Polite pandemonium on Tokyo streets as rugby bug takes a grip
Even the notoriously low-key Tokyo police eventually warmed to the good feeling
Japan fans cheer their team as they watch the Samoa match at a “fanzone” area in Tokyo. Photo: Behrouz Mehri/Getty Images
“SHUT UP! Please! Be QUI-ET! This is a public area! Go home,” the Tokyo police officer is pleading through the megaphone of his car. The poor man is nearly in tears by now. He’s ‘giving orders’ to a crowd of rugby enthusiasts gathered outsides a sports bar in Shinkuku and craning to see, on the big screens inside, the closing stages of Japan’s latest thrilling turn in this rugby World Cup. There are about 100 people, all nationalities, accents and languages, including some Japanese who don’t seem entirely sure of what is happening on the pitch but are delighted by the commotion it is causing.
It turns out that loitering outside a bar to watch rugby not only violates about 1,000 Japanese rules of behaviour, it threatens the future of civilisation itself. Out of nowhere, two Tokyo cop cars have arrived, sirens blaring, its officers determined to break this party up so the narrow street is free and orderly once again. Bizarrely, about three television crews materialise at precisely the same time.
The mood is giddy and by Japanese standards, turning anarchic. This is the first time many visitors have laid eyes on the Tokyo police, who are such a low key presence you could easily imagine that they don’t even exist and that the city is self governed by the iron-clad fist of politeness. But here they are. And nobody is paying them a blind bit of notice.
On the television, it’s at the stage where luckless Samoa have just been whistled for a crooked put-in on their scrum, giving the home team an outrageously promising attacking position. It’s clear that supporters from all nations love this Japan team by now, not least because they are the most fun to watch. They’ve already scored two tries and every so often, a crowd chant of ‘Ja-Pan’ rings out.
Inside their car, the two cops survey this unruliness. They are wearing full uniform, complete with little night reflectors and face masks lest they have to apprehend any criminals harbouring a mild cold. Starsky and Hutch these guys are not. They start off by inching their patrol car forward and engage in what can only be described as nuzzling the bonnet of their vehicle against the rear end of several England supporters who yell “Oi! Oi, mate!” – without taking their eyes off the match, mind.
They step forward so the crowd becomes more compressed, but nobody is leaving. It’s at this point that the police officer takes to the megaphone and starts shouting at everyone that they are making too much noise. And this is where law and order breaks down. The Aussies and Kiwis find the whole thing uproarious. The English crowd put their fingers to their mouths and start going ‘Sssssshhhhhh.” It turns out there’s a bunch of Irish somewhere in the group and, with a keen nose for mayhem, they try to get a chant of Ole, Ole, Ole going.
Meanwhile, the officer is beginning to lose his patience. At first, he was authoritative and low key, explaining to everyone in perfect English that this was a public thoroughfare and they must not be here. Then, after Himeno scored again for Japan, you could hear the tension in his voice as he demanded quiet. Ten minutes later, he began to lose his cool and it was after that he resorted to shouting: “Shut up! You are making too much noise. Please! Shut up!”
The thing was, the loudest noise in the entire prefecture was his megaphone. Overhead, the chefs from the restaurants stuck their heads out the windows, happy to take a break from dishing out ramen noodles. A crowd attracts a crowd so the numbers grew. It was dark and the Tokyo officers knew that they weren’t going to arrest about 100 foreign nationals on the charge of watching a rugby match.
In that atmosphere, everyone felt emboldened. “What about YOU?” shouted a young Tokyoite at the squad car. “YOU make too much noise!” He got a huge cheer for this rage-against-the-machine moment and beamed in delight. The police officer shook his head and suddenly seemed very sad about everything, as if he realised that here and now the age of the Samurai was truly over.
It would be wrong to suggest that every corner in Tokyo was this engaged by Japan’s rugby heroics. In fact, it’s highly probable that this was the only corner that was. Memory Alley is one of the go-to places for tourists in Tokyo. It’s a warren of izakaya, the tiny-one room sheebeens where you can have a beer along with local delicacies like raw horse meat and salted squid guts. The alley is sort of manufactured in that it was recreated after a fire in the 1990s but it is a faithful reconstruction of an iconic postwar Tokyo alley, all open fire grills and charcoal smoke and lanterns.
Only a handful of izakaya were showing the match and because it was Saturday night, it was impossible to get a seat anyway. One place was showing the game upstairs, on a small television screen. The sound was turned to silent. Beneath it sat four Japanese groovers who’d seen a few decades, smoking continuously and every so often shooting contemptuous looks at the screen. It will take a while for the rugby revolution to take fire throughout the city.
And maybe that’s as well. For back outside the bar, Kotaro Matsuhimo’s late try causes another outbreak of pandemonium on the street. There is nothing the police can do anymore and they know it. They emerge from their car. The defeated megaphone officer is almost smiling now. But it’s a wise smile as if he knows that all of this can only end in one way.
For if one rugby match can cause this show of civil disobedience, then who knows what happens if Japan keep on winning? What if they start scoring tries in the quarter final? It was clear that Japan thrilling the world’s visitors through its rugby team could only lead to social disorder, to the collapse of the economy, to another lost decade and finally to the world’s economy going down the drain with it. It won’t be the police man’s fault though.
He did his best to warn them all.