Football in Japan is up and running with another season of the J1 League underway. This competition is the top level of soccer in Japan, and features beautiful stadiums, rabid fan-bases, and some truly talented players. From Tokyo to Yokohama, most of the big cities have a team. In a country with such history, football is increasingly becoming a major part of the scene. By learning a bit about the most prominent teams and players, fans can put themselves in position to really understand this league and properly enjoy it.
History and Competition System
Before the 1990s, Japan did not have a professional league. The top division in the country was the Japan Soccer League, a competition composed of amateur clubs. But despite the league’s non-professional status, it found impressive popularity in the 1960s. Large crowds attended matches and there was considerable passion for the sport.
That changed, however, in the late 1970s, and by the 1980s the division had weakened considerably. Crowds were down and the quality of play weakened. Then, in an effort to boost the sport in the country, the local football authorities decided to launch a professional league.
The initial league consisted of ten teams and only one division. It began play in 1993, and enthusiasm was high. The attendance was impressive, averaging nearly 20,000 people per game. This changed with time, however, as the initial excitement waned and the crowds began to shrink.
To combat the deteriorating popularity of the sport, the administrators decided to shake up the system. They introduced a second division of professional team, creating a two-tier system with the J1 league on top and J2 underneath. Increased efforts were also made to integrate the clubs into the cities they represented, increasing the sense of community involvement.
For the early part of the league’s history, the season was divided into two halves with the winners of each mini-season contesting the final. This was dropped in 2004 for a more typical European-style format, in which the points-winner is crowned champion at the conclusion of the entire season.
The bottom two teams are relegated to J2 each season, while the third-to-bottom plays in a playoff against a J2 team to determine which will play in the top division the next year.
Four teams qualify each year for the Asian Champions League. Japanese teams have a strong history of success in the continental competition.
Important Football Teams
Many of the biggest Japanese clubs have histories stretching back to before the history of the professional league. They were formed previously as amateur outfits, and then turned professional with the creation of the league. While there is decent support across the league, some teams draw bigger crowds and have had more on-field success than others.
Kashima Antlers are the team with the greatest number of titles, having won the league an incredible eight times. They first brought the championship home in 1996, and they have sustained their success ever since. They have never been relegated, and consistently finish near the top of the league. In 2018 they enjoyed continental success, winning the Asian Champions League.
Yokohama F. Marinos are the next most successful club. They have won the league four times, and are the only other club apart from Kashima Antlers to have remained in the top flight since the league’s inception.
Urawa Red Diamonds, from the city of Saitama, have won only one championship but remain notable for their incredible home support. They typically draw the largest crowds of any team in the league, and the vociferous backing of the fans has won the club admirers worldwide.
Best Football Players
Many incredible players have graced the pitches of J1 League teams. The majority of the league’s stars have been from Japan, a fact which highlights the strength of domestic players. Some from abroad have also dazzled fans and dominated the league.
Brazilian player Dunga was an early star in the top division, playing for Jubilo Iwata in the midst of an excellent career. He was one of several Brazilians to find success in the early era of the competition.
Shansuke Nakamura played in the league at both the start and the end of his career. He began with Yokohama F. Marinos, where his play earned him a transfer to Italian club Reggina. He went on to star for Scottish club Celtic before returning to play in his homeland, where he still plays at age forty-one for Yokohama FC. Nakamura, known for his mastery of the art of the free kick, is the only player to be twice named the league’s MVP.
Yasuhito Endo, a star for Gamba Osaka and the Japanese national team, is another notable Japanese star. He continues to play, even at the age of forty.