A flag and a legacy

Tokyo – I remember being surprised by flags one day as I came to the office. A crumpled one clinging to the post over the staff entrance left me wondering. It was slightly cloudy, trains were on time, I was at the office, and I was quite sure of the need to be there that day, even if it were only perfunctory. The flag failed to flutter but the black strip under it tied round the post did. Did someone important just die? It was March 11. Then it dawned on me.

Four years had passed since the tsunami struck northeast Japan. Today, Japan is in its best moment, riding on the pro-growth Abenomics rhetoric, and cherry blossom buds growing fuller. The prospects are good, but the lack of respect was startling. We all understand protocol and the need to observe events, but to do things properly should be at the root of all meaningful actions. Otherwise, it’s just not worth doing.

Flags are symbols that command respect, and desecration can, in most countries, have severe consequences. Japan is one surprising exception; desecration is implicitly covered in the Japanese Constitution under freedom of speech, that is, people are allowed to disrespect the Japanese national flag. No other law exists to prohibit it, yet foreign flags are protected under Japanese law.

Scant respect for its own drew scrutiny at lunchtime from a security guard, peering overhead to see what had happened. Someone had apparently failed to iron it, or simply took it too quickly out from the washer. At least it wasn’t dripping or visibly torn. There was a slight breeze, and anyone who noticed as they walked past would inevitably feel a sense of shame or indignity, if they cared.

I raised the problem to a friend. The word “shame” was mentioned softly as people around me kept it quiet. It seemed as though they wanted this day to pass without issue and for the flag to hang in plain public view undetected. From the security guard’s actions, they just didn’t bother to correct it or even consider improving the situation. Any act to adjust the flag that was already hoisted would be incriminating, so just leave it as a doubtful entanglement hanging off the building, and lower it at the end of the day. Besides, it would be worse to leave this one pole empty if it took hours to iron out the creases, wouldn’t it?

Painful, appalling inaction and disrespect – the flag PAID the price of someone who simply followed the book without observing its substance, and everyone else who did not bother to do anything to change it. That the flag was probably only seen by company employees and visitors was its only saving grace, for it, not the people.

Contrast this with the formal, organized State Funeral for Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. The media covered every inch, foreign dignitaries flocked to pay respects, and the people were understandably very emotional. You could see the bias among certain circles against this seemingly well-drilled regime, but the organization and finesse of the communications to the public spoke volumes of the people, its institutions and its government. The week-long run-up even included a faked government website release announcing his death.

Soon celebrating its 50th anniversary without its visionary leader but left with a legacy of friendships and connections that span the globe from the founding generation, the final day’s eulogies reflected the spirit of the nation; it sets aside time to remember, but remains ever ready to move on. Singapore’s anthem urges progress, its pledge aspires to a harmonious, prosperous future. Recognizing the constant struggle to survive, the endless marathon to stay relevant, and the journey ahead, this young nation and its people understands its needs and is prepared to pull together to build a better future.

The nation’s economic miracle is a legacy for everyone. The guiding light is gone but continues to shine beyond its existence, allowing others to follow, draw upon and make it travel further. Anyone blighted with internal struggles, nonchalance, or indifference bordering on conceit, can turn to this legacy to remember the constant struggle, the sacrifices made and the path that was painstakingly laid in a bid to remain competitive and relevant. A new journey will soon begin, toward inclusive, sustainable progress. Those already overtaken should take heed.

Of sniffles and snides

Tokyo, 23 Mar – I woke up this morning feeling tired and restless. Bereft of any desire to get to work, my feet trudged across the wooden flooring as I went about the morning routine. They somehow took a body that was slowly getting into gear to the train platform, when the arm, a perfectly programmed extension of the body, reached into the trouser pocket to retrieve my phone.

The commuter routine began. Masked, foggy glasses, jam-packed trains, intermittent stops. All part of the morning ride. My fingers worked the screen swiftly, scourging the Internet for news. My mind was racing through topics of interest that required updating and relayed them to fire the synapses into action. They were stopped by the Channel NewsAsia headline – Mr. Lee Kuan Yew had passed away at 91 earlier at 3.18 am.

As my train arrived, I felt insecure, shaken and struck by melancholy sadness that was tinged with a heavy dose of admiration and relief. Every sniffle around me, every listless eye peering out at the scenery whizzing by seemed captured by sympathy. It was over.

The past few days had been a Facebook timeline of tributes and prayers for Singapore’s founding Prime Minister. Famous words, unforgettable scenes, touching sequences. They all drew a picture of the person behind the face that all Singaporeans, and perhaps many Malaysians too, had grown so accustomed to seeing ever so often. The write-ups painted a demanding leader, visionary and inspirational, but also frugal and sentimental. The public domain was soon filled with messages and outpouring of sympathies for Mr. Lee from the world over. The world had soon overwhelmed this little red dot and its people. A week of national mourning in Singapore was declared by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and going to work felt beyond me.

