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A Japanese Soccer Team Plays to an Empty Stadium Because of Racist Fans

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Japanese soccer officials have found a novel way to prevent racist behavior in the stands: Don’t let the fans show up.

Officials ordered one of the top teams in Japan’s professional J-League to play in an empty stadium Sunday as punishment for a “Japanese only” banner that fans displayed during a game in Tokyo earlier this month.

That incident came amid rising concerns in Japan over nationalist sentiments. Japan is mired in ugly disputes with neighboring China and South Korea over territorial claims and historical issues.

Officials of the Urawa Red Diamonds team said a small group of supporters hung a “Japanese only” banner in a stadium entranceway during a home game on March 8. They said the banner was to discourage foreigners from sitting in that section and disrupting group cheers; security guards later reported hearing “discriminatory remarks” toward foreigners.

Team officials said they did not remove the banner until after the game because, initially, they did not deem it racist or discriminatory. The issue went viral after fans posted photos of the banner online.

Urawa Reds’ officials later apologized and said they had banned about 20 members of a supporters’ group. The team president said he would return three months’ salary as a show of responsibility.

That wasn’t good enough for league officials, however. They ordered Urawa Reds to play their next home game — Sunday — in an empty stadium.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has provoked concern over rising nationalist sentiments in Japan.

In December, he drew a sharp rebuke from the U.S., as well as neighboring countries, for visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines 14 Class A war criminals. Abe appointees to key broadcasting posts have disputed Japan’s responsibility for wartime atrocities and other abuses.

It’s unclear how much the Abe Administration’s rightward tilt may have encouraged soccer fans’ behavior, says Robert Dujarric, director of Temple University’s Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, in Tokyo.

“As much as Abe’s been doing all the wrong things, he doesn’t actually spew out the sort of xenophobic stuff that you get in Europe. Overall, I’d say the ‘Japanese only’ banner is not reflective of the bulk of Japanese society,” Dujarric said.

During Sunday’s match, stadium billboards were replaced with signs promoting the U.N.’s Sports for Peace program and players’ uniforms sported matching logos.

In a brief ceremony before the game, team captain Yuki Abe said the players pledged to “stamp out racism, be it discrimination against race, skin color, gender, language or religion or background, and will not tolerate any discriminatory or insulting language or behavior.”

Urawa Reds, one of the few J-League teams without a foreign player, were fined about $50,000 in 2010 when fans taunted foreign players on another team.

Urawa Reds and Shimizu S-Pulse played to a 1-1 draw.

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