World Cup: Support for Women’s Soccer Lags in Japan
The head of Japan’s professional female football league said support for women’s sports still lags behind other countries, even as global interest is rising.
Haruna Takata, who chairs the two-year-old WE League, came into the spotlight recently when she floated an idea to start a crowdfunding campaign to fund the broadcast rights to avoid a TV blackout for the upcoming Women’s World Cup.
Public broadcaster NHK stepped in at the last minute to air the tournament, set to start in Australia and New Zealand on July 20. Takata said the saga helped raise awareness of the problems facing women’s football in Japan.
Even though Japan won the title in 2011, media portrayals of female athletes in Japan don’t help, said Takata, who is also vice president at the Japan Football Association and was formerly the president of second-tier men’s league club V-Varen Nagasaki.
Read More: A Viral French Ad Shows How Women’s Soccer Can Be Just as Exciting as Men’s
“In Japan the tendency is particularly strong to focus on the visual appeal and cuteness of female sports players,” she said. “No matter how much football’s competitiveness improves, it’s hard to get people to feel interested in that aspect of it.”
“I think that people around the world are not really aware of the extent to which the gender gap index in Japan is reflected in the current issues surrounding women’s sports in Japan,” said Takata. “I think it is amazing that every country is so far ahead of the times in terms of the gender gap.”
Japan ranks 116th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, and is the only Group of Seven country outside of the top 100.
Read More: Japan Sends Male Minister to Lead G7 Meeting on Women’s Empowerment
“If Japanese society didn’t have such a big gender gap, and if it were more enlightened about women, I think women’s football would also be more accessible for viewing,” said Takata.
The 2011 win for the Nadeshiko, as the team is known, was particularly significant as it came just months after the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan’s northeast.
“They were determined to give courage to the people of Japan by doing their best after the Great East Japan Earthquake,” said Takata.
The team came second after losing to the U.S. in 2015. However, momentum behind women’s football in Japan has stalled in the years since, even as global interest in women’s sport accelerates. Ticket sales for the Women’s World Cup already hit a record 1.25 million, while viewership and the number of sponsors have reached new heights in recent years.
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“I wish we had seized the opportunity when we won the World Cup, and invested more in the business side of it,” said Takata, who assumed the position at the women’s league last year.
Still, vast inequities remain in salaries and prize money, which are ultimately dependent on the ability of women’s sport to generate TV revenue.
Japanese broadcasters had shown previous Women’s World Cup tournaments, but this year is the first time the rights are being sold independently and not bundled with the men’s event. European broadcasters had also initially been reluctant to pay for TV rights, putting in bids as low as less than 1% of the winning bid for last year’s Qatar World Cup. A European broadcast deal was finally reached in mid-June.
Japanese online platform Abema streamed the Qatar World Cup in November for free, with the national team’s unexpected progress out of the group stage pushing the service to have to restrict access due to overwhelming demand.
The Nadeshiko will play their first match against Zambia on July 22 in New Zealand. The U.S., who are aiming to win their third straight championship and fifth title overall, are the favorites.
Read More: Megan Rapinoe Fights for Equality—and a Third World Cup Title
Whether or not Japan repeat their 2011 success, Takata said she believes it’s still important to seize the opportunity to raise the value of women’s football overall with players becoming inspirations for young women.
“I believe that if we can pave the way, we can definitely have an impact on other women’s sports,” she said.
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Soccer in Japan
Soccer is one of the most popular sports in Japan. People of all ages and both genders play soccer and futsal. The Japanese national soccer teams are currently among the highest ranked Asian teams in the world. The men’s national team is nicknamed the “Samurai Blue” after their jersey’s color, and the women’s national team is known as “Nadeshiko Japan” after a flower that is related to the image of the ideal Japanese woman. The women’s team won the 2011 World Cup as the first Asian team ever.
