It seems as if Japan has been playing football all its life. The reality is that organized football is barely more than a decade old in that country. Japan qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 1998 and then had a breakout year in 2002 when it co-hosted the World Cup with South Korea. They qualified again in 2006. Japan is also the present Asian Cup champion having two titles in a row in 2000 and 2004.
Japan’s football revolution has been remarkable considering the only other honour they have had is a long forgotten bronze medal in the Mexico Olympics in 1968. Tied inextricably to their intenrational success is the development of their national league or the J-League. The league was started in 1996 and in these 10 years the J-league, is seeing record attendances averaging 20,000 and over. There are 18 teams with fun names like Kashima Antlers, Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Kyoto Purple Sanga, and Kawasaki Frontale. International stars like Hidetoshi Nakata, Shinji Ono, Shunsuke Nakamura, and Koji Nakata who play for European clubs got their start in the J-League and form the backbone of a Japanese national team that is seeing so much success.
The J-League was the brainchild of a Saburo Kawabuchi, a player in the 1960’s national team who never forgot a training tour to Germany. As Sebastian Moffet in a history on Japanese football called Japanese Rules, puts it, Kawabuchi was amazed at how deeply the game was entwined with German communities. Parents coached their children’s team, played in adult league games after work, and on weekends, generation of families would head off to the stadium or the nearest TV to watch professional matches. In Germany, football was considered recreation, youth development, and entertainment and was steeped in the way of life. In Japan, sport was being part of being a corporate drone. In Germany, it was part of being a human being.
The years of effort by Saburo Kawabuchi and Kenji Mori, the then JFA president who first proposed the idea of a fully professional league in 1987, finally paid of. On May 15, 1993, the very first J League match in history kicked off in front of a crowd of 59,626 at Tokyo’s National Stadium. The opening match was played between Verdy Kawasaki (formerly Yomiuri Verdy FC) and Yokohama Marinos (formerly Nissan Motor FC).
In a quintessentially Japanese endeavour, Kawabuchi with his special committees undertook quite an impressive tour of the world studying what made sports successful in other countries. Jim Frederick in his article on Japan (The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup, Harper Perennial, 2006) writes ” From Europe and South America the basic league structure was incorporated. From the International Olympic Committee they learned how to develop corporate sponsorships. From the American football and basketball leagues they learned marketing, television licensing, clothing sales, and other team merchandizing. Following the fashions of the times, most people adopted either a Brazilian style of play or German one.” And in what can be the model that the MLS is trying to follow with Youri Djorkaeff a decade ago and Beckham now, the J League also imported legendary players a few years past their peak, Brazil’s Zico, Germany’s Pierre Littbarski, and England’s Gary Lineker.
The revolution that Saburo Kawabuchi brought to his country is eclipsing that of baseball, Japan’s most popular sport. Nowadays, baseball is on the wane, with declining attendances. Football is providing Japan with an outlet to shake off its perception as a rigid, strait laced country with legions of excited football fans across the country who come to watch their clubs play, with their faces painted in club colours, singing and chanting, and beating drums.
Last year, the AFC awarded the Diamond of Asia to Saburo Kawabuchi for his yeoman service to the development of the game with the J League well on its way to being considered as one of the top ten football associations of the world.