Voices: The Japanese are putting the rest of us to shame at the World Cup

Voices: The Japanese are putting the rest of us to shame at the World Cup

Japanese football fans have been caught on camera cleaning up Doha’s Khalifa International Stadium after their side’s momentous 2-1 performance against Germany at the World Cup – and the fact that the rest of the world is surprised (even shocked) is very telling.

Videos on social media showed Japanese fans filling rubbish bags with litter from around their seats after the full-time whistle. The Japan players were also praised for leaving their changing room “spotless” after the match.

I wasn’t surprised; but I will admit to having some small bias. I lived in Tokyo for two years, some 20 years ago, and the widespread focus on mindfulness (by which I don’t mean Insta-inspired yoga chanting, or gong baths; but being mindful of the people around you – and your environment) was both obvious and inspiring, even then.

The Japanese were wearing masks long before Covid ever erupted and lockdown rules enforced: why? Because, as so many of the students I was teaching at the time explained, “it’s polite”. It was a shock the first time one of my pupils disappeared beneath the desk to blow their nose; until I realised it was to protect those around them from catching any germs. Plus, I was told, “it’s rude” to blow your nose in front of someone.

I travelled every day on Japanese commuter trains to work, which – despite being crammed so full of people that it became the norm to see suited “salarymen” fast asleep, standing up – were always spotless.

Contrast that to your average experience on the London Underground on a Saturday night, where (and if you’re lucky, this is all that happens) you’re far more likely to see a “suit” chucking the contents of a KFC bucket or an undesired slab of tomato from a Big Mac on the floor, than you are to someone cleaning up after themselves. (When this particularly noteworthy incident happened in front of me, recently, the “suit” in question started shouting, “I can do what I like – I pay taxes, I pay people’s wages. Let them clean it up.” Sugoi, desu ne?)

So why are the British such... well, oafs? Why are we, as a nation, largely known for being beer-swilling, pint-chucking, badly-behaved, sometimes-racist, jingle-chanting louts? Qatar World Cup organisers may have banned alcohol around stadium sites at the tournament in a major late U-turn, but it didn’t stop those at home from slinging beer around during England’s victory against Iran. And I bet they didn’t pick up their plastic pint glasses, afterwards.

Is that, quite simply, just who (and what) we are? Is being messy and behaving badly (and dressing up in unsavoury costumes: eyes on the fans dressed in chain mail, like crusaders) part of our national consciousness – just as being polite and well behaved and clean and orderly appears to be to the Japanese? How depressing.

I’m British too, I have no recourse here. And while I’m not a football fan (so have no real skin in the game); I have been close to it. I once had a spirited “discussion” with an ex-boyfriend who almost got into a fight on a train after his (Premier League) team won; because he and his mates started singing something offensive (the skirmish resulted because they got called out for it – and quite right, too).

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It shouldn’t be down to the Japanese to remind us to be respectful of others, or of the spaces we enter (and leave). We should, rightfully, feel ashamed that a few fans doing something achingly simple feels so alien to us. And we should appreciate the irony, too: because what British person doesn’t moan about taking the bins out on a Sunday? Who doesn’t get wound up about the recycling? (“It’ll have been TWO WEEKS on Monday since they emptied the blue bins, Sandra, it’s unacceptable!”)

For a nation so easily angered about things like teenagers swearing or loitering at bus stops, or the train being two minutes late, we’re not very good at being respectful. We bang on to our children to clean up after themselves (what parent hasn’t uttered the fateful, “if you make a mess, you clear it up” catchphrase) – but we are, ultimately, hypocrites.

And you can be forgiven for selfishness (which is what it is when you can’t be bothered to pick up your mess: just look at what happened in London parks after lockdown) when you’re six. What’s the average British football fan’s excuse?

I think the reason we’re all so floored by the Japanese response to mess – by their thoughtfulness, their consideration, their politeness – is because we are secretly ashamed of our own behaviour. We want to do better. We just can’t be bothered.