New Challenges as the J. League Turns 20

Society Culture

They may have been the lost decades for Japan’s economy, but the last 20 years have brought remarkable progress for the J. League. Chūbachi Shin’ichi, a senior writer for the Asahi Shimbun, discusses the key factors behind the soccer league’s success and what it must do to advance in the future.

Soccer has a lengthy history in Japan, where the Japan Football Association was founded in 1921 to popularize the sport. Professional league play, however, has a far shorter history: just 20 years have passed since the first season of the J. League began in May 1993. Launched with 10 teams, the league added more every year until it was split into two divisions in 1999. There are now 18 teams in the J. League Division 1 (J1) and 22 in Division 2 (J2). One level below the latter is the Japan Football League, a semiprofessional league with 18 teams, 6 of which satisfy operational criteria set by the J. League and are seeking J2 promotion.

A Rocky Road in the Early Years

There have been ups and downs over the course of these two decades. When the J. League was launched it was to great fanfare, with high-profile players from outside Japan, including the Brazilian soccer star Zico, on hand to draw crowds and elevate the level of play.

The league rapidly attracted attention; in 1993 “J. League” was recognized as the most popular phrase of the year. Average attendance at matches in the league’s inaugural season was 17,976, and the following year average attendance rose still higher, to 19,598.

This proved to be the all-time high, though. As the economy fell into the doldrums in the 1990s, J. League mania quickly subsided. By 1997, the league’s fifth year, average attendance per match had declined to 10,131. People spoke of the J. League in the same way they spoke of the economy: the bubble had burst.

The impact was quickly felt by the teams and players. In 1997 S-Lap Communications, the firm operating the J. League team Shimizu S-Pulse, ran into financial difficulties. In 1998 controlling interest in the team went to a newly formed company funded by local businesses in Shimizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, the team’s hometown. S-Pulse narrowly survived the change of ownership, but the Japanese soccer world was rocked by the sudden failure of an operation that had been riding the J. League craze.

Even worse news arrived for the J. League in 1998, when the construction firm Satō Kōgyō, a primary corporate sponsor of the Yokohama Flugels, suffered financial losses and withdrew its sponsorship, essentially leading to the team’s dissolution. Wasteful team expenditures and needless luxury were held to blame. In 1999 the team was absorbed by the J. League’s other Yokohama team, the Marinos, which took the previous team’s initial and became known as the F. Marinos.

Resurgent Popularity for the Sport

In the aftermath of these setbacks, J. League teams in general shifted their focus away from reliance on single-company sponsorship and toward more realistic operations on a scale that could be sustained by advertising revenue from a broad range of local businesses and gate receipts from home matches.

In 2002 the World Cup, the quadrennial tournament gathering national teams from around the world to compete for soccer’s ultimate prize, was co-hosted by Japan and South Korea.

For the J. League, this provided the impetus for a resurgence of popularity and status. Average attendance at J1 matches was already rising in 2001, and by 2007 and 2008 this figure once again topped 19,000. Average attendance in recent years has been around 17,000 (table in Japanese). In 2010 total attendance at Division 1 and 2 matches surpassed 100 million. J. League soccer is now an inextricable part of daily life in Japan.

Witches, Giants, and J. League

In the postwar Japanese sports world, there have been a few phenomena that have had a truly momentous impact on the nation and its sports consumption habits. One was the Japanese women’s volleyball team nicknamed the “Oriental witches,” which defeated a powerful Soviet team to win the gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Another was the TV broadcasting of games played by Japan’s preeminent professional baseball team, the Yomiuri Giants. The J. League has proved to be a third such phenomenon.

The brilliant showing by the women’s Olympic volleyball squad raised the status of athletic activities by women and girls in Japan. Volleyball surged in popularity as a result of the gold medal victory, producing a thriving league of corporate-sponsored teams and giving rise to “mama-san” volleyball leagues with broad participation by women in communities across Japan. Former star players, now married women with families, played an active role in promoting these community leagues. The Olympic team’s success had a ripple effect that created a favorable environment not only for women’s volleyball at the elite level but for girls’ and women’s sports in general.

