Take cover: the English are coming!

Japan, whose football fans stay behind after matches to clear away litter, lives in terror of the ho

''Tell us about soccer hooligans, Craig-san," persisted our mumsy young Japanese-language teacher, pushing her glasses up over eyes dilated with a thrill of fear. "Aren't they frightening?"

My classmate looked sideways at me, and I shrugged helplessly back. Two minutes earlier, I had been discoursing lamely on Peter Rabbit, whose cult status in Japan approaches that of Hello Kitty. Before that, Anna-san, to my right, had been explaining that London was no longer filled with the pea-souper fog described in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries so loved by the Japanese.

Now our teacher wanted to know about that third pillar of Englishness, the football hooligan.

The residents of Sapporo will know all about English football hooligans soon enough - when England play Argentina at the Sapporo Dome on 7 June. Shortly after the World Cup draw ceremony in Pusan, South Korea, on 2 December, an editorial in the conservative broadsheet Yomiuri Shimbun speculated that rioting fans of the two teams could well relive the 1982 Falklands war on the streets of this tranquil regional capital.

Hosting the World Cup jointly with South Korea, Japan will stage the first-round qualifying matches of England and Germany - Europe's most notorious hooligan nations - and those of the potential troublemakers Italy and Argentina. Korea, which will receive the US team and has therefore upped security preparations against a possible terrorist attack, is thought to have much the better deal of the two host nations.

"It is regrettable," a British embassy spokeswoman protested in December, "that the news that England will play its first-round matches in Japan has been accompanied by extensive reporting of hooliganism." Factor in diplomatic understatement and you have an idea of the state of terror in which the Japanese public - at least, in those cities with World Cup stadiums - awaits the arrival of England's football fans.

"The Japanese police have no experience of handling English soccer supporters, never mind hooligans," observed John Kerr, professor of sport psychology at Tsukuba University. "If large groups of supporters - stripped to the waist, chanting and swearing loudly in unison, probably drunk, with shaven heads - gather in the entertainment districts or move en masse to the soccer stadiums, then for Japanese citizens and police this will be a very intimidating sight. If hooligan violence really starts, I think ordinary people will be terrified."

Not only hard-core hooligan violence, but even rowdiness on the terraces is unknown in Japan, where fans typically stay behind after a match to clear the stands of litter. Such law-abiding supporters will comprise the vast majority of the estimated 430,000 foreign fans due to arrive in Japan at the end of May, but they certainly aren't uppermost in the minds of Japanese lawmakers and officials of Jawoc, the country's World Cup organising body. The former moved swiftly to revise immigration laws to bar known hooligans from the country for the duration of the tournament; the latter raised the security budget for the Japanese matches to a whopping $21m.

Masato Miyoshi of the World Cup soccer promotion division of Yokohama City, where the final will be held, told me that Jawoc is responsible only for safety matters at the stadiums - it is up to each city or prefecture to implement integrated security measures for urban centres and outlying areas near the stadiums. Police will be on hand in municipal areas in the event of criminal activity or serious disorder, but Jawoc will be using the services of private security guards.

Some citizens' groups and local business associations are considering doing likewise, anxious to protect their premises after watching videos of the violence that broke out during the 1998 World Cup in France and the 2000 European Championships in Belgium and the Netherlands. Others may avail themselves of the "hooligan-damage insurance" policy that was swiftly drafted by Nisshin Fire and Marine Co after the draw that set England and their supporters on course for Japan.

That draw led the police in Osaka, where England play their final match of the opening round, to pay more attention than they might otherwise have done to an "anti-hooligan drill" held the following day. "It wasn't necessarily meant as a drill with hooligans from England in mind," one spokesman reassured the press, which featured prominent images of the officers role-playing hooligans, most carrying Union flags. "But we were more focused on the event after we knew who would be coming to Osaka." Sapporo's police force, it was recently revealed, has developed a net-gun that can shoot a 25sqm net that it hopes will stop marauding fans in their tracks.

Such safety initiatives are to be applauded, said Kerr, who is the author of a 1994 study, "Understanding Football Hooliganism". In his opinion, "it is better to be over-prepared than under-prepared as far as soccer hooliganism is concerned".

Media commentators, however, have noted that the last time the Japanese riot police saw any serious action was during the student uprisings of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In some of the more rural stadium locations such as Oita, which would see England supporters if the team progressed to the second round, police forces rarely handle more than petty crime - Japan is proud that 80 per cent of the work done by its koban police boxes involves giving directions to those who have lost their way.

Indeed, some Japanese officials hope to disarm soccer yobs with courtesy rather than with martial-arts techniques. "The Japanese are a peace-loving people who will welcome foreign visitors warmly," the Jawoc committee member Tadao Murata told one British reporter.

Britain's Foreign Office is following a similar tack - it has posted detailed advice on its internet homepage for those travelling to Japan for the World Cup. This begins with the schoolmarmish reminder that, "as a travelling fan, you are an ambassador for your country", before getting down to the nitty-gritty of match-day policing, the Japanese legal system and the grim reassurance that "we can visit British nationals under arrest . . . and arrange for next-of-kin to be informed of an accident or death".

There may just be something to the Japanese floor-'em-with-kindness approach. As Kerr explained, if fear leads the police to overreact to mere boisterousness, "this will aggravate the situation and give any hooligans present the opportunity they are looking for - that is, confrontation with the police". Ignore them, some Japanese authorities are hoping, and the soccer yobs may simply go home.

And for an unusual few, there's even cause to regret the prospect of tranquillity during the tournament. "When we heard that England wouldn't have any [first-round] matches in Yokohama, most people were relieved," Miyoshi told me. "But then one guy spoke up; without England, he said, things might be safer, but the people of Yokohama weren't going to be in for any exciting soccer."