J.League 442 – 4 Games, 4 Cities and 2 Weekends

The highest level of football in Japan is the J.League. Before this the highest level of club football was the Japan Soccer League a set up that consisted of semi-professional clubs.  After a period of time the JSL league (which had a number of foreign players) went into a steep decline despite the Japanese national team improving its standing globally from the 1970’s.

In order to raise the professional level of Japanese football and promote the diffusion of the game through the medium of professional football the Japan Football Association (JFA) decided to form a professional league.

The J League today encompasses a wide range of business operations, structures as well as a modern organisational set up. Its mission is to foster the development of Japan’s sporting culture towards the benefit of Japanese people; and in doing so improving international friendships and exchange.  The league was also founded with the aim of raising the level of play domestically and internationally. Moreover the performances of the Japanese national football team were at the centre of the aims.

The professional association football league in Japan, the J.League, was formed in 1992. It officially kicked off its first season with ten member clubs on May 15, 1993 in Tokyo.  After a number of years where stars such as Gary Lineker, Cerezo and Zico came to play most of the most important changes to the current Japanese football set up have emerged in the years since 2000. These have included further expansion of the league, refined league structures with promotion and relegation as well as clubs entering the AFC Champions League. Japan has played host to the FIFA World Cup Club while its clubs have also participated in the tournament.

After a number of years where the team narrowly missed out on finals tournaments the Japanese national football teams (both male and female) now participate consistently in the FIFA World Cup Finals tournaments. The team can also point to success in both the Copa America tournament (as an invited nation), the FIFA Women’s World Cup (World Champions in 2011) as well as the AFC Asian Cup.  More tellingly a number of Japanese players have reversed the trend and gone to play in many of European football’s top domestic leagues.

The J.League 442

During the spring of 2009 I under took an adventure out to Japan to experience the culture and sporting lifestyle of a truly fascinating country.  In Japan corporations dominate and the cities are as modern and high tech as anywhere else in the world – sometimes overly so. Yet in some of the major cities such as Kyoto the traditional face of Japan still exists and what would appear to be wooden shacks with small lanterns can still be spotted not far from glass fronted designer office blocks.

With a fast, comfortable and highly efficient train system that covers the majority of the country, trains are the number one choice of travel for both business people and ordinary citizens. At times the regional and local urban train systems can be confusing due to the overlap of several private railway networks and suburban trains with the national JR network. It is the JR group that operates the high speed Shinkansen lines which can travel at up to 603 km/h – and these trains were my choice of train travel between the four different football locations.

FC Tokyo v JEF United Ichihara Chiba

This was a Saturday evening game played not too far from the glare of lights looking down on a Japanese baseball game taking place less than 2 miles away.  It’s late April 2009 and JEF are one of only a few teams to have competed in the top flight of Japanese football every year.

Home side FC Tokyo are not really based in Tokyo city; that is the city centre of Tokyo.  Like JEF Chiba and a host of other clubs they are in located in the wider Tokyo prefecture with games being played in Chufu City at the Ajinomoto Stadium.

For most home matches it uses this ground but many games such as the one tonight against JEF, they play at the larger National Stadium in Shinjuku in central Tokyo.

FC Tokyo were originally the works team of the Tokyo Gas company and as such this affiliation with energy can still be seen through a shirt sponsorship with ENEOS who are a prominent Japanese petrochemical company. The club are popular in Tokyo and at the central Adidas superstore in Shinjuku only two shirts were on sale.  One was that of the Japan national team shirt and the other was the blue and red of FC Tokyo.

After an unusual rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone it was the visitors of JEF who kicked off shortly after 7pm on a cool spring evening. They were backed by a colourful travelling support of over 5,000 fans and played in yellow and green shirts.   Like FC Tokyo, the JEF team began as the company team of an energy form, this was the ‘Furukawa Electric Soccer Club’.

After a few slow passages of play things became controlled with very little tackling taking place.  With the home side leading 1-0 at half time JEF United started the second half much more aggressively and with purpose. This would culminate in FC Tokyo conceding twice in the closing few minutes.  Chiba finally made the break through in the 86th minute as midfielder Alex took the ball from a throw in and raced down the left before driving a low cross into the heart of the Tokyo area.   Maki slid in completely unmarked to hammer home.

Desperate to take the three points FC Tokyo pressed forward in the time remaining while Chiba chose to hoist long balls towards Maki in response.   With only seconds remaining in injury time Okamoto hoofed a goal kick upfield, Maki won the header and directed the ball down to Fukai who managed to hold off a defender, exchange passes with Yazawa and burst through the Tokyo defence.  He then deftly clipped the ball beyond the FC Tokyo goalkeeper as he raced off the line.

