"If you pass a bar on the left, you have to go in!"
- Apparent rule of thumb for selecting entertainment venues
when travelling in support of the Irish football team
In the months after my mother died, life gradually returned to normal. Naoko had begun studying for accountancy exams, which had her tied up on Saturdays and Sundays, so I would travel out to
Omiya, where her school was, to meet up with her on Saturday evenings. For the months that this went on, our relationship continued to solidify. It was now a given that we would one day marry,
and her parents were getting gradually accustomed to that, and more and more receptive to me. A couple of times, her mother would arrange to be alone with me and grill me about my intentions,
although she was more concerned about whether I really wanted to stay in Japan, and whether I really should. In a way she was feeling a sense of responsibility towards me, in as much as if Naoko
and I got married, Naoko's parents would then have to take over responsibility for me from my parents, a feeling that was intensified by my mother's death. In Japan it is a common assumption that
a marriage brings the son or daughter in-law into the family completely, rather than just linking two families as it is seen to do in the West. Usually this applies to the daughter in law
becoming part of the husband's family, but it can also apply to sons in law, who in some cases change their name to their wife's family name. Naoko's mother was probably preparing herself to take
on this responsibility, since in her eyes, I would eventually be taking on the responsibility of their family. Naoko's elder sister had already married, and her husband was an only son who thus
had to take on the responsibility of his parents, which Naoko's sister would then share with him. This meant that Naoko's parents had only Naoko to rely on, and that meant that they would have to
get along with me also.
So while my life with Naoko had become relative sedate and stable, the arrival of my friend Paul and his mates for the World Cup threw my life into chaos for almost a month. Paul, who was known to his mates as Bingo because his father ran the Friday night bingo at the local church, had been to every Ireland football game in the past ten years. For the next three weeks their raison d'etre would be football. They arrived at Narita Airport at about eleven in the morning, and were well into the beer by the time I found them. It took me a while to convince them to leave the airport, as they were enjoying cans of beer from a nearby kiosk shop while sitting at a Starbucks cafe. We made it back to my place in the afternoon and once they had freshened up, headed for Simple Simon. On the way there we passed another bar, at which point Bingo announced that we had to go in, due to their rule that if you passed a bar on the left, you had to go in. This was apparently enforced to prevent valuable drinking time being wasted checking out several different establishments before deciding on a place to drink. Since they knew nothing about any of the bars in most of the foreign cities they visited anyway, looking for a bar was a hit and miss affair in any case, so they decided to be consistent in their arbitrariness.
The next day we boarded a bullet train for Niigata, for the first match against Cameroon that evening. Entering the stadium was an experience to be remembered. I had expected to see a reasonably sized contingent of fans, with some degree of support from the locals, but the stadium was a sea of green with Irish flags hanging from almost all of the balcony. We owned the place. I managed to sing one line of the national anthem before a lump in my throat forced me to stop. (After the match, a woman I had never met before but who new Bingo came over and hugged me because she had seen me get choked up singing the national anthem.) Ireland has a surprisingly high profile in Japan, thanks to musicians like U2 and more so Enya, and Irish pubs have been springing up like mushrooms in all sorts of places, so many Japanese football fans had chosen to support Ireland as well as their own team. The Irish supporters basically wanted football first, a beer or two (of any kind) and some food to follow, and anything else was an added bonus. Japan has no legal or social restrictions on drinking in public, as witnessed at the many local festivals that take place here, and the Irish supporters took to this like fish to water. All the way from the station to the stadium was one big street party, before and after the match. Much fuss was made in the media and by politicians and the police in the run up to the World Cup of the threat of hooliganism, so many Japanese were delighted to see the easygoing, good natured behaviour of their guests from so many countries, but especially Ireland. (After the tournament, there was talk of inviting the Irish team back for a friendly match against the Japanese team.)
I managed to fit in two days at work the next week, despite the punishing schedule the boys kept. Any day they were not at a match, they were at a bar watching other group matches on the television, and the beer would flow. After Simple Simon, where we watched the Japan matches with as much fervour as the locals, had closed, they would head on to drink more or go to a local all night diner for a late dinner and early breakfast rolled into one. They would arrive back in my apartment shortly before I set off to work those two days, so sleep was fairly rare. The second match was in Ibaraki, against Germany, and the last minute goal by Robbie Keane (which would later be voted by Japanese TV viewers as the best of the tournament) which equalised that match put us all in the best of moods as we headed back to Tokyo, lifting the roof of the train with our songs. On arriving at Tokyo Station, many taxi drivers tried to avoid picking up what they presumed (correctly) were drunken supporters, but the local police, wanting to disperse the crowds as quickly as possible, would not let them leave without passengers. That night we sang and drank in an Irish pub in Shibuya until the sun came up.
On their first weekend here, we decided to go sightseeing in Tokyo. While riding the train in, I noticed that there was a baseball game that day at the Seibu stadium, which we would pass close to. I remembered Bingo had said that he regretted never seeing a game while he was in America for the World Cup eight years previously, so I suggested we go. All quickly agreed, and without further ado we were sitting behind first base at the Seibu Dome watching what turned out to be a very exciting game, and we had the poor little girls selling beer from tanks on their backs (Japanese baseball is VERY different from American Baseball!) running back and forth to refill their tanks as we each bought a round of seven beers at a consistent pace of one an inning. On leaving the stadium, I suggested they buy some souvenirs, and that is when they found the miniature baseball bats that they would come to love. Three of the guys had been using bodhrans, traditional Irish drums, as noisemakers during the matches to lead the cheering. They had been unable to bring the sticks, know as "bones" that they used to beat the bodhrans or had lost them, and were reduced to using wooden spoons and such things from my kitchen. The half sized baseball bats on sale at the stadium were perfect! All three of them bought one. At the subsequent matches they made a great sound, which merited us about half a second of television coverage.
