Curing the “Samurai Blues”: Bringing a Great Wave of Improvement to Japan’s Soccer


A Team That Has Lost its Way

At the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, Japan’s men reached the last 16 by playing defensive soccer. But at the 2014 tournament in Brazil, while aiming for a more attacking style, the team crashed out at the group stage after one draw and two losses.

Japan head coach Javier Aguirre, October 2014. (© Jiji Press)

The man chosen to succeed Japan’s outgoing Italian manager Alberto Zaccheroni was the seasoned Mexican coach Javier Aguirre. The first matches under Aguirre marked a fresh start on the road to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but the team seems to have lost sight of the correct course. Japan’s players, while technically gifted and well organized, are sorely lacking in height, pace, and power. So just what tactics should Japan adopt in order to compete at the world level? This question has yet to be answered.

The manager is, of course, important, but simply changing the coach is not enough to guarantee success on the pitch. Japan’s shortcomings are clear: there just isn’t the strength in depth either up front, in the center of defense, or between the goalposts.

Strengths and Weaknesses

What the national team does have going for it is a strong sense of collective responsibility. A lack of self-centered players means that everyone sticks to their appointed roles. But that, too, can be seen as a weakness, due to the players’ inability to act on their own initiative at decisive moments.

Japan has no forward willing to run into spaces not discussed in team meetings. The team also lacks center backs who will leave behind the man they are marking to go and make a vital block, as well as a keeper who will stray from an open net to act as a sweeper behind his defense.

It could be said that the defects of Japanese soccer mirror the failings of Japan’s society as a whole: those who repeatedly stray from consensus leave themselves open to criticism and even ostracism. This is a society in which it pays to stick closely to the script.

Japan is a long, slender island nation, 70% of whose land mass is covered by forests. In such a confined location, historically protected from invasion by the surrounding seas, there was a tendency among people peaceably working the little available land to value those who could blend in with the group, and to shun overt individuality. It is only natural that the shortcomings of a culture so lacking in ego should be exposed on the battlefield that is the soccer pitch. Before Aguirre can get to grips with his team’s opponents, he first needs to face the essential nature of the Japanese.

A Top Brass Lacking in Leadership

Facing even bigger problems than the national team itself is the Japan Football Association. The JFA has been devoid of any genuine leadership since the days of Kawabuchi Saburō—the man who showed such conviction throughout his quest to establish Japan’s first professional soccer league—and today lacks a strong figurehead with a clear sense of the direction in which Japanese soccer must go.

In fact, Hara Hiromi, who as JFA technical director selected Zaccheroni four years ago, has taken no responsibility for the disastrous results in Brazil. Not only was he allowed to personally install Aguirre as the next manager of the national team, Hara was also free to anoint his protégé Shimoda Masahiro as his own successor. Such an obvious failure to apportion blame represents a very Japanese approach to personnel matters.

What Does Samurai Blue Represent?

Another clear example of the lack of a guiding philosophy for Japanese soccer is provided by the color of the national team’s uniform.

It may only be a few years since the name Samurai Blue was coined, but blue has been the main color of the national uniform ever since the 1930s.

According to soccer journalist Gotō Takeo’s epic Nihon sakkā shi—Nihon daihyō no kyūjū nen (A History of Japanese Soccer: Ninety Years of the National Team), the roots of Samurai Blue stretch all the way back to the 1930 Far East Championships, held in Tokyo. A team from Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo) represented Japan in the tournament, taking the field wearing light-blue uniforms. But the jersey of the national team has grown deeper and deeper in shade over the years, to the point where it is now practically ultramarine.

France has the characteristic blue of Les Bleus, and Italy has the famous hue of the Azzurri. Both are clearly recognizable even when viewed from the top tier of a stadium. This is how the uniform of a national team should be.

Japan’s uniform, in contrast, has only the empty shell of a name: Samurai Blue. That the JFA is unable to even decide on a specific shade is, frankly, absurd.

Japan’s Enduring Love Affair with Baseball

Looking back on the history of professional sport in Japan, it is clear that one game has long reigned supreme in the affections of the nation. That game is baseball.