Chiba’s tenacity and Tokyo’s dramatic slip late had allowed the visiting team to inflict a shocking defeat on Tokyo. Constant singing and a mixture of themes from English type football chants to South American flag surfing made this an exciting encounter.

As the home side left the field they were booed off with the traditional Japanese ceremony of bowing visible – this time many players bowing almost in apology to the home fans before trooping off the field.

Kyoto Sanga v Jubilo Iwata

South West of Tokyo it would be easy for anyone who has been to Kyoto to ask the question ‘why bother with football?’

In this ancient imperial city, Japanese cultures both old and new are everywhere. But football is way down the list of priorities of local residents.  My guide on the day of the game told me that Kyoto looks down on sport and football; the place is ‘too important’ to be associated with such a game.

Nevertheless, the club still acts as a focal point for local football supporters who congregate at the crumbling and drab Nishiyoguko Stadium every home league game to support the men in purple.

As I step onto the Hankyu Kyoto Main line Metro train the football fans start to appear.  It’s not Ujpest Dozsa and nor is it the viola of Fiorentina.  Instead it’s the purple of Kyoto Sanga and I am on my way to the Nishi Kyogoku Station from central Kyoto. As we arrive it looks like I am the only foreigner in and around the ground but that does not stop local Sanga fans introducing themselves to me ‘Please to meet you sir!’ says one supporter.

Another says ‘I am very proud of my team’ and with that I quickly purchase a Kyoto Sanga scarf and my guide gets the tickets.

Inside the stadium it’s like being back in Europe as hot dogs heat over hot spits and fans queue up for beer. There is one exception though with octopus also being sold after being deep fried on a hot plate. Inside the stadium its raining, dark and miserable. The track and field athletics track that surrounds the ground does little to help and the European type floodlights do not give out nowhere near enough light.

Then the Kyoto Ultras get started with a succession of chants in the usual Japanese South American style. Beside me an older woman screams ‘Kyoto’ at the top of her voice and holds up a home-made banner with Japanese characters on it.

Across to the left is a banner ‘Real Naked’ which my guide for the evening tells me is a group of fans who appear at games with the top half of clothing off and bare chested.

Jubilo have a fan base of around 100 at the game located at the opposite end of the ground but the rain does not stop them singing throughout non-stop. There is though no abusive chanting and its largely only supportive rhythmic singing, jumping and chanting.

The reference to Sanga in the Kyoto team name is a reference to the Buddhist word meaning ‘group’ or ‘club’. With a tradition of beautiful Buddhist temples all around the city this is where the referencing comes from. Originally the club were called Kyoto Purple Sanga with purple being the club colours.

Jubilo Iwata were originally the Yamaha corporation’s football team and its most famous player is possibly Dunga the Brazil captain and later national team coach.

Kyoto Sanga eventually conceded five goals in this game and with the final whistle yet to blow it was time for me to rush back to the main train station and catch the super-fast Shinkansen to Hiroshima.  Just as I step out of the stadium a Kyoto Sanga fan asks me if I need help finding the station and after saying yes, he tells me that he will walk me to the platforms. As the train pulls in and I step on he shouts ‘I am so glad you came to see my team’ and then says ‘good voyage’. And that was that, the moral of the story being that there are very few places in Europe where home fans wave you goodbye and wish you a ‘safe trip’ after his team has just conceded five goals at home.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima v Kawasaki Frontale

Hiroshima is a huge city that sits on western Honshu, the largest island of Japan. Very few can think of the city of Hiroshima without mention being made of the nuclear bomb. At the centre of the city sits the shattered remains of the epicentre of the atomic bomb blast where on 6th August 1945 a bomb proceeded to kill 100,000 people.  Not a few days after the bomb the first green shoots of recovery emerged and today the city preserves the atomic bomb site through a cultural museum area where the bomb landed.

This is a thriving modern city in the south of Japan and is home to over 1.5 million people.

Hiroshima is also home to several professional and non-professional sports teams. Sanfrecce Hiroshima is the foremost professional football team. They won the former Japanese league championship five times in the late 1960s and have remained one of Japan’s strongest sides.

On a sunny and pleasant Sunday afternoon in April they played a J-League game against Kawasaki Frontale at the Hiroshima Big Arch Stadium.

The day starts off with breakfast at my hotel in the Miyajima-Guchi district where there are deer and monkeys on the roam. From there it was short 30 minute journey to Hiroshima JR Station and then onwards on public transport to the huge Big Arch stadium where Sanfrecce Hiroshima play home matches. On arrival at the bus stop the motto of the club ‘We Fight Together’ is emblazoned on large flags and supporters’ young and old emerge.

While the over-riding accepted face of football supporting in the United Kingdom is that of large groups of males, in Japan the composition of fans is somewhat different. Outside the stadium there are young and old of both sexes everywhere.

