Lilac Team

Mirror, May 2004

To prepare for the onslaught of World Cup fans – especially the English – Japan has trained and enlisted special all-women riot control units made up entirely of women. Meet the Lilac Team.

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It’s an overcast afternoon in Sapporo, northern Japan, and the tension on the streets is rising. England meet Argentina today, and floods of rival fans all daubed and chanting have poured into town, into the bars and noodle bars around the station and now through the gates of the remarkable dome stadium built especially for the world cup. They are faced at once with another bespoke world cup creation – an elite squad of riot police, visors down, not 10 yards from the turnstiles, who separate fans from each nation as they enter. One rabble of spirited England fans from Salford jostle through in full song only to meet a sharp young command: “this way please,” says one of the cops through the riot visor. It’s a woman’s voice.

“All right darling, keep your knickers on,” says one of the fans, assuming that she cannot understand.

“You fancy a shag later?” asks another, pushing it some more.

Nonplussed, she pulls out her baton, brushing past her cannister of tear gas as she goes, and points to her left. “This way please,” she says firmly. It’s the voice of a 3 times black belt in judo, aikido and kempo, someone trained thoroughly at both fighting with sticks, fists and feet. Only last week this demure 9 stone officer was flinging her 14 stone male colleagues onto the canvas without breaking a sweat. The England fans do as she says.

As they pass, Chihiro Takahashi raises her visor and smiles. Slim, attractive and just gone 30, Takahashi is the chief of the latest anti-hooligan measure conjured up by the Japanese police system – the Lilac Squad, a 10-strong unit of female riot police from the Hokkaido prefecture in Japan. Hokkaido is home to the city of Sapporo, which today hosts the potentially explosive combination of England fans, Argentina fans and a world famous brewery, and the police department here began preparing for this day, the most incendiary clash on the fixture list, well over a year ago. Of the 10,000 men in the force, 300 have been specifically riot-trained. And in April 2001, they were joined by a crack female team, an elite ten plucked – for their martial arts skills above all – from a female staff of 500.

“It was tough to be selected, sure,” says Takahashi, calmly. “Most of the tests were physical. But that is why we were chosen – all of the Lilac squad are strong at martial arts. We even have a world champion among us.”

The name Lilac comes from the symbol of Sapporo which grows in the lush forests that bank the drab concrete city at every side. In season, it makes for such a beautiful vista that Japanese travel from all over to stay here. This summer, however, Sapporo’s visitors are largely foreigners flocking not for the flowers, but for the football and judging from the local press and television news, foreign football fans mean trouble. Oddly, for a host city, soccer fever has hardly visited Sapporo at all. On a day that nigh every pub in England will be showing this match, in Sapporo itself, there is only one cramped café in town that shows world cup games on TV, and as a result mobs of cheering fans are rarely found in the bar district. Instead, Sapporo is gripped by “hooligan fever”. The newspapers are full of it, neighbourhood watch volunteers travel door to door advising families to lock up their daughters, and bar owners to a fault have shut up shop today, for fear of fuelling a riot. The Japanese are unaccustomed to public unrest and the very idea of a “hooligan” has captured the public imagination – it’s the new word to toy with and appears on T-shirts, headlines and even street graffiti: “Love England, hate hooligans”.

Takahashi pulls off her helmet, and shakes out her long dark brown hair. She has a gentle, smiling face, fit more for a hotel reception than the frontlines of a battle. Deferently tilting her head to one side, she explains how the Lilac Squad came about. “Sometimes a heavy male presence can provoke the hooligans, so Hokkaido police thought that a softer presence was needed. Our job is to handle situations involving families and children inside the actual stadium itself. But if there are fights, then naturally we have to diffuse them.”

Come kick off there has been no trouble at all. One Argentinian fan took a tumble in the excitement of it all, but there was no fight. The English fans, too, are too busy watching the game and yelling themselves hoarse to bother with any aggro. Takahashi, however, is at full alert. “We are prepared for trouble,” says Takahashi, eyeing the stands carefully. “I only hope that we don’t need to use our training today.”