Competitive soccer in Japan is organized into a pyramidal system similar to that in many European leagues. At the top of the hierarchy is the professional level called the J.League. Next is the semi-professional level called the Japan Football League, followed by regional and then by prefectural leagues.
The J.League was started in 1993 and it is currently comprised of three divisions – J. League Division 1 (J1), J. League Division 2 (J2) and J. League Division 3 (J3). Being a relatively young league, the number of teams in the J.League has been changing since its inception, with each division having around one to two dozen teams. At the end of each season, the bottom teams get relegated, while the top teams get promoted.
Several thousand teams from the professional to the high school level, furthermore, participate in an annual knockout tournament, The Emperor’s Cup. The final game of the cup is held every year on January 1.
How to watch a J.League game
The J.League season starts in early March and ends in early December. J1 matches are typically held on Saturdays afternoons, although most matches are played in the evenings during summer. You can check the match schedules and purchase tickets at the official J.League website. Tickets cost typically 2000 to 7000 yen and can also be obtained over the counter on the matchday itself or purchased in advance at the clubs’ official stores or convenience stores (some Japanese skills required).
J.League matches can also be watched on television; although they are generally aired only on paid TV channels or subscription streaming services.
Questions? Ask in our forum.
Japan Football Association
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The best Japanese football players – the top players in Japan
Japanese football was a mystery for some time, hardworking talents periodically appeared from there, who declared themselves, but did not make a general idea of the level of Japanese sports. However, among the football performers from Japan, there were also bright talents. Moreover, at the European club level, they literally shone.
1 Takefusa Kubo
Barcelona is a club of world-class influence. It is difficult to imagine how the Spanish breeders managed to see this football player in the modest Japanese club Persimmon. True, it did not work out right away to take possession of this talent: FIFA restrictions on age interfered.
But a little later, the player signed a contract with Real Madrid. However, he did not stay here yet, going on loan to the Villarreal club.
Watch this video on YouTube
2 Shinji Kagawa
A well-known midfielder who was first noticed by Borussia Dortmund. There he performed quite brightly for two seasons, after which he moved to Manchester United at the personal insistence of Alex Fergusson.
In the English championship, he won the national championship, but did not stay long and returned to the Bundesliga again. However, this time the midfielder’s game began to fade gradually. Soon he went to Besiktas, and now he plays for Real Madrid. Only not from Madrid, but from Zaragoza.
3 Yuji Nakazawa
The path of this defender to big football, who became the captain of the national team, was geographically complex. To gain playing wisdom, he had to go to the Brazilian championship. There, for some time he played for the team “Americo” from the state of Mineiro.
The club obviously didn’t have enough stars from the sky, but it gave decent professional training. Nakazawa has clearly improved not only in technique, but also in the ability to choose a position on the football field. As a result, he is now one of the best defenders in the Japanese championship.
4 Shinji Okazaki
This football player is one of the best scorers of the national team, he played in the Bundesliga and the Spanish championship. But he managed to achieve the greatest success in the English championship, when he sensationally won gold medals with the little-known club Leicester City.
Many football players of the champion squad then moved to star clubs, but Okazaki chose Malaga from the second league, and very unsuccessfully. For this Spanish club, he did not play a single match, as he could not be declared due to financial restrictions. Now he also plays for the Spanish club Huesca, which for the first time in its history managed to break into the Example.
5 Takumi Minamino
A midfielder who also managed to win English championship gold medals. But before that, as part of the Red Bull team, he won the Austrian championship five times.
Already scored 81 goals in 280 matches during his club career. Over the course of five years, he scored 11 goals for the national team, one of them in the final of the last Asian Cup. True, the Japanese team then still lost to Qatar with a score of 1:3 and won silver medals.
Watch this video on YouTube
6 Kazuyoshi Miura
This football player also went to Brazil to study football, and he did very well there: for his magnificent goals, he was nicknamed Emperor Kazu there. In fact, he became the first bright star of Japanese football. True, later he did not shine either in Dinamo Zagreb or in Genoa. But, regularly returning to Japan, every time he turned out to be the idol of the fans.
