Ikuko Kitagawa / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
It's not so long ago that Japanese of all ages started going crazy about soccer. The World Cup finals staged in Japan and South Korea in 2002 really boosted interest in soccer among a wide range of people in Japan. The idea of wearing the national team's blue shirt or daubing your face with images of the Rising Sun flag went from the unusual to the almost commonplace. The same goes for the idea of going out to sports bars to watch games and cheer on the team rather than staying at home.
But an exhibition at the Japan Football museum in Tokyo suggests that some of the earliest seeds of interest in soccer in Japan were sown by a popular football manga series: Captain Tsubasa.
Even before 2002, feverish soccer fans in Japan saved money or quit their jobs to go watch the World Cup finals in France in 1998, when Japan first qualified for the finals. Going further back still to 1992, the establishment of the J.League was clearly one of the most important milestones in the development of soccer as a national sport in Japan.
But 10 years before the J.League was formed, Captain Tsubasa, also known as Kyapu-tsuba, is believed to have started helping soccer take root in Japanese society, inspiring star players such as former Japan national team captain Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura, who recently led his Scottish League club Celtic to its second straight league title.
The comic has even gone on to influence overseas players such as Brazil's Ronaldinho and Italy's Francesco Totti.
A day before the opening of the Captain Tsubasa Exhibition at the end of last month, Yoichi Takahashi, 46, the author of the Kyapu-tsuba series, could be seen prowling around a special booth to make sure everything was ready.
"I think this event explains the story of the comic series from the very beginning to recent strips. So anyone who comes here will get a general idea about the comic," he said.
The exhibition, subtitled Everyone was once a Captain Tsubasa, displays enlarged copies of key scenes from the 26-year-long series, comments from professional players who were influenced by Captain Tsubasa and copies of the comic books translated into various languages including Italian, German and Chinese.
The exhibition is attracting both soccer and sports animation fans, as well as people from overseas, according to the museum.
The comic is a coming-of-age tale about a schoolboy, Tsubasa Ozora, who moves to Shizuoka Prefecture and joins a soccer team there. He finds he has to grow up quickly as he encounters teammates with strong personalities and a whole host of rivals. In the series, Tsubasa eventually goes on to make the national team. The series has continued on and off since 1981, and in the most recent series, Captain Tsubasa Golden-23, Tsubasa is depicted playing in Japan's Under-23 side at a fictional Olympic games.
Sports journalist Seijun Ninomiya told The Daily Yomiuri that over the years the comic has helped expand the soccer population base, including both players and supporters.
"The comic is playing the role of a kind of entree into the soccer world as well as a guide [to enjoying the sport]," Ninomiya said.
Although it would be too much to suggest that the comic changed the history of soccer culture in Japan, it's clear that many people both in Japan and overseas relate strongly to the comic's theme of pursuing objectives collectively, Ninomiya added.
Everyone once was Tsubasa
The generation that grew up and alongside Tsubasa is now its late 20s and mid-30s.
"Players in my generation definitely were influenced by seeing Captain Tsubasa," said Masakiyo Maezono, 33, who captained the national team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and is now a soccer commentator. "From my point of view, every important aspect of becoming a soccer player is decided in your childhood."
Maezono, who said he was also influenced by Argentine playmaker Maradona, recalled that through the comic books he learned a lot from Tsubasa's playing style and global outlook. Maezono eventually played professionally in Brazil just like Tsubasa does in the manga.
"I learned [Tsubasa's philosophy] that 'the ball is my friend' from the comic. I think Captain Tsubasa has made many people feel close to soccer," said Maezono, who is currently working on the popularization of youth soccer.
Yoshika Matsubara, 32, who also played in Atlanta, said he used to mimic characters' techniques and read the comic with his friends.
"I like Kojiro Hyuga [Tsubasa's rival], because he's a top scorer and I liked his 'tiger shot' [Hyuga's special shooting technique]," said Matsubara, who now coaches children at a soccer school. "I can remember [the story] even now and I think every player knows about the comic."
