On July 12, Motoaki Inukai became president of the Japan Football Association, bypassing four JFA vice presidents and one general secretary to land the most powerful job in Japanese soccer.
Inukai’s career began with a brief playing stint with the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries club in the all-amateur national league in the 1960s, before rising through the ranks of Mitsubishi Motors to spend his final four years with the company as head of its European operations.
By this time Japanese soccer had been transformed beyond recognition by the formation of the J. League, a new era of professionalism that demanded clubs identify with their local communities rather than the companies that gave birth to them.
But the old ties still remained, and in 2002 Inukai became president of Urawa Reds, the Saitama club that had grown out of his old Mitsubishi team.
Under his four-year stewardship, Urawa went from league strugglers to the biggest club in both Japan and Asia, cultivating a massive fan base that now rivals top European clubs for live attendances.
Now Inukai faces a new challenge. From Japan’s bid for a fourth straight World Cup appearance to why Japanese players are too pampered, Inukai explained his vision to The Japan Times in a recent wide-ranging interview at JFA House.
How are you finding the job so far?
It’s been three months, and although I haven’t (come) to grips with everything just yet, it really is a huge job that will take a long time to do.
If I make mistakes, then it has a big effect on a lot of people, so it’s a big responsibility.
What difficulties do you face on the job, both short-term and long-term?
The hardest part of the job is with the national team games. We cannot determine the outcome through our own efforts alone. The team is playing against an opponent, so the result is not completely in our own hands.
We have lots of missions where we can progress as a result of the effort we put in, and those are not so difficult.
What do you make of Japan’s performances in the World Cup qualifiers so far?
That’s difficult to answer. The team can’t do its job inside the penalty area. It’s said that Japan’s defining characteristic is that the players can’t score when they get into the box. Finding a way to change that has been coach (Takeshi) Okada’s mantra.
Soccer is a game where you win by putting the ball in the net. It doesn’t matter how many nice passes you make or how you move around the pitch if you can’t score. This has been Japan’s problem for a long time.
Do you have a contingency plan to change things if the qualifying campaign starts to go wrong?
No, that’s not something I’m thinking about.
Ivica Osim is no longer the national team manager, but he is still employed by the JFA. What does he contribute, and how does his work affect the current national team manager, Takeshi Okada?
Coach Osim was struck by illness and now he is not in a position where he can work as a coach. But he can give us advice, especially on young players and how to bring them through the ranks.
With his experience and achievements he has had lots of offers to coach again, but the doctors in Japan have told him it’s impossible. So he is giving us advice on how to bring up young players, and it’s completely different from coach Okada’s job.
It doesn’t disturb Okada, and it’s not a problem at all.
Do you have any plans to bid to hold tournaments like the Asian Cup or the World Cup in Japan?
We held the World Cup in 2002, well half of it along with South Korea anyway, and we hosted top-level games with lots of people coming to watch them, which was a great experience. 2018 hasn’t been decided yet, and from that time on we want to make a bid.
The Asian Cup is also a high-level tournament, and we definitely want to host that, too.
Has FIFA approached Japan about hosting the 2010 World Cup if South Africa is unable to?
Not officially, but we should be able to get everything ready if that was the case. (FIFA president Sepp) Blatter can’t say anything other than that the World Cup will be in South Africa, and FIFA is determined to hold it there.
They have unofficially spoken with us and with Germany and the U.S., but it is only to sound us out in case something happens.
Japan’s weak point is that we don’t know anything about what is happening in Africa. In Europe it’s always on the news, the problems people face, power outages and murder. It’s top news in Europe, but it is hardly ever reported here.
Japanese people don’t really know about Africa, and there is a gap between European thinking and the way people think here.
Your old club, Urawa Reds, is the most successful club in Japan with regards to achievements off the pitch. What can other clubs do to emulate this success?
Other teams can’t just copy the things that Reds have done to bring about success. Every team has to do things in a way that fits in with the scale of its hometown.
If you look at the Premier League, it’s the same thing. There are four big clubs, there are also clubs with stadiums that hold 20,000 or 30,000 people, and they all combine to put on a show for the fans. If the smaller teams beat the big teams once every 10 years, it’s a big celebration. I think we can have the same soccer culture in Japan.
How can you use what you learned at Reds in your new job?
The JFA has a lot of missions, but the core of our earnings comes from the national team games. If we can’t win with style and make it exciting to watch, people won’t come to the games. If that happens, then our income drops.
If that happens, then we can’t contribute to society, which would be the worst possible turn of events. From my experience with Reds, I think I am in a good position to handle this.
You have said that you would like to rearrange the J. League season to run alongside the European season. Do you think this is possible, and how would you deal with teams facing harsh weather conditions such as Montedio Yamagata?
I strongly hope that we can align the calendar with the world game, and I want to make this happen. It would help with international transfers and it would help to give our players parity with other countries in international matches in terms of fitness.
As it is now, we have a situation where we have international matches where only Japan is not playing its domestic season, which is a handicap. There are a lot of things that put us at a disadvantage, and changing the season would solve that.
There is a problem with places that have a lot of snow, but there are a lot of European stadiums with the capability to heat the pitch, and it wouldn’t be possible without that. We would have to give these teams assistance to do this. Snow is a problem, but changing the timing of the season is more important. It has many merits.