Televised Giants games, which combined the appeal of a winning team featuring star players like Nagashima Shigeo and Oh Sadaharu with the expansive reach of the Nippon Television Network’s broadcasts, essentially created the template for the sports broadcast as entertainment. No matter who the opponent was, a Giants game offered considerable value to advertisers thanks to a nationwide fan base. The network might not even broadcast the beginning or end of the game, but the live coverage and accompanying commentary were staged in a way that transformed every game into a dramatic sporting narrative, to the great satisfaction of many viewers.

Turning Conventional Wisdom on Its Head

The J. League has altered the basic paradigm of Japan’s sports world, which traditionally—as with pro baseball—has positioned sports mainly as an advertising channel for the big companies backing the teams.

Before the J. League came along, top-level sports in Japan were mainly played by company teams classified as an employee benefit. Players of many sports were contracted directly by the companies, while in other sports, including baseball, professional teams were owned by major corporations. The J. League, by contrast, served as an opening to make sports more independent of corporate influence.

The current incarnation of the J. League still includes teams operating under the sponsorship of a parent firm, but league policy has each team run as an independent business. The teams are expected to promote their matches, make soccer more popular, and develop better players, thus achieving operational independence. In other words, the league is striving to make a sustainable business out of the sport itself.

The system now in place, in which even teams that start out playing in prefectural leagues can ascend through the ranks and eventually compete in the J1 play, has stoked the ambitions of players, coaches, and fans and contributed greatly to the J. League’s progress over the past 20 years. Some of today’s J1 teams were competing at the prefectural level when the J. League got started and ultimately played their way into the top division. This is a major contrast with professional baseball, in which there is a wall of sorts separating the pros from the amateurs and there is virtually no reshuffling of teams.

Japanese soccer has become more internationally competitive since the 1993 launch of the pro league. The country has fielded a side in every World Cup final tournament since 1998, an achievement thanks in part to the motivation generated by a system that offers a path from local leagues to the nation’s top J. League and from there to international competition.

No Differentiating the Participants

The J. League is also challenging another tenet of the Japanese sports world—the boundaries that separate professionals from amateurs and students from adults. It is not unusual to find university students and even high school students who have signed contracts with a J. League team and are playing soccer professionally while attending school.

Under the original J. League player transfer system, contracts were generally more advantageous to the employers—the teams—than to players, but the two sides now negotiate on more or less equal footing. Players can utilize their own competitive abilities to seek higher compensation. An increasing number of Japan’s top players are moving on to teams in top leagues in some of the world’s leading soccer countries.

None of this means that the employers are at a disadvantage, though. A team’s stock in trade is its ability to compete, which represents the sum of efforts by individual players to improve their own competitive abilities. The employers therefore stand to benefit as well from an environment that encourages players to polish their skills in pursuit of the best possible postings. In addition, the teams benefit economically from player transfer fees. From a long-term perspective, the current transfer system, in giving players relative freedom of movement among teams, is highly advantageous to both players and teams.

Also important is the requirement that soccer clubs must include teams organized by age brackets in order to qualify for promotion to the J. League. This means of fostering successive generations of professional talent mirrors precedents established in Europe and South America, where junior squads are a valuable training program and a way to discover top talent. The cultivation of competitive players is making soccer teams more competitive and greatly assisting their efforts to become independent businesses.

The Limits of Community-based Success

One reason for the J. League’s success to date is its teams’ roots in the communities where they are based—something evident in the naming scheme for all teams, which bear the names of their home cities rather than corporate sponsors.

In the past, soccer talent was cultivated primarily in high-school teams and small local soccer clubs run by volunteers. When the J. League was launched, well-funded professional organizations stepped in to start training soccer players. Because it was considered to be for a good cause—giving local kids a better chance to become pro soccer players—this development met with only minimal opposition from local club and school coaches. The J. League was able to elicit the backing of local businesses and governments as well, because the latter groups saw that an activity characterized by local contributions would serve a common goal.

The fact that a number of teams have been rescued from financial difficulties and the fact that some relatively small clubs have managed to survive as professional teams are also attributable to the J. League’s founding determination to be a community-based operation.

Many people think this community-based approach is the J. League’s official mission and believe it is responsible for the league’s success. That view, however, is mistaken.