At forty-five years old, he still continued to play for Yokohama, which is an age record for the local championship.
7 Keisuke Honda
Another such player. probably not in the world – he is both a player in the Brazilian club Botofago and the coach of the Cambodian national team. Moreover, this has happened since the time when he played in the Australian Championship.
And he declared himself in a rather modest Dutch club “Venlo”, which he literally pulled into the top league of the national championship. The player attracted the attention of many eminent clubs, but unexpectedly the transfer battle was won by CSKA Moscow, for which Honda played very brightly and left only for Milan.
8 Shunsuke Nakamura
This talented player was said to be able to do everything with his left foot, even open cans. Many experts still believe that it was not and is not more accurate for left-handed strikes in football.
This gifted footballer achieved his greatest success in Scotland, winning the national championship with Celtic. Admired his game in the Champions League.
9 Shinji Ono
The midfielder showed himself at the age of 13, when he was taken to the youth team of the country, where mostly sixteen-year-olds played. In the adult national team of Japan, he also made his debut early – at the age of 18.
Wins the UEFA Cup with Dutch Feyenoord. Participated in three world championships.
10 Hidetoshi Nakata
At the World Championships in France, Nakata dyed his hair red. so that European breeders pay attention to it. The trick worked – he was invited to the Italian championship. There, after some time, he got into the star Roma under the leadership of Fabio Capello.
The footballer has repeatedly confessed. that watching football does not like and does not understand the fans. But he himself possessed beautiful dribbling, it was on him that the audience went. He stopped playing at 29 because, as he put it, he was physically tired.
How Japan will win the World Cup before 2050, the development of football in Japan
Giant progress in the past 30 years.
“Nothing is a miracle,” is how Japan’s central television and radio company NHK reacted on social networks to the victory over Germany (2:1).
After a 2-1 victory over Spain, midfielder Ritsu Doan, who launched both comebacks after substitute appearances, added: “I think people in Japan have now realized that winning the first round was an inevitability, not a miracle. We haven’t changed history yet, but we’ve crossed a big hurdle. We fought a lot together to achieve this result.”
Ao Tanaka, scorer of the winning goal against the Spaniards, agrees: “Everyone says ‘surprise’ or ‘miracle’, but we don’t think about it because we did it ourselves. I wasn’t surprised.”
Breaking into the playoffs from a group with two world champions, and even from the first place, is still called the Japanese miracle all over the world. But the position of Doan and Tanaka is understandable – this is not just an accident or luck, local football went to this success for a long time, patiently and purposefully.
Never Forget Doha. Qatar-1993 – Maribor of the Japanese, after which the country did not miss a single World Cup
The current confidence of the Japanese team is largely due to the 54-year-old coach Hajime Moriyasu, who even before the start of the tournament said that their minimum goal was the quarter-finals in order to update the best result of Japan.
He was not embarrassed either by the presence of the Spaniards in the group with the Germans, or the established tradition with alternating Japanese appearances in the playoffs of the World Cup:
1998: did not leave the group
2002: 1/8 finals
200 6: Did not qualify from the group
2010: Round of 16
2014: Did not qualify from the group
2018: Round of 16
The first step is taken – in Qatar, the team made it to the play-offs for the first time at the second World Cup in a row. Moreover, Moriyasu is involved in both tournaments. The ex-coach of the Japanese Olympic team came to the main team just in 2018 – to help Akira Nishino at the World Cup in Russia. There, the only team from the Asian teams reached the playoffs, but after the tournament, Nishino resigned, and Moriyasu took his place. Under him, the Japanese have already reached the final of the 2019 Asian Cup, where they lost to the hosts of the tournament – Qatar (1:3).
In general, Doha is a symbolic place for Moriyasu. This story has been going on since October 1993, when Japan dramatically failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.