Yet by that time, my feet had already taken me past my transfer. I had scarcely anything to do besides meager tasks, but a subsequent inquiry revealed that the condolence books at overseas missions would not be open until the next day. They would remain so till the weekend to allow citizens and friends of Singapore to offer their condolences to Mr. Lee, the most influential Asian leader that I’ve lived under.

Just a few years back, he was still attending conferences and making trips across the world to cement Singapore’s position in the global arena. The tireless spirit has finally left its citizens with a huge void to fill and a legacy of a first class nation. The rise of this tiny island from a third world nation to the world’s third in per capita GDP is a story that will inspire generations to come.

As part of a largely non-English corporate propaganda churning unit, I was invariably tasked with drafting private letters to my fellow countrymen. Laughs turned to sniggers, sniffs sounded like snorts. Insensitivity is an understatement. A simple direct instruction was viewed as a blatant order to punish the eternally-contracted foreigner.

The public domain was already full of templates and expressions. A gathering of them would do the job perfectly, but the senses left my fingers as they clutched and clasped at my head, struggling to claw the right words out for someone else. The limbs worked, sometimes in a flurry, sometimes stationary. Three paragraphs settled, done, I left the office deflated and eager to find my own words.

I hope they will come to me in time, before my legs take me to the Embassy to stand before the condolence book ready to pen in my entry. My synapses and internal wiring would not be trusted to do a job that would end up entirely mechanical, devoid of emotion. I shall draw on my upbringing, education and childhood to express my gratitude, and then move on. Just like in Singapore, we stop, but only for a week to remember. Thank you Mr. Lee.

– updated 24 Mar

Dejavu@ Ajinomoto stadium – J-League 2015 Game 2 (14 March)

Chofu, Tokyo – FC Tokyo’s opening home game for the new season pitched them against the same team as last season’s final game. Just over 3 months since the 1-1 draw at Ajinomoto stadium, Yokohama Marinos were looking for their first points of the new campaign. Meanwhile, FC Tokyo had clawed back a point from last season’s treble winners, Gamba Osaka, when its suave young striker Yoshinori Muto completed his brace deep into stoppage time to send the travelling fans into ecstasy.

Fans streaming in an hour before kickoff

Fans streaming in an hour before kickoff

Tobitakyu station was filled with an expectant home crowd and similarly excited away fans. The away team clearly saw themselves as tricolour, while Tokyo was largely blue tinged with wine red. With both teams sporting similar team colours, the two sets of fans and their gear could only be discerned at close range as they made the mandatory 5-minute trek from the station. Of course, they also parted ways to move to opposite sides of the stadium. Incidentally, the away team were to sport their new gold away kit for this fixture.

Today's fixture

Today’s fixture

Opening home day fanfare lined up special guest, singer and actress Sakurako Ohara to rock the stands before kickoff and the Tokyo Girls Collection’s official Tokyo Girls Run team of runway runners on the pitch at half-time. A group was spotted sitting pitch-side throughout the game. These fans were owners of new special one-day tickets and accompanying authentic design collapsible chairs provided by kit sponsors Umbro. Open only to home supporters and coming with strict viewing conditions, excitement seemed to bubble from that part of the pitch, which was as close to the home goal as you could get.

Moving slowly through the crowd on the concourse

Moving slowly through the crowd on the concourse

The stadium concourse was packed with lines of hungry fans eager to grab a bite before the 2pm kickoff. Dorompa, Tokyo’s sporty raccoon dog mascot, could be seen everywhere, but the real one had its usual busy schedule of appearances in various locations. A Tokyo-only menu item taco-rice (rice topped with taco filling) had sold out early. Whether this had anything to do with taco meaning to draw a blank in Japanese, home fans were definitely hoping to see goals to build on last weekend’s result. The game was also to be a surprise first to be watched by Vahid Halilhodzic shortly after his official announcement as the new coach of the Japanese national team. The Bosnian had famously led Algeria to the last 16 round for the first time at the 2014 World Cup.

After the usual team announcements, the stadium aired a familiar tune – You’ll Never Walk Alone. The rendition of one of football’s most famous anthems by a largely Japanese home crowd, where the music tapers off midway, left a sombre and dignified tune filling the space between the two sets of fans – welcome to Tokyo and let the game begin.

