Saturday, 20 April 2024

History of the J.League

Although football (soccer) has been popular in Japan for over 50 years, prior to 1992 the country did not have a professional league, to speak of. Football was always popular at the high school and university level, at least since the 1920s or 1930s, but at the "shakaijin" (adult, literally businessman) level, it was not a particularly popular sport in Japan until the 1960s. A look at the historical data on the Emperor's Cup helps to reinforce this fact -- although a few company-sponsored teams such as Mazda Motors (the forerunner of Sanfrecce Hiroshima) and Furukawa Electric (one of the parents of JEF United) were among the top challengers, prior to 1960 the Emperor's Cup was usually won by a University team.

In 1960, however, Japan's national team invited Dettmar Cramer, from Duisburg, West Germany, to come to Japan and coach the national team. The country wanted to make a respectable showing at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, and the team that Cramer put together trained intensively from 1960 to 1963. Although they put on a respectable performance in the tournament, three years was not enough time to build a team, and Japan dropped out early in the competition. However, the tenacious efforts of Cramer and the national team eventually did pay off, as the team went on to win a bronze medal at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Striker Kunishige Kamamoto, of Yanmar Diesel (forerunner of Cerezo Osaka) scored seven goals at the Mexico Olympics, and thus established himself as a legend in Japanese football.

Before he left, in 1964, Cramer suggested the establishment of a league to strengthen the sport in Japan. Based on this suggestion, the semi-amateur Japan Soccer League (JSL) was formed, in 1965, with eight teams. This league deserves to be described as "semi-amateur" because, like many sports in Japan, it was supported by corporations as a form of publicity, and the players were company employees whose "real" job kept them busy only a few hours a day. The rest of the time, they were paid to train, practice and play matches. Many large Japanese companies, such as Nissan, Yamaha, Mitsubishi Motors, and Yomiuri Newspapers-sponsored teams which went on to become founding members of the J.League.

However, as long as football remained a company-sponsored activity, its fan appeal remained limited, with company employees supporting their team, but little other action. The boom that Japan's bronze-medal performance initiated gradually diminished. In 1987, Kenji Mori, then chairman of the Japan Soccer League, first floated the idea of a fully-professional football league. In 1988, the JSL set up an action committee to discuss ways to revive interest in the sport in Japan, and, in the following year, the committee recommended the establishment of a professional league. After nearly two years of planning, in January 1991, the Japan Football Association (JFA, the official international representative for Japan in FIFA), announced the basic structure of the new professional football league, to be known as the J.League. Under the plan, the top 10 teams in the JSL would become founding members of the new J.League. Other teams would be eligible for promotion based on their performance in the semi-amateur league, which continued to operate, but was renamed the Japan Football League (JFL).


On May 15, 1992, the very first J.League match in history kicked off in front of a crowd of 59,626 at Tokyo's National Stadium. The opening match was played between Verdy Kawasaki (formerly Yomiuri Verdy FC) and Yokohama Marinos (formerly Nissan Motor FC). The first match between "J.League teams" was actually a cup contest, since the League had decided to begin its first league championship in March 2003. The founding members played the first Nabisco Cup campaign in 1992 (between May and November) in an atmosphere of intense hype, to try to create public support for the League. In its initial year, the J.League had 10 teams. The strong popularity of the league and excellent grass-roots support for teams that remained in the JFL prompted the league to add teams rapidly. Following a successful 1993 campaign with the ten founding members, it expanded to 12 teams in 1994, 14 teams in 1995, 16 teams in 1996, 17 teams in 1997 and 18 teams in 1998.

Unfortunately, this rate of growth was too rapid to be sustained. By 1998, several teams were in financial difficulty, and attendance was falling. To address the problems created by their over-ambitious attempts at growth, the league was forced to restructure at the end of 1998. Under the new structure, the top division (J1) was reduced to 16 teams and a second division was established for those JFL teams whose size and financial backing was enough to make them viable professional teams, but which were not yet strong enough to be candidates for J1 entry. A promotion-relegation system was established, under which the top two teams from J2 received promotion to J1 (assuming they could meet the financial and technical criteria), and the bottom two teams from J1 were relegated.

As the level of interest in football continued to rise, bolstered by a successful World Cup in 2002, and the financial troubles of the late 90s were resolved, the league decided that it was time to begin the process of expanding once again. The first step in the continued expansion came in 2005, when two teams from the JFL were added to J2 and two teams from J2 joined J1, expanding/returning the top-flight division to its current level of 18 teams. Following this initial influx, which was a bit haphazard, the League decided to establish a more carefully controlled and transparent system for accepting new teams into the professional ranks. The establishment of formal criteria and a system of "associate membership" for teams that intended to pursue a J.League berth was laid out as part of a very ambitious, perhaps even "visionary" project which came to be known as "The Hundred Year Plan".

The Hundred Year Plan -- discussed in greater detail in our sections on the JFL and Regional Leagues -- aims to spread the joy of football to every corner of Japan, and to cultivate professional teams in any city or town with the fan support and financial backing needed to support a team. The first phase of league expansion involved the growth of J2 from 12 teams in 2005 to the current maximum of 22 teams. In 2006 the league added another team to J2, bringing the number of teams in J2 to 13 and the total for both divisions 31. Two more teams were added in 2007, three teams were added at the end of 2008, raising the total in the J2 to 18, and one more joined in both 2009 and 2010. At this point, discussions about the longer-term future of the league began.

Initially, there was some discussion about separating the fully amateur clubs in the JFL from those who were interested in becoming professional teams, and preparing the groundwork for a "J3" When the second division reached its proposed maximum of 22 teams, so the idea went, a third professional division would be created out of those pro-wannabes still remaining in the JFL. However, the Great East Japan Earthquake, which shattered the Tohoku region in early 2011, forced these plans to be set aside. The turmoil raised questions about whether or not the existing pro clubs in Japan would all be able to remain profitable, or whether some might collapse, creating more space for other teams to join the league in their stead. Therefore in 2012, the J.League, JFL and JFA agreed to set up a "temporary structure" which would provide flexibility and allow the big questions of third-stage expansion to be set aside for a few years.

Fortunately for Japan, the Tohoku region proved to be stubbornly resilient, and the J.League was one of the most high-profile contributors to relief efforts. But while the rapid recovery and the groundswell of public gratitude boosted the J.League to levels not seen since the mid-1990s, this actually gave the League management team a big headache. Since their "temporary" structure allowed J2 teams to be relegated back to the JFL, even though the JFL is nominally an "amateur league", when the policy was actually implemented (at the end of the 2012 season) there was a great deal of resistance. It was clear that the League had to introduce a professional third tier (J3), to accommodate all the J.League hopefuls and prevent a full-scale revolt by professional teams that were forced to spend a year or more back in an amateur setup. By the time the 2013 season began, the League had accepted the need to move forward, and announced a road map for the next phase of the "Hundred-Year Plan" 

At the start of 2013, a list of financial, organizational and fan-related criteria was published, and the league agreed that when at least 10 teams (including any that had been relegated after one spell in J2) had cleared all of these hurdles, the third division would be launched. As was the case in previous rounds of expansion, the grassroots response was even more vigorous than expected. By the close of the 2013 season, 11 teams  had passed muster and several more were in the final stages of preparation. Thus, in 2014, the third phase of expansion kicked off, and J3 was launched.

For a more details on the history and events that took place in the J.League from year to year, including the championship and cup winners, the final league standings, and other important data, click one of the links in the left column, to select reports and data on the events of each year.