Before the decisive qualifying round, which took place in Qatar, the Japanese were leading the group. In the match with Iraq, they were satisfied with a victory, and in some cases even a draw. In the 80th minute, Japan took the lead 2:1 – and as close as possible to the first World Cup in history. But in the 91st minute, the Iraqis played a corner and unexpectedly leveled the score. From misfortune, the Japanese immediately fell on the field, and after the final whistle they sobbed for a long time.
In parallel matches, South Korea and Saudi Arabia won, at the very last moment taking away a ticket to the World Cup from Japan. For the Japanese, this draw is as traumatic as Filimonov-1999 or Maribor-2009 for the Russians.
If the Koreans call that match “The Miracle in Doha” (they got to the World Cup only due to the better goal difference), then the Japanese call it “The Tragedy in Doha” or “The Agony in Doha”. The phrase “Never forget Doha” has become a part of the country’s sports culture, warning that no one should be underestimated.
The event has taken hold in pop culture:
• In the manga and anime series Space Brothers, the protagonist’s date of birth is October 28, 1993. This is the day of that very game – and it is on this date that the character likes to explain all his failures.
• The phrase “Agony Doha” in the anime film “Eureka 7” refers to a secret military experiment that ended tragically.
Midfielder Hajime Moriyasu played a key role in the outcome of that match – he spent the whole game on the field and could not prevent the Iraqis from equalizing. In December 2018, the Japan Football Federation published in the newspaper a letter from the national team coach, written to himself in his youth.
In it, Moriyasu reimagined the events of 1993:
“To you, whose dream was shattered that day,
35 caps and one goal – my numbers are not impressive, but every game helped me grow. And each was fraught with disappointment.
My first appearance for the national team happened in May 1992. I was still nobody, we played with Argentina and lost on all counts. It was disappointing. As a player, I didn’t want it to end like this. I wanted to do everything to reduce this class difference. I wanted Japan to be able to compete with the best in the world. No, I wanted to be even better. I lost and found a dream. She became everything and turned into an obsession. After overcoming so many difficulties, I reached the door to the world, but the dream ruthlessly collapsed.
October 1993 Doha, Qatar. At the 90th minute, the ball flew past my head, the opponent hit and, like in slowmo, the ball flew into the net. All I could do was follow the ball with my eyes. After that, I don’t remember much. Did we say goodbye right? Who did I talk to? How did you get back to the hotel? When I came to, I found myself sobbing on the veranda of the hotel. I lamented so much, I blamed myself so many times. And this is what I realized in the middle of the biggest failure in life – you have nothing if you do not win. You don’t get anything.
25 years later, I’m in charge of the Japanese national team. Our challenge continues to make the dream I left halfway a reality. And fate again leads us to this place – to Qatar.
Finally, I want to say a few words to those whose dream was also shattered that day. Make Japan stronger and conquer the world. We’ve shed enough tears of regret.”
“Agony in Doha” divided the history of the Japanese team into before and after. Dutch coach Hans Oft was immediately fired, a number of players ended their careers in the national team, and the long-awaited World Cup at 19In 1998, only two players from the squad that played against Iraq in Doha went.
Japan hasn’t missed a single World Cup since then. All this is the result of reforms, the belief in which only strengthened after Doha. Just in 1993, the era of professional football began in Japan.
J-League – Asian Premier League. In 30 years, the Japanese created a pyramid of 60 professional clubs throughout the country (the goal is 100 such clubs)
Football appeared in Japan at the end of the 19th century, but for a long time was inferior in popularity not only to baseball, but also to sumo. The first championships were held more than 100 years ago, but the league that united the whole country was created only 19 years ago. 65th. This is the Japanese Soccer League (JSL), where the teams were owned by companies and played by amateurs who played football in their free time. Clubs known to us by the names of world-famous companies became champions in that league: Mitsubishi, Hitachi, Nissan, Yamaha.