The league’s official mission statement identifies three primary objectives: “To raise the level of Japanese football and promote the diffusion of the game through the medium of professional football. To foster the development of Japan’s sporting culture, to assist in the healthy mental and physical growth of Japanese people. To contribute to international friendship and exchange.” The community focus makes its appearance instead in the six “action policies” cited as the means of attaining these objectives:

  1. We will create dreams and offer enjoyment to community members by staging fair and attractive matches.
  2. While soliciting the understanding and cooperation of fans, supporters, and local governments, we will ensure a safe and pleasant stadium environment that can be shown to the world with pride.
  3. In order to enable community members to feel closer to the J. League team, the team facilities shall be open, and we will provide venues and opportunities for interaction between community members and players and coaches.
  4. We will create and popularize a system to enable families and the community to easily enjoy futsal.
  5. We will create many opportunities to easily take part not only in soccer but in other sports as well.
  6. We will create a system whereby people with disabilities can enjoy sports together with others.

In short, being locally based is not presented as an objective but a means to an end. Maintaining this perspective will be important as the J. League meets future challenges.

Expansion Brings New Problems

The J. League Secretariat, noting the aim of raising the number of teams potentially eligible for promotion into the league to 100, has announced the establishment of a third division (J3), incorporating 10 to 12 teams, in 2014.

Increasing the number of potential J. League teams is a positive move from the standpoint of making soccer more popular, to be sure. From a business standpoint, though, it also means more intense competition among the teams. Squads already in existence are approaching the limits of how far they can expand themselves as businesses, giving rise to concern that intensified competition could be mutually destructive. If teams suffer on the operations side, it will undercut investment that might otherwise make them more competitive, which will ultimate affect the league’s overall quality of play.

Furthermore, the community-based label is apt to hinder efforts to elicit sponsorship from major national and international corporations. There has reportedly been at least one case in which a firm has agreed to sponsor a team in one prefecture only to end up failing to conclude contracts in another prefecture because it has already identified itself so strongly with the team’s region. For a major corporation that advertises worldwide, sponsoring a team based in one location unrelated to the firm’s corporate identity makes no sense as an advertising strategy.

Still Evolving

If being community-based is taken as the J. League’s raison d’être, discussion of how to resolve the problems facing the league becomes hopelessly complicated. Every community has its own unique circumstances, and each team has its own operational expectations. While they may be community-based now, there are teams that will not be able to fund their operations without expanding beyond those local scales and become nationwide businesses.

The J. League has remained true to its action policies and continues to uphold its community-based image. Times are changing, though, bringing change to the league as well. The time has come to formulate a new set of policies with a new theme: diversity.

The J. League’s existing action policies call for popularizing futsal, a game similar to soccer but played on a smaller pitch. In a glaring oversight, though, they make no reference to women’s soccer. Despite the fact that the Japanese women’s team won the 2011 World Cup, no adequate provisions are in place for cultivating female soccer talent. This problem is widely recognized by people involved with soccer.

Even more than volleyball in the past, the J. League has the potential to serve as an ideal platform for encouraging women to participate and raising the status of women’s sports. The league should add the improvement and popularization of women’s soccer to its list of action policies. Doing so would advance its mission and give rise to action that would substantiate the J. League’s stated commitment to bringing together diverse members of the community.

The J. League has brought major changes to the Japanese sports world, and with changes come new challenges. The league is destined to keep evolving as it seeks to answer them.

(Originally written in Japanese on April 8, 2013)

Top photograph: The Urawa Reds prepare for a J. League match at Saitama Stadium on April 6, 2013. (Photograph by Aflo.)


J. League championship teams
1993 Verdy Kawasaki 2003 Yokohama F. Marinos
1994 Verdy Kawasaki 2004 Yokohama F. Marinos
1995 Yokohama Marinos 2005 Gamba Osaka
1996 Kashima Antlers 2006 Gamba Osaka
1997 Jubilo Iwata 2007 Kashima Antlers
1998 Kashima Antlers 2008 Kashima Antlers
1999 Jubilo Iwata 2009 Kashima Antlers
2000 Kashima Antlers 2010 Nagoya Grampus
2001 Kashima Antlers 2011 Kashiwa Reysol
2002 Jubilo Iwata 2012 Sanfrecce Hiroshima

soccer women’s soccer football World Cup diversity sports business baseball J. League league sponsor locally based communities