ refers to freedom and humour, great vibrancy and bustle, flamboyance and passion, a tough bad-boy image, etc;

- Sledgehamor Bros rejects stubbornly Japanese values and ways of thinking that are only accepted in Japan. The model for Sledgehamor Bros activity is our own interpretation of world football culture, and Italian ultra culture in particular;

- In the stadium, Sledgehamor Bros members are released from the self-restraint of our normal daily lives; to assert our own individuality and freely express our raw human emotions.

The rest of the A3 sheet typed up by Michel and Dai-chan outlines details of a new membership system — which is semi-inclusive, but only to those who first demonstrate their worth and are then willing to pay the nominal annual fees — as well as various rules, stances, and concepts defined by the core philosophy. These range from the belief that Gamba Osaka itself should be considered as no more than a mere operating company for a team that it has failed to establish as a local icon, to a rule that no women be allowed within the central Sledgehamor Bros area bar the two recognised female members, Chika and Mako (whose roles, plus ça change, are largely administrative). Eight years older but proudly little the wiser, and still rather fond of public nudity, Massimo is keen that the ultras’ traditional values be correctly passed on to the latest batch of teenagers and twenty-somethings: “I do stuff that makes people think I’m a right aho (idiot), and I’m going to keep on doing that. I want to show the younger lot that it’s actually OK to do what you want.”

As we prepared to leave the municipal hall that served as venue for the meeting, I expressed my appreciation to Dai-chan for at least having stressed that we should not be looking to copy the Serie A fans directly. He gazed over the recent intake, then down at his sheet of paper, before laughing awkwardly. “Yeah...” he said, “but unfortunately this isstill Japan. You’ve got to have guidelines. You’ve got to have models. And you’ve got to have rules. Otherwise they just won’t get it.”