J League Soccer is Back!

ByMark Guthrie
Mar 28, 2016

J League Soccer is Back!

6404970233_01b2391c1e_zWhile sumo and baseball are the undoubted kings of Japanese sport, there is mounting evidence to say that, amongst the younger generations, soccer (サッカー) is fast becoming a force to be reckoned with.

With the international women’s teams winning the World cup in 2011 and finishing runners up in 2015, and players such as Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki and Keisuke Honda becoming household names in the big European Leagues, the sport has increased in recent years, not only in international exploit, but also in the domestic league, the J League.

Perhaps to get a bit of a head start on baseball, the soccer season is all ready under way, and it’s shaping up to be a pretty exciting year.

History of soccer in Japan

Soccer, or Association Football, has a long history in Japan spanning back some 145 years. It is disputed as to whether it was begun by British ex-pats in Kobe or Royal Navy officers in Yokohama, but the first team to be founded was Tokyo Shukyu-dan in 1917, an amateur group that still plies its trade in the fifth level of the Japanese football system.

Four years after that first club came the first cup competition, the Emperor’s Cup. It was competed by just four teams, but it is now competed by all teams around the country, including those of universities and schools.

Aside from the cup competition, there were various attempts at creating a national league, but it wasn’t until 1965, spearheaded by a German, Otto Cramer (who would go on to guide the Japanese men’s team to a remarkable third place in the 1968 Mexico Olympics) that the Japan Soccer League was established. At this time most competition took place between university teams and corporation teams, but it was the latter that would go on to take advantage of the new league.

Initially these company teams were formed to encourage a cross-company unity  between coworkers as well as creating brand awareness, but soon company employees were eschewed for professional soccer players given defacto positions of employment so as to qualify. Though the league started as only eight teams, a second division was created with promotion and relegation possible in 1972.

Despite this growth fans were reluctant to be drawn to ramshackle stadiums, and the league dwindled, not truly coming into life until the introduction of the J League.

The J League

The brainchild and driving force of the J League was undoubtably Saburo Kawabuchi. As a one time National team manager, Kawabuchi held a long term dream of seeing a fully-professional domestic league with which to improve the national side (the JSL and its previous incarnations were amateur). This came to fruition in the guise of The J League in 1993.

Eight teams were chosen from JSL first division, one from the second and a newly promoted team to compete in the new league, and officially kicked-off on May 15, 1993 as Verdy Kawasaki hosted Yokohama Marinos  at the Kasumigaoka National Stadium with Yokohama coming back from a goal down to win 2-1.

Initially the J League was a massive success, with superstars from the international footballing community joining the Japanese clubs including Gary Lineker at Nagoya Grampus and one of the world’s greatest ever players, Zico, joining Kashima Antlers. Unfortunately this boom was short-lived and attendances fell into decline. However following a restructuring of the league to create a second decision (J2) and renewed enthusiasm due to the national team qualifying for the France ’98 World Cup, the league once again grew in stature, something recognised by Japan playing joint hosts alongside South Korea for the 2002 World Cup.

Since then the Japanese league has risen to become a powerhouse in Asian football. Its teams regularly win the Asian Federation Confederation Champions League, and it is also the only Asian League to receive a top class ‘A’ ranking by the AFC.

Teams to look for

There is a good chance that you don’t know much about the various teams that compete in the J-League, so here as a brief introduction to some of the biggest movers and shakers.

Kashima Antlers

  • Location: Kashima
  • Stadium: Kashima Soccer Stadium, capacity 40,728
  • Founded: 1947
  • What you need to know: Despite having not expected to be part of the new J League, Kashima have proved by far Japan’s most successful club team,in the modern era having won the title a record seven times, the J. League Cup a record six times and the Emperor’s Cup four times for an unrivaled total of seventeen major domestic titles.

Nagoya Grampus

  • Location: Toyota and Nagoya
  • Stadium: Toyota Stadium, 45,000 capacity
  • Founded: 1939
  • What you need to know: One of only three teams to have remained in the J-League 1 since its inception, Grampus have been home to footballing legends like Gary Lineker, Arsene Wenger and most recently Dragan Stojkovic, the latter bringing them their most recent silverware in 2011.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima

  • Location: Hiroshima
  • Stadium: Hiroshima Big Arch, capacity 50,000
  • Founded: 1938
  • What you need to know: In one of their earlier incarnations, Sanfrecce were the inaugural winners of the JSL in 1965, also completing the first double by taking theEmperor’s Cup and going the entire season undefeated. In recent years they have become a league powerhouse, winning the J-1 League in 2008, 2012, 2013 and are current champions.

Urawa Red Diamonds

  • Location: Saitama
  • Stadium: Saitama Stadium 2002, capacity 63,700
  • Founded: 1950
  • What you need to know: In 1978 they were the first Japanese club to complete a domestic treble, when they won the title, the Emperor’s Cup and the Japan Soccer League Cup. Success had been sporadic since then, but in the 2000’s they won a spate of cups, including the AFC cup, and the J-League. In 2014 they faced international notoriety when their fans unfurled a banner reading Japanese Only.

Gamba Osaka

  • Location: Suita, Osaka
  • Stadium: Suita City Football Stadium, capacity 39,694
  • Founded: 1980
  • What you need to know: Gamba Osaka is currently the second-most successful J. League club, having won eight domestic titles as well as the 2008 AFC Champion’s League, and the treble in 2014. By far their most pouler player is Yasuhito Endo who has 152 caps for the Japanese national team.

By Mark Guthrie

Image: flickr.com "Shot on goal" by Jeff Boyd (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) – Modified

About the author

Mark Guthrie editor

Novelist, copywriter and graduate from the most prestigious university in Sunderland, Mark whiles away his precious time on this Earth by writing about popular culture, travel, food and pretty much anything else that is likely to win him the Pulitzer he desperately craves. Find some more of his musings at www.markguthriewrites.com and on instagram @markguthriewrites