Sport changes Japan

Japanese football has significantly increased its presence on the international stage since its FIFA World Cup debut in 1998.


The success of the Japan Professional Football League (‘J-League’), which kicks off its 20th anniversary season this March, coincides with exemplary performances by the Japanese National Team in the World Cup and Japanese footballers playing in top leagues such as the Bundesliga (Germany).

Kenny Kitamura, an MBA student at London Business School speaks to Mr. Senta Hoji - General Secretary of the Japan Economic Research Institute, Board Director of the Japan Professional Football League (‘J-League’), and member of the Japan Football Association (JFA) International Committee

Kenny Kitamura: How was the J-League first established?

Senta Hoji: The professional football league kicked off in 1993, but if we go all the way back to its real origins, football in Japan started when the English Football Association (FA) gifted a silver trophy to our country in 1919, leading us to establish our very own Japan Football Association (JFA) two years later. Up until the League’s founding, Japan’s only football success came when our men’s team won the bronze medal at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. If you had asked Japanese people at that time if they could imagine a day when our Men’s National Team (the ‘Samurai Blue’) would not only participate but be successful in the FIFA World Cup (Japan has made it to the Round of 16 twice since 1998), they would have simply laughed. I surely could not foresee Japanese footballers flourishing in top European leagues in such a short period of time either.

KK: What are the core values of J-League, and what have been the key factors contributing to the League’s success?

SH: The mission of J-league is to foster the development of Japan’s sporting culture through football. Our fundamental principle is to foster community through our clubs where people can enjoy the sport regardless of age and sex; this is our “One-Hundred-Year Vision”.

I think the first element of carrying out our vision is how we name the teams. We operate under a “Hometown System” where each club is simply named after its home city and asked to represent the pride of that community; this was quite a novel concept for our people, as they have been accustomed to seeing sports franchises as just vehicles for promoting corporations and other business institutions.

To achieve our One-Hundred-Year Vision, we have also taken other key steps such as improving our pitches (switching from predominately sand-filled lots to grass), organising youth training programs, and hosting sporting events outside of football.

There are four fundamental factors upon which J-League is built: 

  • Community-based clubs,
  • League Management focused on sustainable development,
  • A pyramid structure which directs clubs and talent up to the international level, and
  • an efficiently-organised support network comprised of local citizens that act as both fans and volunteers, municipalities responsible for stadium development, and local businesses act as sponsors.

Our successful business model has spread to other sports, such as futsal and basketball, creating 82 professional sports clubs across all sports since the launch of J-League. Clubs provide deep ties to their local communities, which have helped our people overcome the hardship caused by last year’s earthquake and tsunami. Vegalta Sendai, whose hometown (Sendai) was close to the epicenter, is a prime example.

KK: What have been the biggest challenges for J-League

SH: J-League faced a serious crisis five years after its launch in 1998. At the time, the number of clubs in the league expanded from 10 to 18, but the league could not support the near doubling of franchises in terms of both talent and fan support. Average attendance at games declined 50% from 18,000 to 9,000, and one club filed for bankruptcy (with others teetering on the edge).

Mr. Saburo Kawabuchi, Chairman of J-League at the time, took a big risk by launching a second division for the League. Instead of folding more clubs, he created nine new franchises and dropped one club into a lower division, bringing the total J-League portfolio to 26 clubs in total. He also urged owners to apply stricter controls and management over the club. Kawabuchi believed that while limiting number of clubs would increase the wealth of the remaining clubs, it would have contradicted J-League’s mission of fostering a fertile sports culture throughout the entire country. Now, 15 years later, Mr. Karabuchi has been proven right, as J-League now has 40 clubs: 18 in division 1 (J1) and 22 in division 2 (J2).

KK: What is the League’s strategy for the future development? Does J-League have any plans to expand to (or at least focus on) other Asian countries?

SH: J-League will be introducing a Club Licensing System starting with the 2013 season, and we will also be rolling out our “Scenery with Home” campaign. More immediately, we are focused on shifting the League to the ‘global standard’ whereby matches are held in modern multifunction stadiums located in city centres; at the moment, matches are still played in track & field stadiums located on the outskirts, and we recognize that clubs cannot be expected to sustain under this model. At the same time, we know we must further accelerate the international reach of the league through increased broadcasting of J-League matches in other Asian countries

“Scenery with Home” cultivates dream and hope of children and changes structure of Japan from centralisation to decentralisation.



Stadium Photo © J. LEAGUE PHOTOS

Venue: Home Stadium of Vegalta Sendai (Yurtec Stadium)

Date: July 2nd, 2011

Fixture: J1 League, Vegalta Sendai vs Nagoya Grampus

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