The emergence of the J-League in 1993, Japan’s first professional championship, was a revolution. The third economy in the world and the population of 125 million disposed to build a commercially successful product.
It all started loudly: Zico and Gary Lineker arrived in Japan to finish the game, attendance soared to 20 thousand, but the increased interest in football was quickly beaten by the Asian crisis and the subsequent slowdown in the Japanese economy.
Something similar happened recently, when stars like Iniesta, Villa, Torres and Podolski re-entered the league after a long break, the average attendance exceeded 20 thousand, but now the pandemic has stopped the rise.
Still, the J-League, billed as the Asian Premier League, looks attractive in the region. For example, it is very popular in Thailand. In 2017, the league signed a 12-year, $2.1 billion contract with international streaming service DAZN. From the 2002 World Cup at home, Japan inherited the infrastructure that helps to attract spectators both to the stadiums and to the screen.
In 1993, the J-League struggled to gather 10 professional clubs, and now the country has 60 such teams, covering 41 of the country’s 47 prefectures. This is what helped the Japanese hope for success both in club football (the club World Cup final and three 3rd places) and at the national team level.
But this is only part of the journey. The Japan Football Association has developed a long-term strategy for 100 years, according to which in 2092 there should be 100 professional teams in the country. And in 2005, the federation presented a plan according to which the Japanese team should become the world champion by 2050.
Coach Moriyasu said the same thing recently: “Spain and Germany were world champions. Japan is also aiming to become world champion by 2050.”
It sounds ambitious, but the Japanese know how to solve the tasks. Thai coach Witthaya Laohakul, who worked in the J-League in the early 90s, described how the Japanese wanted to get to the first World Cup: “During the 1990 World Cup in Italy, the Japan Football Association sent league coaches (two people from each team) to Italy to analyze the matches. After returning, we developed a plan to achieve the goal of reaching the World Cup.”
Here is an example of women’s football, where progress can be seen more quickly. At the first World Cup in 1991, the Japanese lost all matches in the group with a total goal difference of 0:12 and took last place. And already in 2011, they became world champions, defeating the formidable Americans in the final. At the next World Cup in 2015, Japan was stopped only in the final – the same Americans.
The Japanese understand that it is important for the development of football that clubs and academies cover the entire territory of the country as much as possible. Now the J-League already manages three professional divisions – 18 clubs play in the highest (from 2024 – 20). Next comes the semi-professional fourth division and below it are many regional amateur leagues.
Columnist Devon Rowcliffe (author of a book about football in South Korea) writes that in terms of multi-stage and development, the Japanese club pyramid is now inferior, perhaps only to the English one. For example, the Chiamo Hirakata club has taken off from the 11th division to the 4th in 18 years since its inception. Iwaki made an even sharper jump – in 2014 he played in the 9th league, and 2023 will start in the 2nd.
In order for a club to move from the fourth division to the professional third, it must enlist the support of the city and refuse to associate with the sponsoring company. But not everyone is ready for such sacrifices. British journalist Chris Hough , one of the main guides in Japanese football, , in an interview with Sports. ru told the following story:
“There is a club in the fourth division called Honda, which is owned by Honda. They have a very good team, I would say that this is generally one of the best teams in Japan. But they can’t get promoted to the third division because J-League clubs don’t have the right to be named after companies. That is, they need to throw out the word Honda and name themselves after Hamamatsu, the city in which they are based. But Honda doesn’t want to do this, so they continue to play in the fourth division and win it almost every year, because they are head and shoulders above everyone else. Moreover, in the Emperor’s Cup they constantly beat teams from the major leagues, every single year.
There are more Japanese players in the Bundesliga than in the J-League. The Japanese are attracted by their discipline and desire to learn
When there was only an amateur championship in Japan until the early 90s, rare professionals went abroad – the first such was Yasuhiro Okudera, who signed a contract with Cologne in 1977 and immediately won the German championship. Japan has a long association with German football.
