Business / Economy

Soccer still a refuge for BOJ staff

by Toru Fujioka and Masahiro Hidaka

Bloomberg

The Bank of Japan officials huddle: they’re planning a counterattack.

It’s half-time, on a balmy Saturday afternoon in October on a soccer field in Machida, western Tokyo, and the central bank’s team has just seen their 1-0 lead vanish with an equalizer by Japan Finance Corp.

One player says they should try harder to keep possession of the ball, another calls for more passes to key players in the upper-right field.

What counted in the end was overcoming the fear of making mistakes, said team captain Yusuke Kumano, who works in the BOJ’s financial markets department.

The central bank clinched victory with a goal three minutes from time. Six months later, it trounced Resona Holdings Inc. in its final game of the season in Japan’s interbank soccer league, allowing it to move up a division this year, where it will take on the Finance Ministry.

“We play harder than you might think,” said Makoto Kasai, secretary to Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda and a 20-year veteran of the squad. “We are serious about winning.”

For 79 years, the soccer club has been a refuge for BOJ officials to unwind as they helped steer the economy through war, reconstruction and a boom that vaulted Japan’s economy to No. 2 in the world, followed by the catastrophic burst of stock and land price bubbles in the 1990s that ushered in deflation the central bank is still trying to reverse.

Off the field, BOJ officials are focused on spurring inflation with unprecedented monetary stimulus to a 2 percent target that has grown more distant amid plunging oil prices. The forces against them in the world of economics are formidable, with Kuroda warning his charges to gird for a possible drop in prices over the next few months before a hoped-for improvement arrives later in the year.

On the field, the BOJ players showed their stuff against Resona. Knowing the game would make or break their chance to move up to the middle of the league’s three divisions, team captain Kumano urged all the players to show up in peak physical condition.

Donning a new uniform that borrows the design of French pro soccer team Paris Saint-Germain emblazoned with a BOJ logo, the team whipped Resona 5-0 in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park as the cherry trees began to blossom.

The BOJ faces a “totally different” world in the second division next season, warned Ryota Kojima, whose fatigue after working until 2 a.m. the night before contributed to a leg cramp that took him out of play mid-game.

The central bank had seen better days on the soccer field. After forming a team in 1936, the BOJ played its way over the next few years to the top of six divisions in a competition comprising teams around Tokyo and nearby prefectures from the finance and industry sectors.

The Finance Ministry formed a team about 35 years ago at the behest of Eijiro Katsu, a bureaucrat who later gained a reputation for his aggressive style of intervention as a lieutenant to Eisuke Sakakibara, a former vice finance minister known as “Mr. Yen.”

The ministry’s team, which lost seven straight games in the first division to teams including Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc., is poised to drop a rung just as the BOJ moves up by one.

“We will work hard to make a comeback,” vowed Takahiro Chiba, captain of the ministry team. “We want to feel the joy of playing soccer while focusing on winning.”

The BOJ players will have to up their game, said Kojima, a former secretary to central bank board member Takehiro Sato who now works in operations. “We’ll have to play more tactfully to win.”

The club counts 50 members, with a core of mostly young players who practice roughly once a week to stay in shape. For BOJ staff, who are notorious for putting in long hours at work, finding time to juggle their respective demands can be a challenge.

“I have to balance family and soccer,” said Kojima, who arrived at the October game in Machida after visiting his child’s school that morning for parents’ day. “Still, it’s worth it. Playing soccer is so much fun.”