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Cheer, Chant, Clean: Japan Takes Out the Trash, and Others Get the Hint

AL RAYYAN, Qatar — The final whistle blew on Sunday afternoon, and the Japanese fans who had just spent hours bouncing under a blistering midday sun allowed themselves a moment to wallow in the disappointment of their team’s 1-0 loss to Costa Rica.

But the moment quickly passed, and out came the blue trash bags.

In the return of a postgame ritual that is being met with widespread astonishment at this year’s World Cup, a group of Japanese spectators, who only moments earlier had been deliriously singing for their team, began meticulously cleaning the stands at Ahmed bin Ali Stadium, picking up trash scattered across the rows of seats around them.

It hardly mattered what it was — half-empty bottles of soda, orange peels, dirty napkins — or who had left it behind. The fans went across the aisles shuffling the litter into bags before handing them to smiling — and clearly delighted — stadium workers on their way out.

“It’s a sign of respect for a place,” said Eiji Hattori, 32, a fan from Tokyo, who had a bag of bottles, ticket stubs and other stadium detritus. “This place is not ours, so we should clean up if we use it. And even if it is not our garbage, it’s still dirty, so we should clean it up.”

The image of spectators calmly assuming janitorial duties during the World Cup has charmed observers from other countries, like the United States, where slaloming around sticky soda spills, toppled bags of popcorn and mini mountains of peanut shells is often accepted as part of the normal sports stadium experience.

But in Japan, tidiness, particularly in public spaces, is widely accepted as a virtue. Japanese people at the game said such habits were taught at home and reinforced at schools, where students from a young age are expected to clean up their classrooms and school facilities on a regular basis.

The cleaning of shared areas, like stadiums, becomes something of an individual responsibility, and there are often not armies of workers hired to do it.

A Brief Guide to the 2022 World Cup

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What is the World Cup? The quadrennial event pits the best national soccer teams against each other for the title of world champion. Here’s a primer to the 2022 men’s tournament:

Where is it being held? This year’s host is Qatar, which in 2010 beat the United States and Japan to win the right to hold the tournament. Whether that was an honest competition remains in dispute.

When is it? The tournament opened on Nov. 20, when Qatar played Ecuador. Over the two weeks that follow, four games will be played on most days. The tournament ends with the final on Dec. 18.

Is a winter World Cup normal? No. The World Cup usually takes place in July. But in 2015, FIFA concluded that the summer temperatures in Qatar might have unpleasant consequences and agreed to move the tournament to the relatively bearable months of November and December.

How many teams are competing? Thirty-two. Qatar qualified automatically as the host, and after years of matches, the other 31 teams earned the right to come and play. Meet the teams here.

How does the tournament work? The 32 teams are divided into eight groups of four. In the opening stage, each team plays all the other teams in its group once. The top two finishers in each group advance to the round of 16. After that, the World Cup is a straight knockout tournament.

How can I watch the World Cup in the U.S.? The tournament will be broadcast on Fox and FS1 in English, and on Telemundo in Spanish. You can livestream it on Peacock, or on streaming services that carry Fox and FS1. Here’s how to watch every match.

When will the games take place? Qatar is three hours ahead of London, eight hours ahead of New York and 11 hours ahead of Los Angeles. That means there will be predawn kickoffs on the East Coast of the United States for some games, and midafternoon starts for 10 p.m. games in Qatar.

Got more questions? We’ve got more answers here.

“For Japanese people, this is just a normal thing to do,” said Hajime Moriyasu, the coach of the Japanese team. “When you leave a place, you have to leave it cleaner than it was before.”

Videos and pictures of the Japanese cleaning sessions have gone viral on social media. But it is not just fans who are sharing them: Last week, FIFA posted a picture of the Japanese team’s locker room after its enormous upset victory over Germany. The room was — you guessed it — spotless.

Fans from other teams, inspired by the Japanese, have started cleaning up after games, too.

“We believe we can make this contagious,” said Tomomi Kishikawa, 28, a fan from Tokyo currently working as a flight attendant based in Doha. “We don’t need to push anyone to clean. But if we start, maybe we can be a good example of respect.”

For Japanese fans, the sudden global spotlight and outpouring of appreciation has been met with a mixture of pride, amusement and embarrassment.

Many have glowed in the positive depictions of the country’s culture. Some are confused about what the fuss is about. And others have felt pangs of discomfort, wondering if this was yet another instance where a specific behavior was being held up as representative of the entire populace of Japan.

The number of Japanese fans cleaning up after matches has been small, but the impression they have left has resonated around the world.Credit…Tasneem Alsultan for The New York Times

Several fans at the stadium on Sunday, for instance, tried to clarify one thing that may have been muddled in all the fawning viral posts and press coverage: While most Japanese people are conscientious about throwing out their own trash, only a small group of fans at this World Cup has been walking around picking up other people’s garbage.

The Japanese Football Association on Sunday passed out hundreds of blue plastic bags that had the phrase “Thank You” written in English, Japanese and Arabic, but only a few dozen fans — out of the thousands present — joined the broader effort.

“We were actually invited to clean up, but we didn’t want to,” said Nagisa Amano, 23, a fan from Yokohama. “We just wanted to enjoy the stadium. We have a right to do that, I think.”

Amano said she had heard of instances in Japan in which stadium workers had been forced to reopen garbage bags packed by overzealous fans in order to separate materials for recycling. She wondered if Japanese fans in Qatar might inadvertently interfere with similar efforts.

She said the hoopla over the fans’ conspicuous cleanliness was probably good for Japan’s image abroad, but wondered if their motivations were entirely pure.

“I heard some people are joining that group to clean up just to enjoy being in the spotlight,” she said.

Credit…Tasneem Alsultan for The New York Times

In a tweet shared widely after the Germany game, Yoichi Masuzoe, a former governor of Tokyo, suggested that Japanese travelers needed to be more aware of the local culture and customs and respect the fact that there were already people hired to clean the stadiums.

“Japanese civilization is not the only world,” Masuzoe wrote.

The cleaning, however, seems to be appreciated in Qatar. After Japan’s win last week over Germany, a stadium staff member led a group of workers and volunteers over to the fans tidying up the stands and thanked them through a bullhorn.

On Sunday, Jaziba Zaghloul, 18, a volunteer from Beirut, was zipping across a seating row holding her own blue trash bag.

“It’s not my job, but I feel a responsibility,” said Zaghloul, who noticed that fans from Morocco and Saudi Arabia had followed the Japanese fans’ example and cleaned up after games. “There’s a sense of community when you see people care. It’s a snowball effect.”

Hikari Hida contributed reporting.

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