Soccer was imported to Japan from Europe! While the sport doesn’t enjoy the quasi-religion status in Japan that it does in some parts of the world, it remains a central piece of Japanese popular culture, with plenty of room to grow in future years.
In spite of a robust presence in Japanese society, the sport will have to overcome challenges of competition with other sports, as well as obstacles facing the country at-large.
So, Is soccer popular in Japan?
Soccer is the second most popular sport in Japan, with baseball being the most popular. The soccer culture is established among both men and women, with the country boasting one of the best women’s soccer teams on a consistent basis.
The country’s soccer governing body is the Japan Football Association, which oversees the J.League which is the top professional league in Japan.
Clubs also compete in the Emperor’s Cup, which acts as the chief knock-out tournament in the country, similar to the FA Cup or Copa del Ray.
Large crowds gather to witness matches at the highest level, with the defending champion club Yokohama Marinos hosting upwards of 70,000 fans per match at Nissan Stadium (pre-coronavirus).
Is soccer growing in Japan?
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Soccer is increasingly seen as an option for young Japanese. While baseball has always dominated the youth sports scene (High school baseball championship crowds equal that of professional events), kids at the high school and youth levels have learned that baseball isn’t the only option anymore.
And with scholastic baseball regimens comparable to the US Marines according to a 2018 Reuters article, many are instead investing their time in soccer.
Still, soccer trails baseball as the average Japanese’s favorite sport by a 2:1 margin according to the same article. This however leave plenty of room for future growth.
The biggest threat to soccer’s growth in the country isn’t another sport, but Japan itself. The nation is experiencing population loss, with its peak population of nearly 130 million at the end of last decade to just 126 million now (fact obtained from Nippon.com). By the end of the century, less than 100 million people will call Japan home.
The fewer the bodies, the fewer individuals that will reach elite levels in soccer talent. This will mean soccer will have to compete harder with other sports for talent.
When did soccer start in Japan?
The roots of soccer in Japan—like in many other countries—can be traced back to the British Empire.
Sir Archibald Lucius Douglas, a Royal Navy admiral, is credited with bringing the beautiful game to Japan in 1873. This occurred when the Canadian-British commander was stationed at the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy.
The game became popular, and in 1888, the first official match took place in the country between sporting clubs from Yokohama and Kobe. The first professional clubs was founded in Tokyo in 1917. Soon, the game became more organized, with competitions and tournaments becoming commonplace.
The British continued to help the sport’s evolution in the Land of the Rising Sun. Inspired by the English Football Association, the Japanese formed their own body, known as the Japanese Football Association.
The nation rejoined FIFA in 1950 after being expelled during World War II. Unlike many other peer states of the time however, the sport was strictly amateur in Japan. But, pressure to professionalize continued to mount, and in 1993, the J.League hosted professional matches for the first time.
The pinnacle of Japan’s soccer history is arguably the 2002 FIFA World Cup, which it got to co-host with South Korea. The tournament was the first World Cup held outside Europe or the Americas.
The country also hosted the FIFA Club World Cup each year from 2005-08, 2011-12, and 2015-16, hosting marque intercontinental matchups involving Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Corinthiens, and Santos.
Of note, the game in Japan is commonly known as ‘sakkā,’ derived from the American word ‘soccer.’ This is largly due to the American influence present in the country after World War II.
Has Japan ever won competitions?
The Japanese men’s national team—known in the country as the Samurai Blue—have been a mainstay in international competitions since the sport took off professionally.
They have qualified for each of the past six FIFA World Cups, making the Round of 16 in three of them. Since 1995, Japan has also participated in five FIFA Confederations Cups, with a runner-up finish at home in 2001.
They’ve also qualified for each of the past nine Asian Cups, winning the competitions in 1992 (as hosts), 2000, 2004 and 2011.
Between two and four Japanese clubs have always qualified for the AFC Champions League each year, based on domestic league and cup results and the country’s club coefficient. A club from Japan has won the Asian title seven times, with the Urawa Red Diamonds possessing two championships (2007 and 2017).
The women’s national team is one of the globe’s strongest. They are currently ranked No. 11 in the world and have been pegged as high as third in 2011. That was the year that Japan won the FIFA Women’s World Cup in penalties over the United States. The squad also won the Asian Cup in 2014 and 2018.
The 2011 global triumph was a major uplifter, with the country having dealt with the crippling trifecta of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster just months prior.
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Here is What I Suggest to make Soccer even Bigger in Japan…
The building of a strong soccer culture must come from the bottom up, but leadership can come from the top down.
The JFA can establish the game at the grassroots level, investing in facilities, coaches, and competitions, as all governing bodies do.
However, the more money that is put in soccer at the youth level, the greater the return on investment. The association already operates an elite talent program for youths, so the infrastructure is already in place to build next-generation talent.
The major clubs also operate their own academies, so there is no paucity of talent development in the country.
Still, youth development is not the only way a nation can expect to build a sport. There has to be an incentive for kids to go out and play in the first place, and for people of all ages to be engaged at a spectator level.
The best way for this to happen is by making the game a superstar event. Japanese media should invest in top European leagues like the Premier League, La Liga, and Champions League.
Exposing the nation to the game at the highest level is sure to engage the 100-plus million people of Japan.
Fielding Japanese players in these elite leagues will also stimulate the growth of the game. The country will have to continue to churn out talent as population decreases.
How the future looks like?
The future of the game is bright in Japan!
As long as its national teams continue to play at an elite level, the nation will retain its status as a mid-tier global power, and top-level squad in the Asian ranks, the game will remain a major aspect of Japanese sporting culture.
Soccer may not pass baseball soon, but its spot in the top two of the country’s sporting hierarchy, but its spot in at least the top two will be secure.
The lone question mark lies within the population crisis, and whether the nation can avoid losing too much net human capital.
But if the population remains stable for at least the medium-term future, and soccer continues to recruit youth to participate, then the game will continue to live healthily in Japan.
Final Thoughts …
Japan is one of the countries that I admire the most, that’s why I’ve decided to dedicate this Post to them especially regarding their soccer culture …
… Hope you’ve found it useful and full of new information!
In the end, I encourage you to learn about the how popular soccer has become in China! You will find that really useful …