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Japanese soccer still struggling to teach empathy after Nazi SS flag scandal

The cheering flags of Gamba Osaka supporters bearing the "SS mark" similar to that of the Nazi Schutzstaffel. (Image taken from Twitter)

Seventy-two years after the end of World War II, Japanese professional soccer is struggling to fight racial discrimination in the sport and teach empathy to those who did not experience the war, a problem highlighted during a match in April when Gamba Osaka fans waved a flag emblazoned with a symbol closely resembling that of the Nazi Schutzstaffel, or SS.

It's July 29 at a sports bar in Osaka. As J-league side Gamba Osaka makes a comeback in its match against rivals Cerezo Osaka, the roughly 30 occupants of the bar erupt excitedly and embrace one another.

These are former members of the dissolved Gamba Osaka "Sledgehammer Bros" supporter group. In April this year, the group brought a flag bearing a symbol similar to that of the SS, and the 83 members of the group ranging from their teens to their 50s were banned from matches indefinitely. Now, they continue to cheer for their team at this bar.

But why did a group of soccer fans choose a symbol for their flag that evokes the memory of the Holocaust, the Nazi campaign of genocide against Europe's Jews?

"The design was simple, cool-looking and powerful," said the 52-year-old who created the rally flags seven years ago after seeing the SS mark on the internet. "It's our own original design," he said, though the alterations are slight. Gamba Osaka warned against the use of the flag several years ago, but admitted that enforcement of the rules had been lax.

"I know the meaning of the SS mark, but it's not exactly the same design. There is no racial discrimination behind the use of the flag, so I thought it was OK," repeated the man who brought the flag to the April game. "If there were people who were hurt by the flag, I would like to apologize to them, but I have no idea who they would be..."

This is the problem highlighted on Twitter by Dan Orlowitz, a 31-year-old Jewish American journalist based in Tokyo: "I worry if we allow the flag this time, what will we allow next?" Orlowitz's grandfather was taken prisoner by the German Army at age 18 and, hiding the fact that he was Jewish, managed to survive World War II. "Not allowing history to repeat itself is the responsibility of not just Jewish people but all human beings," Orlowitz said.

When he took to Twitter to point out the problematic nature of the Gamba fans' flag, he was met with an angry backlash, with some telling him to "go back to your country." However, even more regrettable for Orlowitz is the lack of Japanese who want to learn about the history of the Nazis and the acts they committed against the Jewish people.

Erasing racial discrimination is a problem in the soccer world. Three years ago, an Urawa Reds supporter put up a "Japanese Only" banner in the Reds' home stadium, prompting the J-League to distribute documents regarding racial discrimination to all clubs. The SS mark was included in these guidelines.

"Soccer has always been on the world stage. Matches played in Japan can be viewed worldwide," says J-League Chairman Mitsuru Murai. "The stadium is overflowing with hometown and team pride. However, an awareness that the seeds of discrimination lie on the underside of a strong group mentality and bonding is also necessary."

The Gamba Osaka supporters who received an indefinite ban from entering the stadium after brining in a flag bearing a mark similar to the Nazi Schutzstaffel are seen in a sports bar in Osaka on July 8, 2017. (Mainichi)

Last year, the Japan University Football Association invited 62-year-old Avraham "Avram" Grant, the former manager of Chelsea Football Club in England's Premier League, to talk about his father, a Holocaust survivor. Since many students had trouble grasping Grant's story, this spring, the association invited Fumiko Ishioka, director of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center.

Ishioka, who has heard Holocaust survivors' stories first-hand, conveyed those stories to the students. "Discrimination takes human lives," she said. "Every single person holds onto some form of discriminatory idea, including unconscious biases. That's why it is so important to pay attention to what we do in our daily lives."

The international community is sounding warning bells about a history that we cannot afford to forget. Not only knowledge is needed, but also the cultivation of empathy for the pain of the victims.

The man who flew the SS flag at the Gamba game still cannot accept the punishment handed down to him by the league. However, he remembered that there was a book about the Holocaust on his bookshelf and decided to read it over again. It was then that he began to understand.

"If I was in the position of those who were sent to the gas chambers, I don't think I could stomach seeing the design either," he said. (By Masaki Ishikawa, Hokuriku General Bureau)

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