The J-League and Football in Japan

Sports are a big part of Japanese culture. In many countries, there is often one sport that is the undisputed top dog and everything else has to fight over the scrap that is left over (for example 80.000 people show up regularly in Germany to watch football matches, but on average only 5000 people turn up to watch basketball matches). In Japan, from a competitive viewpoint baseball has traditionally been the top dog, but other sports are played recreationally as well. Especially at high-school and university levels, competition is fierce, and it is not uncommon for some people to devote more time to their sports club than to their studies, no matter how minuscule actual viewer numbers might be. The annual high-school baseball tournament Koushien is shown on national TV and is a good opportunity for schools to boost their prestige. Universities that are seen as having a rivalry, such as Keio and Waseda Universities in Tokyo, will battle it out on the baseball pitch to the chants and dances of the cheerleaders (male and female), who take their role in the team’s performance as serious as the players on the pitch.

However, recently, there has been a challenger to the popularity of baseball in Japan. Football, obviously a hugely popular sport in other parts of the world, did not even have a fully professional league in Japan until 1992 when the J-League was founded. Forward to 2020, and now there are different league tiers, called J-1, J-2 and so on, with J-1 being the top flight and if people refer to “the J-League” they are usually talking about J-1. The league’s most successful teams are the Kashima Antlers, the Yokohama F. Marinos and the Urawa Red Diamonds, with the former two being successful domestically, while the Urawa Reds are the most successful Japanese team internationally, winning the Asian Champions League twice and finishing second once. Although professional soccer is still young in Japan, there are still stories aplenty, such as Nagoya Grampus being coached by Arsene Wenger for a short while, Cerezo Osaka being the club that manga hero Captain Tsubasa plays at, or, maybe most amazingly, the story of Kazuyoshi “King Kazu” Miura, who still plays professional football for Yokohama F.C. at the ripe age of 53 years young.

With talents such as Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, or more recently Takumi Minamino, there is certainly quality available in the league, though many talents are scouted and transfer to a European league, so if you expect the J-League to be on the same level competitively as the European leagues you will be disappointed. For a while, Japan was a popular destination for ageing European footballers to play their last few seasons, with even stars like Andres Iniesta or Lukas Podolski heading east for their final (or not so final) paychecks. But neither of them set the league on fire, so it might be said that the competitiveness of the J-League is not too far off the big European leagues, maybe akin to second-tier leagues in the big 5 (Germany, England, Spain, Italy, France).

With all that being said, the J-League is an interesting league with different clubs, different philosophies and playstyles. There is virtually no hooliganism, so going to the games is a pleasure for everyone involved and whole families go together regularly. If you are in Japan and even slightly interested in football, I recommend you give the J-League a try. The Kanto area, including greater Tokyo, has the highest concentration of clubs, but you can find stadiums were J-league games are played all over eastern and western Japan. Only the north has a somewhat sparse representation in the league, with the Tohoku region only being represented by Vegalta Sendai and Hokkaido only sporting Consadole Sapporo in the top flight of Japanese football. If you do not have time to go to the games in person, you can watch them on NHK or DAZN, with the latter offering either match highlights or full-length games.

I hope that you enjoyed this quick write-up about the J-league. I am still relatively new to watching the league, so if I got anything wrong please feel free to correct me. If you have a favourite club, tell me which it is and why you support it (I like Saitama prefecture, so I am inclined to support the Urawa Reds, as they are the local boys).

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