FIFA had a lot of problems with clubs refusing to release players for the Beijing Olympics. Japan also had this problem when Vissel Kobe refused to release Yoshito Okubo, which was really the first case of a Japanese club saying no to the national team. What effect do you think this will have?
The biggest problem was that we couldn’t send our best team. A club has its own concerns and they have to give consent to release their players, so it is very important to always have good communication with them.
The level of communication wasn’t enough. Looking back at that, we have to make sure our communication is good enough in the future, and we will do our best to make sure that happens.
You have said that players in Japan are spoiled and pampered. What do you think has to be done to change this mentality?
We have to start with kids at the age of 10, 11 or 12, because when they get older it’s not so easy to educate them. We want to put the emphasis on teaching them from a younger age.
We want to teach them fundamental things about sportsmanship, manners and how to live your life. If you don’t have that as a human being as well as a soccer player, then you won’t play at the highest level. That’s something Japan has been lacking.
If a player can pass and control the ball well, they are flattered so much that they get spoiled, and they get called up to the national team and they think they’ve made it. But can they respect the referee and their opponents? If they can’t do that, then they can’t grow.
Your predecessor, Saburo Kawabuchi, was a very influential figure in Japan and in the wider soccer world. How do you differ, and how do you intend to make your own mark in the job?
What Mr. Kawabuchi left for me was a JFA that he built into a massively impressive organization. He changed the image of sports organizations, and started many excellent missions.
The most important thing for me is to continue that work. It’s not about Mr. Kawabuchi or about me, but about the JFA and what it can do for society. It’s about continuing the work and not about me imposing my own personality on things.
How do you think the popularity of baseball affects soccer in Japan? Where does soccer fit into Japanese sports culture, and how can it develop?
After World War II the government put a lot of money into baseball, building new ballparks and so on as part of a policy to develop sports in Japan. That was a huge success, as you can see from pro baseball now, and it was a good thing.
But soccer is the most popular sport across the whole world. It’s a sport that everyone, from young kids, including girls, right through to old people can enjoy. It’s the sport that excites people most in the world, and Japanese people have become part of that, which is great for the country. As it has become more popular, the responsibility of the JFA has increased over the years.
But for Japanese people, sports and physical education are almost the same thing. A lot of kids don’t get their first taste of sports until they join a club in junior high school. The government doesn’t have a department that deals with the important and special nature of sports. Sports have just been seen as an extension of physical education in school, which is unfortunate for Japan.
Kids have many problems, but in Europe they can solve them through sports. You belong to a sports club as a young kid and you learn to act within the rules. You can’t battle your opponents if you can’t get along with your teammates. You can’t play well unless you respect your opponents. You have to respect the officials.
In Europe, kids learn what Japanese kids are said to lack through sports. In Japan, three different generations used to live in the same house, and through that kids could learn about that kind of vertical society. But now that has almost disappeared, and Japan has done nothing to deal with it. That causes today’s problems — a lack of courtesy and manners. Europe has dealt with that through sports, and Japan has to catch up as soon as possible.
What do you think Japan’s role and influence should be as a member of the Asian Football Confederation and of FIFA?
The Asian Football Confederation is split into east and west, and in the east you have China, South Korea and Japan, who want to take responsibility as leaders of the region.
With regard to FIFA it is really too big to play such a big role. Japan’s responsibility is organizing the Club World Cup, and of course we would like to put on another World Cup. Japan’s economic strength is also recognized, and that gives us a presence at FIFA.
England supports around 100 teams over several leagues, whereas Japan only has two divisions. Do you think there is room for a J3 in the future?
Yes. Now we have only two divisions, but there are about 40 clubs with ambitions of joining J2. However, they don’t all have a big enough fan base, enough income or players at a high enough level. There are lots of issues to address, but if they qualify they can join J2. If we rush, then teams won’t be ready and it will create a bad image.
But with the proper foundations, and if we are sure, then they can join J2. J2 currently has 15 teams, and we are planning to expand it to 20. After that we can start thinking of taking the next step to form J3.
What do you think of the way soccer is marketed in Japan? Do you think fans have enough opportunity to watch games on TV?
If you compare it with Western countries, opportunities to follow soccer are poor. The best way to encourage the fans to come to the stadium is through radio. That has happened all over the world now.
If you watch a game on TV, it doesn’t put you in the frame of mind to actually go to a stadium. If you listen to a game on the radio, you can invent your own image of how it must be, and that makes you want to watch it live at the stadium next time.
In Europe and South America that’s how it is, but in Japan we don’t have that culture. We watch it on TV, but it’s less exciting because you’re just following what happens on the pitch. That’s not real soccer.
How would you assess the successes and failures of Japanese players abroad over the years?
There’s only been a limited number. Shunsuke Nakamura, Hidetoshi Nakata and Shinji Ono are the only ones who have really done it. Others have gone and played, but it hasn’t been enough.
The biggest obstacle could well be the language. They can’t communicate. The Asian (Football Confederation) country with the most players in Europe is Australia. They have no problems with language, and they have about 300 players in Europe, so the Australian federation has a branch in Europe. Japanese players can’t speak English so they struggle.