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Tuesday night saw perennial J.League underdogs Sanfrecce Hiroshima take on Australia’s mightiest, the big-spending Melbourne Victory.

However, David v Goliath was not the main narrative around this story, instead it centered around a Prodigal Son, the person in question being former Japanese national team player Keisuke Honda returning to Japanese football at club level for the first time since his days with Nagoya Grampus, 12 years ago.

Honda is arguably the most famous Japanese player since the likes of Shunsuke Nakamura and Hidetoshi Nakata were playing for the Samurai Blue, and with fame comes scrutiny. Honda is a superstar in his homeland, of that there is no doubt, but the concepts of “superstar”, “fame”, “celebrity” have a rather unique manifestation in Japan. 

A small archipelago nation, for generations Japan was cut-off from the outside world, able to develop a culture and way of thinking unlike most other nations. Of course modern Japan has come a long way since the Edo period but there are certain values that still remain. Samurais may no longer roam the land in service of lords but the Bushido spirit or 'Way of the Samura'i is still studied and influences this proud nation. 

This is where the Honda conundrum presents itself. If you ask Japanese football fans and even non-Japanese football fans about Honda the player, they’ll inevitably tell you what a great player he is - professional, skilful etc. If you change the question to “Do you like Honda?” The response is often very mixed. Many more than you’d expect will say “no”, many will um and ah, while some are of course big fans.

It is, however, difficult for many Japanese to be publicly critical or negative. Honne and tatemae are two contrasting forms of expression that are very common in Japan. “Honne” are your true feelings while “tatemae” are your public feelings and can often be an outright lie in order to avoid awkward and uncomfortable situations.

When talking about Honda at the game, people were very clear to emphasise the positives so it was important to ask the right questions. It is initially difficult to get a Japanese person’s “honne” as it is usually reserved to the private settings of family and close friends; but if there’s a hint of negativity in what someone says, you can be sure you’ve found it. 

Everyone I spoke with at the game and beforehand found it difficult to explain, but acknowledged that it is a very Japanese thing to not like someone with Honda’s image and manner.

While there is no hesitation in speaking glowingly of Honda as a footballer, the Japanese are, in many ways, insecure when it comes to the West, especially in sport so there is a sense of pride when athletes such as Honda do well abroad. However, many consider him to be more like a foreigner in mind than Japanese and this brings with it a polarising effect. Players like Yasuhito Endo, or Makoto Hasebe who are amongst Honda’s peers tend to be much more universally “liked” than their more famous former teammate. Endo and Hasebe are players who are seen to embody the Bushido spirit, modern day samurais who go out and represent Japan with the values of old. 

Honda is seen to be too vocal and opinionated, a few locals and even a Honda fan, who traveled all the way from the east of Japan and was heading to Melbourne to see him, used the term “big mouth”. Basically, the self-promotion side of Honda leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many, while players like Hasebe and Endo went about their business more stoically, keeping lower profiles.

For the Japanese especially, actions speak louder than words. Obedience, self-sacrifice and sense of duty are all highly valued traits for Japanese, as well as humility - which Honda lacks in the Japanese standard of these words.

There is a Japanese saying, “The nail that sticks out, gets hammered down”. It is an old adage and while this mindset is slowly changing, it is something that sums up the conformity for which Japan is known. This is where the concepts of “fame” and “superstardom” come into play.

Honda has fame and is a superstar, two things that are respected in Japan and can excuse a lot of things that would not otherwise be acceptable for the average person. 

So in Japan, an individual is able to obtain both fame and superstardom even without obtaining the hearts of the nation at the same time. The Japanese have an amazing ability to separate the idea of celebrity and popularity. Being famous doesn’t mean you are also popular. They will happily and eagerly pose for a picture with a celebrity who they don’t like purely because they’re famous.  

Japanese football fans on the whole were looking forward to seeing Honda play and even the Sanfrecce fans spoken to wanted him to do well while hoping for the home team to win. 

At the game on Tuesday night, the area we were sitting in contained a mix of regular fans and people who had come specifically to see Honda play. There was a small group of Melbourne Victory fans in the away section but also a smattering of Victory Honda jerseys in the other sections. When Honda got the ball the active fans on the opposite side of the ground whistled and jeered, the casual fans oohed and aahed. When Honda scored in the 71st minute to equalise, those around us actually cheered. I needed to check whether I was sitting in the home or away section. The rest of the one-third filled stadium went silent, and in fact an Australian journalist asked us if we had noticed the crowd go silent after the goal. 

There was an interesting change that occurred once he scored though. After that goal everyone seemed to switch to being all-in behind Sanfrecce and the oohing and aahing for Honda subsided. It was as though they had seen the star be a star so now they could focus on the home team. Honda had delivered.

In the end it was the perfect result for the Japanese fans, Honda scored but Sanfreccce won the game with local lad Daiki Watari, a fringe member of the first team, scoring the late winner. 

That may have been the last opportunity for many to see Honda in an official game. A player of immense talent, a bright star, but a polarising character who will no doubt go down as one off the greats of the Japanese game. His playing career may be winding down but there’s no doubt his star will continue to burn. 

In lieu of payment for this article, Adam Howard has requested that a donation be given to the Pararoos fundraising campaign to attend the 2019 World Cup, which we have done.

Categories: People | Football Life | Asia

keisuke honda, #acl2019, asian champions league, japan, melbourne victory

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