Japanese Soccer & The J-League
Introduced in the late 19th century and officially accepted early in the 20th century, soccer has become one of the most popular sports in Japan.
Since the founding of Tokyo Shukyu-dan, the nation's first club team, in 1917 the sport has grown by leaps and bounds. At the center of Japan's love-fest with the game is the J. League, one of Asia's strongest domestic leagues.
The league was given a Grade A ranking in the Asian Football Confederation's review of the 23 national leagues in its member countries. The J. League is one of just four leagues to earn an A in the review. The Chinese Super League, Australia's A-League and the Iran Pro League are the others.
The league presently consists of two divisions, with 18 clubs competing in the top-flight (J1) and 18 in the lower division (J2). It is the successor of the now-disbanded Japan Soccer League.
The league's season once consisted of two half-seasons but now is played under a single season format.
The 18 J1 clubs play a double round robin schedule (home and away). The top finisher is crowned the league champion while the second and third-place clubs (as well as the winner) earn berths into the Asian Champions League, a continental competition.
The league operates under a regulation system similar to the format used in European soccer. The bottom two clubs of the top flight at the end of each season are relegated while J2's top two are promoted. The third bottom team from J1 plays off in a home and away format with the third placed J2 team to decide the final place.
J. League teams also compete in Japan's domestic competitions. The J. League Cup (or Nabisco Cup) is usually reserved for top-flight teams while the Emperor's Cup is a tournament open to any member of the Japan Football Association, including college, high school and regional teams.
Verdy Kawasaki (now Tokyo Verdy) won the first league title in 1993 and won again in 2004. Presently they are are struggling in J-2.
But historically, the Kashima Antlers have been the most successful club in the league. The Antlers have won the J. League title six times (including 2007 and 2008) and finished runner-up twice.
The club was founded in 1947 in Osaka, moving to Kashima in 1975. The club competed in the Japan Soccer League (JSL) before moving to the J. League in 1993.
In addition to their success in the league, Antlers have won the J. League Cup three times and also own three Emperor's Cup championships.
Jubilo Iwata and Yokohama F. Marinos have also seen their fair share of success, winning the league championship three times each.
Urawa Red Diamonds (commonly known as Urawa Reds) is arguably the league's most popular club. The Reds routinely lead the J. League in attendance despite only capturing only one league title. Domestically the Reds have won the Emperor's Cup twice and the J. League Cup once.
The league has tried to maintain its popularity in recent years by undergoing an aggressive campaign to make the game more attractive among Japanese youth.
The league has committed itself to promoting strong ties with each club's community in an effort to spur growth.
One way the league does this is by identifying teams with the names of their regions, rather than by the names of their parent companies. J. League teams carry names such as Shimizu S-Pulse and Kawasaki Frontale.
This runs counter to the model used in Japan's other major league, Nippon Professional Baseball, where teams, such as the Hanshin Tigers, are largely identified by their parent corporations.
The J. League has also encouraged its teams to foster the development of the game by running academies and other tools designed at turning Japanese children into future soccer players.
That model has proven to be efficient, even prompting a response from one of the more outspoken baseball managers of the recent decade.
"I had lunch today with a guy that said 20 kids in his son's class signed up for soccer and none of them signed up for baseball," said former Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine in 2007.
Prior to the J. League's inception, club soccer was played in the JSL, Japan's second national league devoted to a team sport (the first was the Japanese Baseball League, the precursor to the Nippon Professional Baseball). The JSL was Japan's top-flight league from 1965-1992.
Players were officially amateurs during the JSL days and each team's identity was derived from its parent company.
In 1991, the league's owners agreed to disband, which led to the formation of today's J. League.
The J. League began play in 1993 with ten clubs and was a instant hit. The league attracted popular past-their-prime foreign players, such as Brazil's Zico, England's Gary Lineker and Serbia's Dragan Stojkovic, who attracted large crowds in the league's first seasons. The league recorded its highest average attendance (19,598) during that season.
Today the J. League is a mix of foreign players and Japanese stars, and in general, continues to thrive and attract large crowds especially for games involving Urawa Reds based in Saitama, just outside Tokyo.