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World Cup Fever Subdued in Japan - 2002-06-03


World Cup fever should be at its peak in Japan, as the national team gets ready to open its Group-H campaign against Belgium Tuesday in Saitama. VOA's Steve Schy is traveling in Japan to cover football's premier event. He says you do not see much evidence of the excitement, unless you ask.

When you arrive in the host nation of a world-class sporting event, you can often feel electricity in the air, with vivid banners, flags and posters and face-painted fans wearing team colors, everywhere you look.

That has not been the case in Japan. Arriving at Tokyo-Narita Airport and traveling to Yokohama, I was surprised at how few World Cup signs and souvenirs I saw. A newspaper survey (Yomiuri Shimbun) last month showed that only one in three Japanese was interested in the tournament.

Perhaps that has changed since the Cup got underway. Despite the lack of outward enthusiasm, fans in the co-host nation say they are anxious for Japan's opening match. Merchant Michihiro Okamoto is expecting good results on Tuesday and beyond. "We will win! We will win! I hope Japanese team goes to [the] final round. I think so," he says.

Manager Toru Watanabe believes Japan can win its opening game and advance past the opening round. "Well I'm not sure about the Belgium team," he says. "I think the Japan team will get win…I think best eight. Best four or best eight, though I can't say exactly what."

Other Japanese fans seem more concerned with how well the national team represents the country. Although it appears Japan has a realistic chance of advancing out of Group-H against Russia, Tunisia and Belgium, most journalists do not expect them to go much farther.

Some think, if Japan does not make it out of the first round, much of the interest in soccer will dissipate before the final in Yokohama, June 30. But the Japanese football fans I spoke to don't believe that for a minute.

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