Twice each year, public broadcaster NHK screens all the games of the annual high school baseball tournaments—the Senbatsu, or National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament, in spring and the summer National High School Baseball Championship—live from Hyōgo Prefecture’s Hanshin Kōshien Stadium. In some of Japan’s 47 prefectures, even the preliminary qualifying rounds are shown. And such fervor isn’t reserved only for high school baseball: university and company tournaments also attract significant audiences.

And of course, professional baseball is more popular still. Twelve teams split between the Pacific and Central Leagues vie to make it to the Japan Series, held each autumn to decide the nation’s top team. The skills of the players on display mean that fans can see their team play 144 games a year that are second only to Major League Baseball in North America in terms of quality.

The Japanese love baseball with all their heart.

Throughout its development, Japanese baseball has enjoyed close ties with both print and broadcast media. The Japan High School Baseball Federation organizes the tournaments that take place each spring and summer together with two daily newspapers, the Mainichi Shimbun and the Asahi Shimbun, respectively.

In the pro leagues, just as their name suggests, the perennial powerhouse Yomiuri Giants are owned by another major newspaper publisher, the Yomiuri Shimbun, and the Yomiuri subsidiary broadcaster Nippon Television Network holds exclusive rights to broadcast the nationally popular team’s home games.

The Mainichi, Asahi, and Yomiuri are the biggest names in Japanese print media, and together with the nation’s many commercial television and radio networks, they wield a considerable influence. The overwhelming dominance that such close media ties have afforded baseball within the world of Japanese athletic endeavor leaves little room for other sports.

The Benefits of Taking Soccer Professional

But this privileged position is beginning to come under threat, as soccer, which did not even have a professional league until the early 1990s, grows in popularity.

Despite a history stretching back 100 years or so, until the game turned professional, soccer was considered no more than a minor sport in Japan. About the country’s only footballing achievements to speak of were a victory over title contenders Sweden at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and a bronze medal at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Before the late 1990s, Japan’s national team had never even appeared at a World Cup.

The national team was no good, which meant it couldn’t win any matches. This was boring to watch—a turnoff for the fans. Talented athletes naturally chose not to go into soccer, which meant a lack of quality players, undermining the Japanese game as a whole.

Such was the vicious cycle that afflicted Japanese soccer. Breaking this cycle was the goal behind the decision to establish the country’s first professional league.

At the time, there were many voices warning against a switch to professionalism for Japan’s top amateur league. A majority cited the fact that even some professional baseball teams were operating at a loss. How then, they argued, could professional soccer teams possibly fund themselves?

It was Kawabuchi Saburō who decisively brushed aside such opposition to ensure the establishment of the league. Kawabuchi, who as a player scored against Argentina at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, was a man of strong opinions but undoubted greatness. I say this because he was the single most important figure behind a move that lifted Japanese soccer to heights previously unknown.

Inaugural J. League chairman Kawabuchi Saburō (center, standing) at the November 1991 press conference called to announce the league’s formation. (© Jiji Press)

Everything changed when the Japan Professional Football League, more commonly known as the J. League, kicked off in May 1993. The hope that taking the game professional would lead to World Cup appearances by Japan’s national team ensured the fervent support of the Japanese people. They backed Kawabuchi and the JFA, and Japanese soccer developed in leaps and bounds. From the players to the referees, the fans to the stadiums, everything improved with stupendous rapidity. 

Several years previously, when Sir Alex Ferguson brought his Manchester United side to Japan to play against the national team in August 1989, the match had—incredibly—been played on artificial turf at Tokyo’s Jingū Stadium. The Japanese soccer environment was so far behind global standards that one of the world’s great teams was made to play at a baseball stadium. But the establishment of the J. League soon meant that professional teams would no longer have to play at baseball grounds or on artificial pitches, with all the attendant injury risks.

Since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the 1998 World Cup in France, Japan’s national team has yet to miss a single installment of either event. In addition, Japan has emerged as champion at four of the last six Asia Cup tournaments, also held every four years.

