It is truly amazing to witness the heights that humanity can scale when several people are united by a common vision. The success of Japan’s revolutionary J-League is an embodiment of this and is a sporting model that so many can follow. Yet, how Japan got to that point is quite something in itself. Far from being Japan’s most popular sport, football’s meteoric rise in Japan is a story that every true football aficionado must know.
Japanese football in the 80s was a semi-professional affair. The pre-cursor to the J-League was the JSL (Japan Soccer League) and it only had company based teams. So football players were essentially company-employees first and only played football now and then. Japan’s only real tryst with professional football came courtesy Yasuhiko Okudera who plied his trade with FC Köln in the 1980s. His German experiences and desire to see a professional league in Japan would eventually lead to the formation of the J-League.
The Japan Professional Football League (As it was known then) was eventually formed in November 1991 with Saburo Kawabuchi as the founding chairman of the league. He played as a forward for the national team and Furukawa Electric in the JSL in the 60s. However, it would be as a footballing administrator that Kawabuchi would have a lasting impact on Japanese football. While on a national team training camp in Germany in the 60s, he was surprised to see the extensive sporting infrastructure through which people could enjoy sport. He longed to establish a similar sporting environment in Japan where people could easily take part in sport and have fun. Three decades later, he would serve as the chairman of the J-League from 1993 to 2002 and then as the president of the league from 2002 to 2008. He would eventually be honoured for his efforts in steering the J-League when the Japanese Football Association (JFA) inducted him into the Japan Football Hall of Fame in 2005.
The Planning Phase
The planning process involved in the formation of a successful professional league was a huge task at that time, given that football did not enjoy anywhere near as high a fan support as baseball and sumo wrestling did. Moreover, the company based nature of football meant that people would not be able to relate to the teams.
Despite this huge transitional challenge, the people tasked with the planning process were an ambitious lot. They decided that a key factor in the success of the league would be investing huge sums of money on former World Cup stars. This would draw crowd support, as the only footballing exposure the common Japanese public had at the time was during the FIFA’s prestigious competition.
Another crucial aspect in sustaining and building a solid fan base for football relied on two things. One was making all the teams in the league community and region oriented. All the league teams would have unique logos and be given names based on its location and not have the company name. Although a team could have significant financial backing from a corporate giant (which effectively meant that the company would have a major say in all decisions), it could not completely own the team and also would not be advertised that way. Teams would also be involved in friendly community based activities such as holding a football camp for kids.
The second thing was merchandizing & marketing. The JFA cut deals with dozens of companies just to ensure that the J-League insignia would be slapped across many products. ‘Sony Creative Products’, a subsidiary of Sony Music Entertainment was given the license to manufacture & market logos for all J-League teams.
As important as capturing the public’s imagination was, the core concept of the league was professionalism. For a club to be a part of the league, it would have to meet some essential criteria in every aspect. Some of these included having a reserve team (Satellite team), under-18, under-15 and under-12 teams, transparency in declaring a club’s profits for a fiscal year and having a minimum stadium capacity of 15,000.
To set the tone for the start of the new league, Japan won the right to host the AFC Asian Cup in 1992 in Hiroshima. Japan won the tournament for the first time in history beating Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final. Football was now in the public conscience and going to remain in memory for a while at least. After all the planning, money, European-inspired professional ideas and American style marketing, the stage was set for the J-League explosion.
Twenty teams from the JSL had applied to become members of the new professional league. Of these, only the ten that met the criteria set by the JFA (as mentioned earlier) were accepted.
|J-League Name||JSL Name|
|Gamba Osaka||Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd|
|JEF United Ichihara||Furukawa Electric Soccer Club|
|Nagoya Grampus Eight||Toyota Motor S.C.|
|Sanfrecce Hiroshima||Mazda SC|
|Urawa Red Diamonds||Mitsubishi Heavy Industries|
|Verdy Kawasaki||Yomiuri FC|
|Yokohama Flugels||Yokohama Tristar SC / All Nippon Airways|
|Yokohama Marinos||Nissan Motors FC|
|Kashima Antlers||Sumitomo Metal Industries|
Prior to the start of the J-League, the Yamazaki Nabisco J-League cup was held in September 1992 and Verdy Kawasaki emerged victors. The tournament was quite successful as a pre-league tournament and had relatively large crowds as recounted by former Verdy player Tetsuji Hashiratani.
The Fiesta Begins
The J-League eventually kicked off on May 15th, 1993 in front of a packed Tokyo National Stadium crowd of 59,626. A glitzy opening ceremony with colorful flags, lasers, an airship beaming pictures from above and a guitarist strutting around in a bandana made the whole extravaganza resemble a rock concert, rather than a football match. Shortly after, Verdy Kawasaki kicked off the J-League against the Yokohama Marinos, with the Marinos coming from a goal down to win 2-1. In the end though, the result mattered little.
