Within minutes of the victorious Japanese team leaving the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha on Wednesday evening, the official Fifa Twitter page released two photos. One was of the spotless changing rooms, with towels folded and piled up neatly. The second was a close-up of nine perfect origami cranes and the message “Thank you” in Japanese and Arabic.
Meanwhile, fans in the shirts of the Blue Samurai – some clearly still trying to come to terms with the team’s stunning 2-1 win over four-times world champions Germany – were edging methodically up and down aisles of the stadium picking up every scrap of litter and leaving orderly piles of rubbish bags to be collected.
Cleaning up the stadium has long been a tradition among Japanese fans attending domestic sporting events, but it raised eyebrows when the nation’s football and rugby teams began to appear on the world stage.
They were first remarked upon by the world’s media when Japan jointly hosted the 2002 World Cup with South Korea, but the trash teams were back again in force for the four subsequent tournaments that Japan qualified for.
They were in the stands again for the 2019 Rugby World Cup and they would have been in evidence if spectators had been permitted to attend the Tokyo Olympic Games last year.
It has become a tradition among the travelling support, although many non-Japanese still struggle to comprehend.
A video clip by a Qatari released on social media shows him approaching a Japanese man collecting rubbish in the stadium after the opening game of the tournament – in which Japan did not even play – and asking him whether he was doing it just so he could be on television.
— FCB One Touch (@FCB_OneTouch) November 23, 2022
The Japanese fan was not even offended at the suggestion that he was after a few seconds of fame; he smiled, shrugged and returned to picking up litter.
To a Japanese, how they are perceived by others is very important. To cause offence in a foreign culture, even inadvertently, would be the cause of great shame, both personally and, by extension, to the nation. So they want to be both the perfect hosts and the perfect guests.
Six time zones to the east, raucous fans were emerging from bars across the nation just before midnight, revelling in the win and still slightly incredulous at the final score. Even more so given the pressure that Germany had exerted in the first half, with only some excellent goalkeeping limiting the Germans to a single goal lead at the break.
Jubilant fans danced across the famous “scramble crossing” intersection in the heart of the Shibuya nightlife district. But, true to form, they waited for the traffic lights to turn green before they set out on their slightly drunken manoeuvres. The police looked on, but only had to intervene to encourage one tardy dancer to get across before the lights changed again.
It was a similar story in Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka and Yokohama; the fans celebrated the result, but did so within the confines of acceptable behaviour. As long as they never woke the neighbourhood up, they were fine.
Japanese fans do not sing derogatory chants about their opponents and it is unthinkable that they would engage in fisticuffs with rival supporters. The lack of beer in stadiums in Qatar has hardly been mentioned in the Japanese media, the feeling is that it’s their culture and they make the rules, while Japan has similarly taken no position on the issue of armbands for LGBT rights. Japanese will go a long way to avoid offending a host.
It is a similar story with the players themselves; they do not feign injury or attempt to get a fellow pro sent off. They never berate the referee as a mob and dissent is extremely uncommon. They play by the rules.
Off the pitch, rarely does a Japanese footballer make the front pages of the newspapers for an indiscretion involving drinking, fighting, gambling on games or being caught with another man’s wife. Once again, the personal shame would be considerable – but the shame brought on the club would be unbearable.
Equally, a Japanese player would never dream of going on a chat show to rail against his club, his manager, the owners and his team-mates in order to force a transfer. It would be unthinkable.
And there are plenty of Japanese players who have been at clubs in Britain – Takumi Minamino at Liverpool, Maya Yoshida at Southampton and, going back further, Shinji Kagawa at Manchester United, to name just a few – who did not agitate for a move when they were not playing but instead put their heads down and worked for the team.
Attention now inevitably turns to Japan’s next game, against Costa Rica on Sunday, when another victory would put them on the cusp of the knockout stages again, no matter what happens in the final group game against Spain.
The best Japan has done to date in any World Cup is the last 16 (in 2002, 2010 and 2018), but there is a genuine feeling here that with the talent they have available in the squad, a capable manager in Hajime Moriyasu and a slice of luck, the quarter finals are a realistic target.
And at the rate the Blue Samurai are winning over fans on their journey, they might very well be a lot of people’s “second team” as the tournament reaches its climax.