Back then it was hard to imagine that in 2022 19 out of 26 players will come to the World Cup from European clubs. And three of those seven J-League players have already played in Europe, and Huddersfield’s Yuta Nakayama was injured at the last moment (he was replaced in the application for a player from the championship of Japan). The Bundesliga has delegated more players to the national team (8) than the J-League (7). Therefore, the players did not experience any trepidation when they came out against Neuer and Muller.
The movement to the west turned out to be gradual. Japan came to the first World Cup in 1998 with a completely home team, in 2002 there were already 4 legionnaires in the application, in 2006 – 6, and a real breakthrough happened in 2014 -12. For the 2018 World Cup, 14 players have already arrived from European clubs, plus Keisuke Honda from the Mexican Pachuca.
There are several reasons for the Japanese invasion of Europe.
1. Incredible desire for knowledge. When Zico came to Japan in the early 1990s and pointed out mistakes to his partners, the Japanese diligently wrote down his words for introspection. “Minutes before the next match, they took out these notes and reviewed them as if they were preparing for a test,” wrote Sebastian Moffett, author of The Japanese Rules.
Even after defeating Germany at the World Cup, coach Moriyasu thanked his opponent for the lesson: “Many Germans and many brilliant players and coaches have contributed and helped Japanese football. Japan has won today. Nevertheless, Japan wants to continue learning from Germany and the rest of the world. This is our plan for the future.
We believe that foreign leagues have contributed to the development of the abilities of our players, so we are very grateful and respect this. But regardless of the opponent, we strive to win.”
2. Mentality. Moriyasu noted the desire to win, but this was not always the case. Japanese football, which developed out of corporate leagues, was initially accused of lacking this aspiration. The same Zico was very angry that the players calmly had fun after the defeats and did not consider this a reason for frustration. The Brazilian asked the translator to raise his voice after him in order to change the attitude of the players to victories and defeats.
Another difficulty with mentality is respect for age. For a long time, a young player could not break into the base just because there is an older player in the squad. Therefore, no one was in a hurry – many took a break in their careers and graduated from universities. So, by the way, did Kaoru Mitoma from Brighton, who turned professional only at the age of 22 after studying at the university.
“To be honest, at that time I didn’t have the confidence that I would become a professional,” said Mitoma. – I saw Miyoshi and Itakura, who played in a team a year older than me, and did not feel confident playing at the highest level. Because of that, when thinking about the future, I thought it would be better to go to the University of Tsukuba.”
But Mitoma is only a few months younger than Miyoshi and Itakura. In the end, everything turned out well – everyone plays in Europe, and Mitoma and Itakura at the World Championships.
But in previous years, everything could have turned out differently – money helped break the tradition of ignoring young people. If earlier European clubs bought 25-26-year-old Japanese, now they are looking for more and more young players. Now Japanese clubs have seen the youth as an opportunity for growth, and the league has launched the 2030 Vision DNA Project, which aims to help develop young players and coaches.
Former J-League President Mitsuru Murai actively encouraged players to leave for Europe, hoping that one day they would return and enrich the league with experience. Here we return to the fact that the Japanese are turned to study.
“Good quality,” says Richard Allen, CEO of Yokohama. “It’s a double-edged sword – you want your best players to travel and play in Europe, but ultimately it has an impact on the league as well.”
In 2016, Japanese football officials went on a tour of Europe to learn from the best academies. Among them was West Ham, with whom the Japanese established close relations. And soon the boss of the London academy, Terry Westley, was offered the position of technical director of the J-League. And he agreed.
“Mentality is the number one reason,” Westley tells The Athletic about what attracts European clubs to Japanese players. “You get a player who wants to progress. If a young Japanese player is told to work, he will never get tired of it.
In Japan, we told the clubs from the very beginning that you can put a 17-year-old player in the starting lineup, that was unusual here. Now young players are already debuting at a younger age. Clubs are beginning to realize that there is a great return on investment in this.”