The future is past

Ultra Nippon: how Japan reinvented football

Jonathan Birchall <em>Headline, 256pp, £16.99</em>

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Less than a decade ago, Japan's sports were baseball and sumo. Now it is preparing to co-host, with South Korea, the football World Cup in 2002. This was no accident, but rather a conscious decision of corporate Japan - many of the country's major companies bought themselves slices of the footballing cake - aided and abetted by government. Jonathan Birchall's Ultra Nippon follows the fortunes, for a couple of seasons, of Shimizu S-Pulse, one of Tokyo's leading teams, which is currently managed by the Tottenham old-boy Steve Perryman. Birchall writes from inside their youthful and almost mechanical fan groups, whose members' alienated lives in Japan's urban jungle are given meaning by catenaccio, rather than cult; by idolising fading Brazilian footballers, rather than their home players.

Japan hasn't simply borrowed football from the west; it has, as with so much else, reinvented it. Draws are forbidden, every league match must have a winner (with extra time followed by penalties if necessary) and, during the game itself, suitable deference must be shown to the imported foreign players - of both teams.

A talent for adaptation is characteristic of Japanese society, which, in less than 150 years, went from isolated feudalism to being the second most powerful state in the industrial world. This was no accident, either. The Japanese sacrificed the old to the new with great brutality and little opposition. There was no Luddite resistance to change. From 1871, when the Iwakura Mission, led by Prince Iwakura Tomomi, visited the United States and Europe to assess how Japan could emulate the west's technological superiority, the process of "catch-up" had begun. Japan imported hardware (machines to be copied) and software (western experts, such as engineers) - and then adapted them.

Within 50 years, Japan was no longer an island marooned in history; it was a military power that could take on and sink (at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905) the might of the Russian navy. Modernisation was motivated by fear as much as envy. It was all too obvious what Japan's fate would be if it failed to make the grade. The search was on for the magic formula for success. In the 1880s, the answer seemed to lie in improving the feeble Japanese constitution and mind by opening up the country, encouraging mixed marriages, promoting a meat diet and studying English.

There was a determination to take the west and beat it at its own game - namely, through industrialisation. Japan winched itself on to the top table, as these books remind us, with a combination of cheap oriental labour and western science. As late as 1919, Japan successfully argued for exemption from the International Labour Conference's proposed restrictions on working hours by claiming to be on a par with India and China.

Japanese society was, and still is, dominated by teams and their leaders. Industrial work processes were artisanal. For many, Japanese exceptionalism can be summed up in the old-fashioned slogan "wakon yosai" (Japanese spirit and western means).

Margaret Thatcher's Darwinian observation that there is no such thing as society would make little sense in Japan. There, the extended group is central, and John Ruskin's view of human labour having an ethical value has meaning.

These texts confirm, when read together, that Japan doesn't simply borrow; it transforms. Japanese capitalism, economically and socially, has been tested; but it has proved its worth, and has since been reimported to the west - to the extent that even Italy now has a Japanese footballer, Hidetoshi Nakata, playing against the best of the world in Serie A.

Is Japanese capitalism the most successful in the world? It has certainly delivered levels of equality, social harmony and wealth that ought to make a Blairite blush. Soviet state capitalism worked in its Stakhanovite, heavy-industry phase, but then collapsed as its inflexibility in coping with the electronic age led to stagnation. American capitalism provides wealth, but the country's social structure leaves millions in abject poverty. To paraphrase an old Trotskyist slogan, is it "Neither Washington or Moscow, but Tokyo"?

However, in the emerging new world order, with an ageing population in the industrial world, has Japan anything more to teach European society? Or is its future already past?

Glyn Ford is a Labour MEP