Home fans in full song

Home fans in full song

The 30,000-strong crowd was slightly short of attendance at last season’s closer, nearly 32,600. Both sets of fans were left hanging on until the closing stages of the game in a solid tactical performance by both teams. Tokyo came nearest to goal twice in the first half while Yokohama were also culpable for failing to finish off clear chances. It was only late in the game that Tokyo seemed to change gears, as the visitors endured waves of attacks that just lacked the final pass. A sense of deflation seemed to linger after referee Yuichi Nishimura (yes, he who attracted worldwide attention in Brazil’s opening World Cup 2014 game against Croatia) blew the final whistle, and fans were left to reflect on lost chances and the dejavu of another draw from the same fixture.

– Result: FC Tokyo 0 Yokohama Marinos 0

A new beginning – J-League 2015 kickoff @ Hiratsuka (7 March)

Hiratsuka, Japan – With the day’s opening 2pm kickoffs out of the way, I ventured to the Shonan BMW stadium in Hiratsuka in search of the opening day revelry. As the sun set, I made my journey toward Isehara station, about an hour West of Shinjuku on the Odakyu line, for Shonan Bellmare’s J1 game against perennial title favorites Urawa Reds.

New entrants Bellmare had comfortably topped J2, the league’s 2nd tier, entertaining everyone with a brand of speedy, all-out attacking football last season, but they knew that the top tier required an overall balance in their play. Pre-sale tickets for the match ran out within two days, a rarity for opening day, but this was definitely compounded by hope for the home team, the stadium’s relatively low 18,500 capacity, and fanatical away supporters more accustomed to the comforts of a 63,700-seater home in Saitama.

Urawa, together with J-league flagbearers Gamba Osaka and Kashima Antlers in the Asia Champions League, had already suffered consecutive losses in a stuttering start to the new season. In particular, they had been on the wrong end of a combined total of 6 losses, an overall zero return, a fact that did not escape J-league Chairman Mitsuru Murai’s attention. The stage was set to begin anew on the opening day to recover some loss pride, light up the domestic scene and showcase the talent available in the league.

25-min direct shuttle

25-min direct shuttle from Isehara station

Outside Isehara station, there was calm punctuated by the occasional shuffle. Nothing seemed to be happening anytime soon, save a signboard that told people heading to the stadium to form a separate queue from those for regular services. Two shuttle bus services were running, one at each hour before kickoff. Making the second one with about 30 minutes to spare, a handful of about 10 people waited silently in line. The sky was turning dark as the single ground staff hollered instructions through a toned down loudspeaker. A bus sitting quietly in the corner waited its turn with a signboard showing “Shonan BMW Stadium Hiratsuka”. As I stood in line, a few others followed to extend the line by 3. The bus eventually came round with no one else joining us. I was wondering about the first shuttle service when it dawned upon me that the larger part of the crowd would probably have used the JR Hiratsuka station, which was 25-min away from the stadium on foot.

In contrast, this was a 25-minute long drive through what seemed like the deep countryside. Reaching our destination, fans streamed toward the stadium. They led me through a park and past the dark daytime establishments. Match day stalls lined the other side of the street facing a row of fluttering Bellmare flags. Ecstatic girls took photos with flags of players that tickled and teased in the mild breeze. Fans rushed ahead while talking on their mobile phones. Speakers blasted dance party music but it quickly dissipated into the vast silence.

The cauldron

Shonan BMW Stadium Hiratsuka

Just past the row of stalls was the stadium arc. I took a quick stroll round it to assess the view. An open bowl with openings at the corners, the perimeter fences allowed ticketless fans like myself to peer inside to catch the game. The Urawa end was particularly open with the goal in plain view. The atmosphere in the cauldron leaked out, but even the incessant chanting by the 18,000 strong crowd did not reverberate beyond the stalls nearby. Sound proofing wasn’t needed. Situated in the middle of a park about 2.5 km inland, sound simply had nothing to bounce off of. A private party was underway, and two teams would do battle for a win to kickoff the new campaign.

Away goal in the firing line

Away goal in the firing line

Flags waving, the player’s names over the PA were greeted with cheers from both sets of fans. The stage was set, and the ticketless few had taken up posts along the stadium’s perimeters. It was a queer sight, faces peering in that were lit up by the floodlights that shone onto the pitch. They could have easily been mistaken as searchlights, for the surrounding woods were almost pitch black, and it left me feeling twice detached as a neutral watching from the outside.

Floodlights or searchlights?


As the game kicked off, I made my way back to the station on the regular service, grabbing a bite from one of the stalls on my way out. As expected, the return trip took longer than the direct shuttle service, and I was the lone passenger for a large part of the journey. The whole experience left me feeling excited, but also wondering how lower division J2 and J3 teams managed to maintain afloat and still remain competitive. That would call for some deeper research into the league’s finances, but the support in the stands is very much alive and well. On the pitch, with 22 strikes in the 7 lunchtime kickoffs and no bore draws, its goals galore on opening day, and the new 2015 season has truly taken off.

– Result: Shonan Bellmare 1 Urawa Reds 3