Saburo Kawabuchi is widely recognized as the founder of the J. League, Japan’s first professional soccer league which this week celebrates the 20th anniversary of the start of its inaugural season. Now 76 but seemingly having lost little of the energy and drive that brought about the biggest revolution in Japan’s soccer history, Kawabuchi sat down with The Japan Times recently to discuss the past, present and future of the J. League.
When you started the J. League, what was the No. 1 thing you wanted to achieve?
I wanted to make Japanese football strong, and in doing so I wanted to make football a major sport in Japan. Twenty years ago, football in Japan was minor — amateur, with small crowds and stadiums. I wanted to help give Japanese football the same kind of environment as European clubs. Doing so would also raise the level of the Japan national team. I wanted to turn Japan into a strong football country.
The J. League was a very ambitious project. Were you worried that it would fail?
I did nothing but worry about it. Professional baseball in Japan was set up basically to act as PR for companies, but if we had followed that model there is no way football would have been successful. It had to be like in Europe, where sports clubs are an integral part of the community. Football has a different concept to pro baseball. In Europe, people are used to having community-based clubs, but in Japan it was something that people were completely unfamiliar with. The biggest thing I worried about was whether it would work in Japan.
Looking back at the launch of the J. League, is there anything you wish you had done differently?
Nothing at all.
What are your memories of the J. League’s opening game between Verdy Kawasaki and Yokohama Marinos?
The opening game was about whipping the whole of Japan up into a frenzy. I wanted people to feel not only the excitement of the crowd in the stadium, but also the passion and the emotion of the players. Japan hadn’t had football games with crowds of 60,000 before. It was all about getting people excited. After the game, Pele came up to me with tears in his eyes and congratulated me. That left a big impression on me. It even made Pele cry!
Why do you think the J. League was so popular when it began?
Baseball was losing a bit of its popularity at the time, and there was a great desire in Japan to have something different. At the time, people in Japan didn’t know much about football, but when it was decided that there was going to be a new sports league, the media started producing a huge amount of stories about it. That created a sense of anticipation. The atmosphere in the stadiums was completely different to baseball games, and a lot of people came to watch football for the first time and realized how good it was.
Do you think the J. League would have been successful if it had started at a different time?
No. If it hadn’t started when it did, Japanese football would still be in the doldrums. That was the peak of the bubble economy years, and there was a lot of money around. Companies, public administration, towns, cities, prefectures — there was a surplus of tax money. They were able to use it to establish clubs in their communities and build stadiums. Soon after, the money wasn’t there. The 2002 World Cup allowed us to build big new stadiums, but we wouldn’t have been given the World Cup if the J. League didn’t exist. So it had to start when it did.
What do you think has been the biggest change in the J. League over the past 20 years?
That the number of clubs has risen to 40. That and the fact that J. League clubs have come to be seen as the things that represent their communities, that represent the pride of their communities. That’s been the biggest change over the last 20 years.
Has the J. League developed in the way you expected?
It has surpassed my expectations. Now there’s a second division and 40 pro clubs, and next year there’s going to be a J3. I didn’t expect that 20 years ago. I wasn’t even sure if there would ever be a second division. Now I think it’s possible that Japan could support four divisions like in England, but I didn’t think that 20 years ago.
How do you expect the J. League to develop in the future?
I would like to see 100 J. League clubs. In England there are 92 league clubs. If you think about it in terms of population, it wouldn’t be unusual for Japan to have 100 clubs. London has 14 pro clubs, and if you think about it in terms of population, it wouldn’t be unusual for Tokyo to have 20.
Finally, what one thing about the J. League has given you the most satisfaction?
That J. League players have been able to join European teams and play for them. Now there are more than ever, but I’d like to see 30 former J. League players in Europe, with 20 of them playing regularly. At the moment there are about 20 over there and 10 of them regulars. If that was double then I’d be very satisfied. The fact that Shinji Kagawa is a regular at Manchester United is like a dream come true. That’s what gives me more satisfaction than anything.