Only yesterday, the girls were brushing up on some basic manoeuvres at the Sapporo police academy, a grim grey building on the outskirts of the city. They arrived in the morning kitted out in standard patrol gear – the blue uniform, peaked caps and proud crest – and emerged, 20 minutes later from their dressing rooms, as fully equipped stormtrooperettes. Body armour, hard knock helmets, steel toed boots, riot shield, tear gas cannisters, cuffs and baton. They assembled in clusters of three or four to face a gaggle of mock rioters – each one a male cop in mufti – who ran at them, one at a time, making silly yobbish noises and uncertainly wielding pieces of wood. One by one, each faux-insurgent lumbered into the girls’ riot shields, where he shoved a bit and generally made a racket. Then at the command of a megaphone at the sidelines, the shields parted and one of the three girls pegged him in the belly with a hand-held water gun leaving the ‘rioter’ writhing on the floor while the Lilac team whoop and high five.

“You see?” said one, giggling. “That’s how we deal with your hooligans!”

The water gun pincer move is but one manoeuvre the Lilac team has devised to incapacitate the Euro thug, or “large foreigner” as the paperwork has it. They have, of course, the ancient martial arts at their disposal, a full complement of throws, holds, punches and kicks. But their training takes in all kinds of new techniques, such as the net gun – like a throwback to Spartacus, it flings a small net over the approaching hooligan, supposedly tangling him up for an easy arrest. To continue the gladiatorial theme, there is also a kind of fork.

“Look, look,” said Takahashi excitedly pointing to the training ground. “We use the fork technique because hooligans are usually bigger than Japanese.” On cue, another faux lout staggered hopelessly toward a bunch of Lilac Squad members who promptly trapped him with what looked like a long tuning fork and flipped him onto the floor where he squirmed about dutifully. It’s a bizarre sight.

“Hopefully, these extreme measures won’t be necessary,” explained Takahashi, flashing an air hostess’ smile. “We hope that our other methods will prevent any trouble. Most of the time, we use ‘separation system’ to keep rival supporters apart.” ‘Separation system’, it turns out, involves warning people with a megaphone. “We tell them ‘your actions are illegal, if you continue you will be arrested.’ Things like that.”

Such cautionary notice sounds very hands-off, even timid, yet this is the way in Japan. Certainly the first impression of the Japanese police can be so tame as to be comical – in Tokyo, for example, raucous fans in the Roppongi district were greeted by police meekly holding up pink lollipop signs saying “please stop!” But Japan is a country in which veiled hostility is nothing less than an art and appearances are often deceptive. Just as much of the ceaseless bowing is insincere, as cordial as the warnings might sound and as gentle as the Lilac Squad look, their threat is very real. The Japanese are a law abiding people and there is little tolerance for those who cross the line. After arrest, the Japanese penal system has a 99% conviction rate. Sentencing is stiff and bargaining uncommon. Should Takahashi be forced to arrest a hooligan, then she could easily lock him up for three days without charge. In this way, the Lilac squad, are a quintessentially Japanese police force – a small unit of politeness, pliance and grace masking a merciless, unbending system.

As working Japanese women, however, the Lilac squad are certainly breaking new ground. “I know that the image of a traditional Japanese woman is very quiet and modest,” says Takahashi, propping up against her shield at half time. “But underneath this uniform, we’re just like all Japanese women, very normal, very traditional. I’m married, myself, to a businessman, so I do the chores at home, I cook and clean. I make a great bowl of ramen noodles! The others are mostly single and still live with their parents, so maybe they don’t cook like I do, but I’m sure they do their share of the housework.”

A giggly colleague at her side pipes up. “And when we go out, we wear makeup like everyone else you know. Just because we’re riot police doesn’t mean we don’t like to dress nicely and do our hair!” Takahashi laughs.

“Have you met Eri Mizuno?” she says. “She’s the toughest member of the team. She’s a world champion at kempo!” Eri blushes and bows. “Please don’t make me show anyone, not here,” she says. Yesterday at training, she was called to demonstrate her skills, and when she got flustered and shy, the girls all started clapping their hands and chanting “E-ri! E-ri!” She was embarrassed, but, oh all right then, she cleared a patch and performed some moves. A squat, chunky girl, encumbered by her riot gear, she nonetheless snapped out a sidekick about shoulder height to the gasps of her audience. “Show us a punch!” they called gleefully.

Inevitably Eri’s parents were less than pleased to hear that their daughter was joining the riot division. They would have sooner seen her join a regular corporation and get an office job. It’s the same for Takahashi – the sheer risk of the job is a chief factor, particularly with all this panic in the press about hooligans. “Yes, my mother is especially concerned,” nods Takahashi. “My husband says he’s not worried, but I’m not sure. He keeps telling me how proud he is that I’m in the Lilac Squad and that I’m providing security at such a huge national occasion, but then he asks me, maybe if I left the riot squad after the World Cup and applied for more quiet work!”

