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