This was best summed up by Marinos player and longtime Japan International, Masami Ihara: “At the moment I came out onto the pitch and saw the full stadium, I thought to myself, this is what I had been waiting for, that this is what playing in a pro league is like. When I went out onto the pitch, it was the happiest feeling in the world.”
Never before had a Japanese football match been associated with such a dreamy and surreal atmosphere.
Verdy Kawasaki emerged as the champions of the inaugural season as the J-League turned out to be a runaway hit. The attendances at the end of the season totaled 3.2 million with an average attendance of 18,000 spectators a game over 180 games. The first season sales of tickets, TV rights and merchandise totaled a whopping $1 billion with TV broadcasting rights alone at 10 million yen. Also, the sales of J-League goods marketed to 100 official J-League shops amounted to $291 million (30 billion yen). This was a figure not expected to be reached for many years. From J-League burgers to J-League watches; J-League was written over pretty much everything. The brand had been marketed so aggressively that it had literally been blasted into public consciousness.
The J-League was played in a two stage format with a fall stage and a summer stage. The winner of each stage would play each other in home and away games to determine the ultimate winner. A peculiar feature of the J-League at the time was the absence of points for victories. Only the number of victories counted.
The introduction of several overseas players and former World Cup stars kept attracting huge crowds to the stands in the league’s early years. The plethora of stars included Gary Lineker, Patrick Mboma, Dragan ‘Pixy’ Stojkovic, Oswaldo Ardiles, Dunga, Zico, Pierre Littbarski, Ramon Diaz and many others.
In 1995, the league reached its then peak attendance of 6.5 million at the end of the season. Some of the stars were more than just crowd pullers. They built the identity of clubs by mentoring players and instilling a winning mentality in the club. A classic example of this was Zico and Kashima Antlers.
End of the Honeymoon Phase
Just as the J-League hit fever pitch in 1995, the economic downturn in Japan caught up with the league as well. The league attendance in 1997 dropped to less than 3.5 million. A key event that took place in this period was the change to a single stage format in 1996 and it was a flop. The average attendance for that season was 13,350 per game. The decision to revert to the original 2 stage format in 1997 didn’t arrest the downfall either. It wasn’t just the league that suffered as a brand and hit the clubs as well. Verdy was the worst affected as their inability to pay huge salaries to aging players hit them hard. This sent the club on a downward spiral that they still have not truly recovered from.
Reforms & Rebuilding
After the highs of 1995, interest in the J-League started to sag. This led to some important changes by the JFA. The league had expanded to 18 clubs in 1998. The expanding nature of the league made the JFA introduce a second division in 1999 with promotion/relegation. The second division consisted of 10 clubs taken from the semi-professional JFL. Another important structural change in the league was the introduction of the points system 2 years earlier.
Breaking into the World Stage & Return to Glory
The league’s positive effects were starting to tell on the national team. Japan qualified for the World Cup for the first time at France ‘98. Despite losing all its group stage games, Japan put up a respectable performance even scoring its first World Cup goal.
Then in 2002, Japan co-hosted the World Cup. This had a salutary effect. The national team reached the knock out rounds for the first time and only narrowly missed out on a quarter final berth after a 0-1 loss to Turkey. By now, the league had also started exporting talent to Europe with Shinji Ono (Urawa to Feyenoord), Junichi Inamoto (Gamba Osaka to Arsenal) and Shunsuke Nakamura (Yokohama F Marinos to Reggina) showing just how far the league had come since its inception. Attendances steadily started improving and once again reached the highs of 1995.
Expanding its Reach
The league has gone from strength to strength ever since. They signed a deal with Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam in 2012 to broadcast J-League games and increase its reach in Asia. In the same vein, the league has also inked deals with the aforementioned countries and a few other South East Asian nations to promote football development through exchange programs. The league’s ties to South East Asia is not limited to exchange programs alone with Albirex Niigata’s satellite team (reserve team) players plying its trade in the S-League to gain experience.
More recently, the league has started a digital streaming platform in partnership with DAZN to broadcast the league in select countries and is expected to grow over the coming years. Former J-Leaguers are also starting to play in other Asian countries including the likes of India, further increasing its reach across Asia.
The league now has 3 divisions and is steadily moving towards its 100 year vision of having 100 professional clubs by 2092. It has proved to be a fantastic model for professional, sporting and community development. Not many leagues in the world can boast of having a centre and service to help players prepare for a life after football. It has produced many fantastic adventures and also become a scouting hot spot for the German league; the national team’s fortunes in the 2010 World Cup playing a huge role.
So where next for Japan? The obvious answer is world domination and becoming a global brand. However, there is a bigger question that Japanese football has to answer. The J-League was founded on some core values and they have managed to introduce commercialism while staying true to its roots for the most part. They have managed to develop in a way that has made it a sustainable brand. Yet the likes of China and Qatar are now pumping in huge amounts of money in order to become globally relevant.
Japan has also stated its intention to be world champions by 2092. Will they sacrifice their core values to achieve that? Time will surely tell.