After a raucous Sunday night in Simple Simon watching Japan beat Russia, I somehow managed a day of work on Monday. Ireland's third match in the first round was on the Tuesday against Saudi Arabia, and was held in Yokohama. We decided to stay in a hotel there because it was too far to get home, and it turned out to be the same hotel as the Saudi Team. We met one of their players in the elevator, taking breakfast back to his room. We needed a win, or a draw if Germany beat Cameroon, to get through to the second round. As the game progressed, more and more people were getting updates on the German match, which was going on at the same time, over their cell phones. Ireland was beating Saudi, and as word came in of a goal by the Germans, the chants of "We're going to Korea!" got louder and louder. Full time came, and jubilation erupted around Yokohama Stadium. The crane mounted camera panned the crowd, and fists, flags, bodhrans, scarves, inflatable hammers and cuddly toys were punched into the air as smiling, crying, screaming faces painted in green, white and orange were beamed to a bemused worldwide audience. We eventually calmed down enough to consider leaving the stadium, and as the crowd snaked its way out of the stands, I looked up at all the flags of the thirty two competing nations, flying on poles outside the stadium, and noticed that someone had pulled the English flag down lower than all the others. An old rivalry lived on! We partied most of the night in Yokohama's Chinatown, getting back to the hotel around three in the morning. As we made our way back to Kawagoe the following day, we stopped off at travel agents in Tokyo to organise transport to Seoul. It was slowly dawning on me that I was going to Korea.
We flew on the following Saturday, and spent the first night looking around Seoul. The match against Spain was on the Sunday, and some friends of Bingo's sneaked us onto a bus from our hotel to the stadium, stopping along the way to take photos with some soldiers for some reason. I found the people of Seoul to be much friendlier towards the visiting supporters than those in Tokyo. In Japan, the media had hyped up the potential for trouble by hooligans to an extent that some people were quite wary of their presence, and in one extreme case police were called to a reported "riot" only to find that it was a mere two supporters walking down a shopping street in their team colours. In many places as we wandered around Tokyo I noticed people stopping to stare at us, but their look was apprehensive, as if they hoped we didn't come in their direction. But in Seoul they were much more open and receptive. Many people asked where we were from, and wished us luck, and the smiles appeared more genuine than those in Tokyo.
Our seats in the stadium were at the top of the second level, behind one of the goals. Several people came up to us and asked to take photos with us, presumably impressed by the bodhrans. The match itself was painfully annoying, as the Irish played badly. Tension rose as full time came and went, and the extra time produced no result. A penalty shootout was called for, and everything seemed to be moving too fast to take it in. One Irishman standing in front of us - no one was sitting by this stage - could not bear to watch directly, and turned his back to watch the shootout on the big screen behind us. He promptly lost his balance and fell backwards into the row in front of him, knocking over a young boy in that row. Not a soul moved to help him: I was one of the few who even noticed. A match that could have been won was lost on penalties, and in an instant the Irish campaign had ended. Desolation, disappointment, disillusionment and despair filled the stadium as quickly as turning out a light. Thousands of Irish flooded out into the streets around the stadium, and silently made their way back to Seoul. We found our way to the hotel where the Irish team was staying, and joined the hundreds of fans there to try and get a glimpse of the team. The bar was packed but not lively. People analysed the failure, and compared the competition with previous years as they sipped beers to console themselves. After a while the team came in to the bar, to a well spirited but slightly subdued applause, that seemed to say "Well done, but you still lost!" I managed to shake hands with the goalkeeper Shay Given as they filed past. The players soon found their way into a private room for their own post mortem and consolatory beers. Exhaustion overcame us, so we made our way back to our own hotel. I heard later that the team later rejoined their supporters, partying till the morning. The next morning, the guys were fairly down, the entire purpose of their trip having been brought to an end. All that was left was a flight home, so they changed their tickets to return directly home rather than to Japan, and spent the Monday at the hotel watching other matches on television. I was not going to miss the opportunity to see Seoul, and spent most of the day walking around the city taking photos. I flew back to work on Tuesday, to find that my company had shut down for the day to allow employees watch the Japan team play Turkey that afternoon. Within an hour of getting home from the airport I was on a stool at Simple Simon watching that game, while Bingo and the boys were already on their way home. Japan lost that night, and thus my interest in the World Cup, and that of a large portion of the Japanese population, waned quickly. On the night of the final, Naoko and I went to a movie.
All in all, the experience was a great one, which I am sure I will never go through again. Had it not been for Bingo and his mates I would not have bothered attending the matches, but would have made do with watching them on television. I would have missed out on seeing first hand what a great bunch of people the diehard Irish supporters are, and I would have missed seeing the warm welcome the Japanese people gave them. Since the competition, when I have told people I meet that I am from Ireland it has sometimes evoked a warm smile and a recollection from them of how impressed they were by the Irish supporters. I am grateful to Bingo for the opportunity to have experienced all that happened, and the reasons it gave me to be a little more proud of my roots than I had been before.
If you dropped in by accident, the story starts here;
Copyright (C) 1997-2011 A.Keyes All Rights Reserved.