Outside the stadium the vast open grassy space is filled with young families having picnics and taking pictures. Many of the surrounds of the grounds in Europe will be littered with alcoholic beers or cans or takeaway rubbish on match-day but here its different with the rear of stands crammed full with prams which are parked like supporters buses.  In Japan people have no qualms about bringing infants to noisy football stadiums.

Football fans are welcomed to the ground in Hiroshima via smiling faces outside and young volunteers rip the tickets from supporters before allowing entry.  There are formal queues, no overbearing police and entry to the stadium is simple.

Inside, behind the home goal, the home supporters jump up and down in South American style.  A huge shirt is shared as the teams emerge onto the field.   Across in the away end a ‘Forza Kawasaki’ flag can be seen.

Hiroshima start the game slowly and Kawasaki take the lead half way through the opening period. Every time Sanfrecce get near the home goal screams can be heard in anticipation. Eventually, the home side get a man sent off following a reckless challenge but it does not stop Hiroshima equalising. Despite a number of close calls near the end of the game it ends in a draw but the home fans seem to go home very happy and content.

After the game supporters queue for the coaches that ferry fans back into the city centre and onward connecting trains. The queue starts outside the ground and it’s orderly and efficient. No pushing or shoving, no shouting or arguing and only a straight almost robotic line of people push onto the awaiting buses. Japan is very contradictory as this is a country where stress and hurry are part of the national motto yet queuing in a civilised calm manner seems to be second nature to so many different types of people.

Hiroshima offered a fantastic footballing experience on a beautiful spring afternoon. With a tropical like hillside backdrop and open expansive stands the home supporters in the stadium created a colourful scene throughout.

Yokohama F.Marinos v Jubilo Iwata

Most fans memories of the Nissan stadium in Yokohama will stretch back to a July morning in 2002 when Brazil, inspired by Ronaldo, defeated Germany to win the FIFA World Cup.  It was the game where ‘Man of the tournament’ Oliver Kahn, who had performed heroics to get the surprise package of Germany to the final game, saw his reputation crumble at the final hurdle.

The game ended with Cafu lifting the trophy and Kahn throwing his gloves in the back of the German net in disgust with his mistake.  

Inside the stadium concourse there are images of games held at the stadium through the years. Most are images immortalising famous victories of the Japanese national side.   This is after all the ‘International Stadium Yokohama’ one of the foremost homes of the Japanese national football team.

But the ground also plays host to the club matches of Yokohama F.Marinos in the Japanese J-League.  Not completed until 1998 it has the highest seating capacity of any stadium in Japan with space for nearly 73,000 fans.

Marinos are one of Japan’s most popular sides and are located not 30 minutes from Tokyo in the second city of Yokohama, a thriving city with 3.8 million inhabitants. Yokohama is a modern city with beautiful harbour walks, shining pavements and thriving shopping areas. The city’s tradition is of a thriving port and one that opened Japan to the wider world of trade after periods of historical isolation.

Unsurprisingly the team itself pays homage to the naval and sea faring traditions of Yokohama’s past. Playing in a strip strikingly similar to another club with naval traditions Portsmouth, Marinos were formed by the merger of Yokohama Marinos and Yokohama Flugals in 1999; a union that also led to the formation of Yokohama F.C the now J-League.2 side.

Historically, Marinos are one of only six teams to have competed in Japan’s top flight of football every year since the league inception in 1993.  Famous players from the past include Julio Salinas and Ahn Jueng Hwan the South Korean star of the 2002 World Cup.

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The medium of manga also crosses the genre of football at FC Tokyo

Also playing were Jubilo Iwata and they like a number of other sides in Japan also use hispanic references in the team naming conventions. The team name Júbilo means ‘exultation’ or ‘Joy’ in Portuguese and a number of flags used by Jubilo fans utilise Portuguese words.

Played in front of 45,000 on a warm and pleasant afternoon the winning goal came midway through the first half from Wananabe. The ball flew into the top corner of the home end past former Japanese International keeper Kawaguchi.

And that was football in the “Land of the Rising Sun” – a country where the past meets the future. Almost 1800km had been completed mostly by high speed train; trains where the ticket collector often bows in thanks after checking your ticket.

Many of the stadiums visited stood near or not far from modern skyscrapers while the trains seemed to pass through localities where thousands of cramped apartment blocks stand. In Kyoto many sliding wooden doors led to traditional chambers suitable only for traditional tea ceremonies complete with Geishas indulging in classical music, dance, games and conversation.

The football ground in Kyoto was a temple for what fans there are of the resident team Kyoto Sanga.

Familiar Japanese themes of sushi, manga and the Geisha were all infused with football during my time in Japan. Strange football foods were tasted alongside some more familiar spread making the football, both inside and outside the stadium, at times perplexing yet very open to interested foreign visitors.

See some original images from Japan here.