Japanese players have come to play at some of the world’s top clubs, including Italian heavyweights Inter and AC Milan, along with the aforementioned Manchester United. These days, all concerned would surely admit that Japan is the dominant nation in Asian soccer. The national team’s games draw crowds of up to 70,000, and the TV ratings for these matches have come to be the envy of every other sport.

Dramatic Improvement

The J. League, which started out with only 10 teams, has expanded to take in 51 professional clubs competing across three divisions. It is surely only a matter of time until every prefecture of Japan has a professional side to call its own.

The popularity of Japanese baseball has deep, strong roots. But even this has not been enough to protect the sport from the ravages of prolonged economic downturn, and several provincial clubs have struggled for some time with limited attendance figures and restrictive budgets. The J. League, on the other hand, has blossomed. It is a wonderful league—safe, yet competitive. And the game attendance enjoyed by the many regional teams, many of which enjoy fan support going beyond even that commanded by the national team, are clearly on the up. There is a global consensus among soccer experts that of all the world’s competitive stages, the J. League has improved the most over the last 20 years, a verdict borne out by trends like those outlined above.

But, even amid all the progress that Japanese soccer has so evidently made, the hurdle in reaching the world level is a high one. It is likely to take some time yet before Japan can consistently produce truly world-class strikers and center backs.

Time for a Fan-Led Redesign

But there is one symbolic measure that can be taken right now: we should decide once and for all on the color of the national team’s uniform, appealing to the public for input on this decision.

Katsushika Hokusai’s famous woodblock print The Great Wave off Kanagawa shows the crest of a tremendous wave, beyond which Mount Fuji stands in the distance. Globally, this is perhaps the single best-known piece of Japanese art. I believe that the Samurai Blue of Japan should update their look to reflect the same combination of deep blue, light blue, and white that is used in this famous image.

Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa. (© Fukuma Hidenori/Aflo)

It is a little-known fact that, once upon a time, Brazil used to play in white. But then came the ignominy of the Maracanaço (literally the “Maracana Blow”), when the seleção lost on home turf to Uruguay in the final of the 1950 World Cup, played at Rio’s famous Maracanã Stadium. This disaster moved the Brazilian Football Confederation to do away with the white uniforms worn in the final. A newspaper competition was held to select a new design, the only stipulation being that contributions should utilize the yellow, green, blue, and white of the Brazilian flag. The winning design became the iconic, canary yellow look that is now so synonymous with Brazilian football, a result that shows the wisdom of inviting designs from the public within a fixed color scheme.

Historically, Japanese soccer has learned much from Brazil, and the issue of the uniform is another point on which we should follow that country’s lead. Suggestions for a new design should be invited from all over the world, but all should be subject to the strict guideline that the colors of Hokusai’s Great Wave must be used.

The judges are also of great importance, clear as it is that the JFA top brass lack the design sense required to produce a jersey fit to pass on to future generations.

Let us select the finest possible judges: people like Sejima Kazuyo and Nishizawa Ryūe of the architectural firm SANAA; famed anime director Miyazaki Hayao; manga artists Oda Eiichirō (One Piece), Inoue Takehiko (Slam Dunk), and Takahashi Yōichi (Captain Tsubasa); the artist Nara Yoshitomo; singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. By enlisting the peerless aesthetic sense of such globally respected individuals, we could surely come up with a design to win universal approval.

The slogan for the competition should be as follows: “Join forces with Hokusai to decide the uniform of Samurai Blue!”

Thanks to the Internet, contributions would surely come from all over the world. And there should be a prize: with so large a goal in mind, ¥30 million does not seem an unreasonable amount!

If such a plan can be realized, there is one more important ingredient. I urge you, the readers, to send in your own contributions!

(Banner image: Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, © Fukuma Hidenori/ Aflo; Japan’s players huddle before their September 5 Kirin Challenge Cup match against Uruguay, © Jiji Press.)

soccer football sport J. League Hokusai Samurai Blue Aguirre