Many other professional players of his generation who are currently playing--such as Nakamura, Japan squad goalie Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, Japan defender Yuji Nakazawa and Shinji Ono of the Urawa Reds--have been influenced by the acrobatic techniques employed by different characters in the comic, according to comments they wrote for the exhibition.
Freelance writer Shuntaro Fukagawa, who wrote Captain Tsubasa no Shorigaku--a book discussing what professional players can learn from characters in the comic--says the way the Japan national team plays reminds him of how Tsubasa's team plays in the comics.
"I think that almost no Japanese players play dirty such as diving elaborately, writhing around 'in pain' on the ground or time-wasting. I think in this way Japan's playing style reflects Tsubasa's desire to play fair," Fukagawa said.
The Captain Tsubasa series touches not only on players' performances on the field, but also their states of mind, personal conflicts and problems.
"It's probably quite fun to watch real games by thinking about the psychology and personality of each actual player. Captain Tsubasa can offer a great frame of reference as to how each player thinks differently during a match," Fukagawa said.
Children's coach Matsubara said the human side of the soccer story is so well written in Kyapu-tsuba that it attracts not only children but adults, too.
"Japan lost its last game [against South Korea during the Asian Cup], and there must be many stories behind that particular game. The stories might be, for example, about personal issues, such as one of the members having trouble with his wife or worrying about his sick child," says Matsubara, adding that Captain Tsubasa is so good at depicting the personal sides of players that even real players--including himself--can relate to its content.
It's not only Japanese players who were inspired by Kyapu-tsuba. Overseas players are also influenced by the amazing performances shown in the comics.
World Cup star Alessandro Del Piero, who is said to be a big fan of an animated Italian version of Kyapu-tsuba called Holly y Benji, copied Kojiro Hyuga's shot when he was little, according to the museum.
Former Italy captain Francesco Totti said in comments he wrote for the exhibition that he learned the importance of trying to tackle even the impossible from the manga.
"Captain Tsubasa is popular in Italy among people in their late 20s and 30s," said Giovanni Perversi of the Italian Cultural Institute's Cultural Department in Tokyo. "Volleyball and soccer are popular sports in Italy, and Captain Tsubasa is the sole comic series about sports."
Perversi, who considers himself a Tsubasa fan, said Japanese comics are very popular in Italy because of their distinctive story lines.
"We grow up playing soccer and know that many of the characters' performances in the comic are impossible to copy in reality. But that in turn may have been attractive in children's minds," he said.
More than 70 million copies of the manga have been sold in Japan, according to Hidekazu Yokoi, an editor of Young Jump, a weekly magazine that carries the latest Tsubasa series.
Shueisha Publishing Co., which publishes the magazine in Japan, has also given permission to sell the comic in Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, France, Italy, Spain and Germany. However, Yokoi said, Kyapu-tsuba fans have spread beyond even those places.
In Iraq, children know Tsubasa as Captain Majed. A few years ago, the Foreign Ministry took advantage of the popularity of the character by putting a picture of Tsubasa on the Ground Self-Defense Force's water supply trucks when it dispatched a unit to Samawah, southern Iraq. The idea was to show the friendly nature of the unit, which was involved in reconstruction work there.
In the United States, the comic is known as Flash Kicker.
"Right now it's still quite new [in the United States]," said Roland Kelts, a Tokyo University lecturer who specializes in Japanese animation and subculture. "American audiences, at least in the past, prefer to play sports themselves or play sports on video games or watch sports on TV...Stories about fictional sports characters so far have not been successful in the U.S., but that may be changing with something like Flash Kicker because soccer is very popular with younger Americans."
Reading Kyapu-tsuba will be a good way for children develop a further interest in soccer that goes beyond a passing curiosity about the recent transfer of British soccer hero David Beckham to the Los Angeles Galaxy, Kelts said.
"The genre of sports manga might prove to be a bridge between two very separate school cultures: the jocks, or athletes, and the artists--or geeks. I would love to see high school and junior high school jocks reading sports manga on their way to the next game," Kelts said.