The J-League has handed down its harshest punishment in the football league's 20-year history following one of the nation's biggest clubs' fans being accused of racist behaviour in a saga that has blighted the professional game here as Tokyo gears up to host the 2020 Olympics.
Urawa Reds Diamonds, following its fans displaying a racist banner at a home game in Saitama against Sagan Tosu FC March 8, has been ordered by the J-League to play a home game without spectators March 23 against Shimizu S-Pulse.
The move by the league marks the first time in its history the J-League has ordered a club to play a game without spectators and the league. It has also insisted the club give a written apology to account for its fans displaying a banner bearing the words, written in English, " Japanese Only."
The large, clearly visible discriminatory banner was hoisted before the game in front of one of the entrances for the Urawa supporters inside the Saitama Stadium. It was not removed until after the game, despite a security company and other officials alerting the club about the banner and racist slurs being made by some of the Urawa fans.
Speculation is rife that the banner may have been targeting Tadanari Lee, a South Korean-born national with Japanese citizenship, who was signed for the Reds from the English Premier League's Southampton FC at the beginning of the season.
Sagan's manager and coach are both South Korean, as are several of its players, which may also have factored into the Reds' fans hanging the banner and being heard by security officials as making racist jibes during the match, leaving some observers concerned about racism ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
"The majority of teams in the J-League have a number of foreign players on their squads, which is great, as the league continues to evolve along the same path as some of the greatest leagues in the world, such as the UK's Premier League or Italy's Serie A," said Sid Lloyd, managing director of Footy Japan, the largest joint operator of amateur international adult football leagues and children's football academies in Japan
"Last weekend Urawa didn't field any non-Japanese players, but the team is coached by Mihailo Petrovic, who is Serbian. I'm not sure if the Reds' fans in question are anti-Korean, completely racist, or just utterly stupid," said Lloyd, also a qualified coach with the English Football Association.
The racist banner also displayed an image of the Japanese flag, but while the club conceded the actions of its fans were discriminatory, it has yet to comment on whether the banner was aimed at Lee and members of the opposing team, management and coaching staff personally.
Mitsuru Murai, chairman of the J-League, however, said the incident had severely tainted the image of the league and the broader soccer community in Japan.
Murai, in handing down the punishment, said the league took particular exception to the club not removing the banner as soon as it was alerted to its presence.
The J-League chief said that Urawa Reds had confirmed that the supporter group who displayed the banner would be indefinitely suspended from the club's activities and added that Reds' fans will no longer be able to have their banners displayed at any of their games, either at home or away.