No chance. Ask Takahashi where she wants to be in five years time and she points bashfully at her boss’ desk – superintendent Masada, chief of riot police unit. She’s ranked assistant inspector now, and as such is the second highest ranking female police officer in the whole of Hokkaido. There has never been a female superintendent in the Japanese police force, a male bastion like all police forces, but Takahashi is undaunted. Having been a cop for 11 years, she is every inch the ambitious mouldbreaker.

“It’s not the money,” she says – she won’t say quite what she earns. “It’s the thrill of opening the door for more women. So far, like most other countries, the police is mostly male, but the female quotient is increasing, there are more and more women every year.”  Who knows after the World Cup, maybe the Lilac Squad will double in size!”

When Beckham’s goal goes in, however, and the crowd erupts, for the first time Takahashi and Eri seem on edge. Their cheery expressions harden and suddenly these small, fragrant women look terribly vulnerable. With the crowd at fever pitch, even 20 Lilac squad members – double the current number – would seem ineffectual. Isn’t it a danger to look like a soft touch? After all, which rampaging army of brick-hurling thugs will stop at a handful of slight, pretty girls with nice hair?

“I believe they will,” says Takahashi, “and if it comes to it, we can certainly defend ourselves.” She’s geeing herself up here, albeit with a concerned look on her face. “We don’t carry guns ourselves, but there is always an armed squadron, nearby. And it’s not just me and Eri here. There are 10 of us. We all train together, we support each other. We’re the Lilac Squad!”

As it turns out the match unfolds gloriously and without incident. Though built for battle, the Lilac Squad remain essentially untested – the only hooligans they have experienced are the limp pretenders of the training academy. The last time the Sapporo riot squad saw an actual riot was 30 years ago, according to a veteran cop, so since its inception, the Lilac squad, has been most busy helping rescue Japanese climbers who get lost in the mountains hunting for wild flowers and magic mushrooms (which were still legal in Japan until 6th June!) When the World Cup is over this will be their primary responsibility, along with providing security at Imperial visits and so on.

Back at the gates come full time, directing the streams of jubilant punters towards the station, the Lilac squad make an incongruous sight, as though plucked from the pages of a cartoon book, which are so popular among men here. Their fetish value is undeniable – yet another way in which the Lilac Squad is quintessentially Japanese. Perhaps the most ubiquitous fetish for Japanese men is the archetypical schoolgirl in her short skirt, tie loosened, chatting on her cellphone. You see her everywhere. And male cops are already a popular fetish in the gay community. The Lilac Squad seem to fall somewhere in between, something that cannot have escaped her bosses, probably the public and perhaps even the girls themselves.

“Well, if that is what they think, nobody says anything,” says Takahashi, blushing. “They don’t dare! But when we go out sometimes, men catcall. This is a very male dominated society and women have to put up with a lot of that sort of thing.”

“Yeah but when they find out we are policewomen, they soon shut up,” says Eri. She’s peeling off her armour after a hard day on her feet. “We’re going out tonight, actually, all 10 of us are going to karaoke!” She giggles. “Chihiro’s a good singer you know! She likes Mariah Carey!”

In but an hour, Takahashi and gang will have hung up their batons for the night and hit the town, daubed up in lipstick, teetering on stilettoes – it’s a Lilac squad ritual, karaoke, a team effort. Chances are they’ll go to a club in downtown Sapporo, just because it’s nearer, but on occasion they’ll visit Susukino, the throbbing bar district. Apart from karaoke, Susukino teems with hostess bars, “soap bars”, strip shows, massage parlours and no end of sweaty salarymen, half-cut on alcohol. It’s not the most obvious, or even the safest place for young women to be hanging out at nights, but their husbands, boyfriends and significant others need have nothing to worry about.

“We usually take our badges,” says Eri, conspiratorially. “But nothing ever happens, not really. Japan is a very safe country.” The streets are invariably safe, no matter how sleazy the neighbourhood. And yet again, the only concern is that, with so many jubilant England fans on the prowl, the celebrations might get a tad out of hand.

“I am sure they will be fine,” says Takahashi, leaving the police academy, dressed again in her regular blue police uniform. “The bars were shut tonight, so most of the fans have gone to bed…” She trails off, looking into the middle distance, somewhat preoccupied. How does it go again – Dreamlover come and rescue me…