by Iain Maloney
Let’s get this straight from the start. The Kirin Cup isn’t a cup. It isn’t even a tournament. It’s a marketing exercise by the Kirin beer company. Two international football teams are invited to Japan for a round-robin with the winner awarded the Kirin Cup. It isn’t a real trophy, it isn’t a real tournament. But in our 148-year history (the first international football game was Scotland v. England in 1872, a 0–0 draw) it is the only tournament we have ever won, the only trophy in our cabinet, and in the last twenty-two years, the only tournament we’ve even been in, so we’re claiming it. It’s ours. Scotland, Kirin Cup winners, 2006.
I was in Japan then, and watched it on TV, the distance to Saitama being a bit beyond my budget at the time. Scotland, in an echo of that first ever match, ground out a boring scoreless draw but after beating Bulgaria 5–1, it was enough. So when Scotland returned in 2009 for the even-less-like-a-real-tournament Kirin Challenge Cup (literally a one-off friendly with the fallacy of a trophy at the end dangled like a limp carrot in front of an apathetic donkey), I wasn’t going to miss out on the glory.
It’s like the in-laws meeting. Japan versus Scotland. A friendly.
The Nissan Stadium, Yokohama, site of the 2002 World Cup Final. We travel through to Yokohama and check in, ten minutes from the stadium. Far enough to enjoy the crowds on the approach, close enough to escape. We get dressed up; it’s a special occasion after all. Minori’s in a Scotland top, with a Japanese flag around her shoulders. On the way in, we stop at a face-painting stand and each get a hinomaru – the Japanese rising sun – painted on one cheek, a saltire on the other. I’m sporting Shunsuke Nakamura’s number 10 top from the 2006 World Cup and an enormous saltire tied round my waist, hanging like a Highland sarong, and a Lion Rampant cape, flying in the wind like Marvel’s William Wallace. We look good, an advert for multiculturalism.
On the way out of the hotel we take the lift with some Japanese guys. ‘Scotland?’
‘You don’t wear skirt?’
‘I forgot to shave my legs.’
Beers, photos, cheers and chants. We bought our tickets in the country so we’re in amongst the Japanese fans, main stand, far from the tiny pocket of Tartan Army, a little village of indomitable Gaels in the corner. In Japan there’s only a vague attempt at fan segregation because there’s no violence, no atmosphere of threat. Football is a family day out; you bring the wife and kids, your packed lunch and your noise- makers. Saying that, they’re getting cannier with foreign fans. I was at the FIFA Club World Cup at Toyota Stadium in 2011, an infamous game amongst those who were there. The authorities were in no way prepared for the Espérance de Tunis fans, fresh from ousting Ben Ali earlier in the Arab Spring. They were rowdy, they were dancing, they were singing, they were drinking. They would not take their seats and they were in no way intimidated by the teenage ball boys deployed to stop a pitch invasion when dodgy refereeing handed Al Sadd of Qatar a 2–1 win. It was hilarious, by far the most fun I’ve ever had at a sports event. The following year, there were fences and guards and much less fun.
Back in Yokohama, the teams come out, line up, and it’s anthem time. The Japanese one, sad, interminable, slowly fades into life and people start singing mournfully. I maintain this anthem is to blame for much underperforming by Japanese teams. An anthem should be rous- ing, bordering on martial, certainly in a major key, and ideally with a bit of bombast, something to get the blood flowing, the adrenaline pumping, something, well, anthemic. What it shouldn’t be is a dirge that would make Radiohead go ‘fucking hell, cheer up, mate’. Still, everyone sings along. A round of applause. Then it’s our turn, ‘Flower Of Scotland’. That’s more like it. Rousing, bloody, even has gaps perfectly suited to a gloss of swearing. I feel a bit self-conscious, the only one in the main stand giving it laldy, but you’ve got to represent, and it really is a very rousing anthem.
They start to boo. The people around me. And with each boo I sing a little louder. And a little louder. Then I stand up, flag up. Alone. I can barely hear the fifty outriders of the Tartan Army at the other end, but the indignation, the anger, makes me add my voice to theirs. I try to drown out the booing. I fail.
I sit down in a purple rage, fists clenched.
‘Good job,’ says the man two seats along. ‘Good singing.’
‘Fuck you,’ I say. ‘Fuck you. Why did you boo?’
I show him.
‘To show we support Japan.’
‘You hate Scotland?’
‘To boo means you hate something. You all said, “I hate Scotland. Scotland can fuck off.” Well, you can fuck off, too.’ He says nothing, looks at the pitch.
Minori breaks her silence. ‘Leave it.’
A drubbing. 2–0. Should have been more. None of the regular first team have travelled, Japan is at full strength. Honda scores both. Smirks around me. I’m not singing any more. Scotland isn’t well known in Japan. Now they know something about us. They know we’re crap at football. My students are going to rip the piss when I get back to work. We leave. The crowds mix, and the kids are fascinated by these massive guys in skirts. Up ahead one is teaching them English.
‘No, not FAKU, Fuck. Fuck.’
‘Better. Not great. Now. The.’
‘Not za, the. The.’ And he makes this sound like a snake with a lisp. ‘Thrpp,’ the kids say, blowing raspberries.
‘Together. Fuck the.’
His mates are in stitches. A father says to me, in Japanese, ‘What’s he teaching them?’
‘A football chant.’
‘Is it bad?’
‘It’s not good.’
He looks like he wants to intervene, to say something. I shake my head. ‘Leave it.’
Is this how they see me? They’re like the goons in the Popeye cartoons. Huge slabs of flesh, knuckles hanging low.
‘Hey, pal, vodka Coke, eh.’ We’ve gone into a bar for some food and drink, see what the craic is.
‘Vodka fuckin’ Coke, capisce?’
‘Fucksake, this is Bacardi, no fuckin’ vodka. Hey, pal, Ah said vodka. V-O-D-K-A. Understand?’
‘Wokka nai.’ Cocktail bars have vodka, but not a regular place like this. No one drinks vodka Coke here. I translate. The kind of attitude that would vote for Brexit rises, outraged that what you can get in Barrhead you can’t automatically get in Yokohama.
‘Come on, let’s get out of here. We’ll go to an izakaya. There won’t be any fans there.’
As Minori finishes her drink I go up to pay. There’s fear, exhaustion, something in the guy’s eyes as he watches me approach. What hassle am I going to give him? Relief when I ask for the bill in Japanese, hand over the money without any problems. As he gives me my change, I say, ‘Gomenne. Konya, ganbarre.’ Sorry about this. Good luck tonight.
He grabs my hand and starts shaking it. ‘Arigatō. Thank you. Good night.’
We go home.
An extract from the memoir The Only Gaijin in the Village: A year in rural Japan out now on Birlinn/Polygon.
Iain Maloney is the author of “The Only Gaijin in the Village”, a memoir about moving from Scotland to rural Japan. He has also published three novels and a haiku collection, and is an editor and lectures on writing in Japan. He has degrees in English (Aberdeen) and Creative Writing (Glasgow) and writes regularly for a number of publications including the Japan Times.
Originally published in Issue 19 as ‘Homegame’ which can be read in our Archive.