The Samurai Blue are headed for Qatar to play in this year’s World Cup. This year also marks 20 years since Japan co-hosted the event with South Korea and a lot has happened in this country’s soccer scene since then.

Sports writer Dan Orlowitz joins the show to catch us up on where Japan stands in the global soccer landscape, the controversies swirling around the host nation of Qatar, and how fandoms here interact with “the beautiful game.”

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Jason Jenkins 00:21

Hello and welcome back to Deep Dive from the Japan Times. I’m Jason Jenkins. It's World Cup time again, but what you just heard is not the World Cup. It’s the sound of Japanese striker Daizen Maeda scoring for Scotland’s Celtic F.C. in Glasgow. Along with Kyogo Furuhashi and Reo Hatate, Maeda is one of three Japanese players that are making names for themselves on the Celtic squad, but the trio are by no means the only footballers from Japan succeeding on pitches in Europe and beyond. Soccer has come a long way here in the 20 years since Japan and South Korea co-hosted the 2002 World Cup — and I do hope our listeners will forgive us for calling it soccer instead of football during this show. The last two decades have seen incredible growth for Japan’s J. League with more and more talented athletes competing to join the Samurai Blue, Japan’s national team whose symbol features a 3-legged crow that — according to myth — guided the legendary Emperor Jinmu through the wilderness thousands of years ago. Today, the level of play in Japan only continues to rise — and so do the number of players leaving the country for top leagues abroad. Staff writer Dan Orlowitz covers soccer for The Japan Times. We caught up with him recently to discuss this year’s World Cup and Japan’s ever-evolving relationship with global soccer culture.

Jason Jenkins  01:46  

Dan Orlowitz welcome back to deep dive.

Dan Orlowitz  01:49  

Thanks for having me.

Jason Jenkins  01:50  

Okay, Dan, let's talk samurai blue. Tell us briefly about this year's Team Japan, how they qualified and who they're up against next.

Dan Orlowitz  01:58  

Well, Japan will be participating in their seventh straight World Cup. They've been placed in a very challenging Group E, with 2014 champion Germany, 2010 champions Spain, and Costa Rica who have made the quarterfinals in the past. This was a very unique qualifying period for a World Cup. Obviously, it was heavily impacted by the pandemic, which delayed things by about a year. And we saw that the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics also had an effect on things because head coach Hajime Moriyasu is also a coach of the men's national team at the Olympics, and it was his job to integrate the two generations and that was delayed by a year. In terms of the qualifying itself, Japan had a pretty easy second round — big wins, double digits even against Mongolia, Myanmar —and then they got to the third round and that was pretty challenging. They lost two of their first three games, but they eventually did make it through with wins against Australia, Saudi Arabia, Oman, China and a draw against Vietnam when it didn't really matter, but they finished strongly and that's really what counts.

Jason Jenkins  03:10  

Okay, so the squad was announced at the beginning of November. Who should we be watching? And were there any surprises in store?

Dan Orlowitz  03:17 

It was a relatively surprise-free squad. This year we have 26 players rather than 23. That's because FIFA has normalized five substitutions per game. Twenty out of Japan's 26 players are based in Europe, that's more than ever. And three of the six J. League players do have extensive European experience in their resumes. So it is in some ways Japan's strongest ever World Cup squad. And the question is: How well will they do against such a difficult group?

Jason Jenkins  03:55  

Right, right. I definitely want to touch on the J. League players moving to Europe, and we'll come back to that later. But are there specific players or characteristics about the 2022 squad that you find interesting?

Dan Orlowitz  04:07 

Well, one of the players I'm looking forward to seeing the most is Kaoru Mitoma, who's an attacking midfielder at Brighton in the Premier League. He is one of nine players in this Japan squad who are coming from university soccer backgrounds, which is very unique in an era of academies, where you have the clubs who are developing these players from elementary school all the way to the pros. And that's one of the really unique aspects of Japanese soccer that I think more people should know about. One of the most surprising omissions was Yuya Osako, a forward at Vissel Kobe, who did play in two World Cups in 2014, and 2018. And he's always sort of been the talisman of the squad. So for him to get dropped — admittedly in a year in which he hasn't played terrifically compared to past seasons — was surprising because I think we did expect Moriyasu to bring one of his favorites.

Jason Jenkins  05:20 

I've really enjoyed watching the three former J. Leaguers that play in Scotland and I know you follow their careers closely. Should we expect to see them?

Dan Orlowitz  05:28

Of the Celtic trio, the three national team-caliber players who are at the Scottish club under a former Yokohama F Marinos, Ange Postecoglou, only Daizen Maeda was selected, so in some circles, Kyogo Furuhashi and Reo Hatate being left off was a bit of a surprise, especially considering how well they've done at Celtic and in the Champions League. But their omission really does speak to the depth of Japan's player pool in Europe. You have 60, even 70 players who are in Europe's top countries playing for some of the biggest leagues, playing for some major clubs and so never in the history of Japanese soccer has the Japan Football Association had so many amazing talents to choose from.

Jason Jenkins  06:15  

Yeah, it's great that Japan has a deeper bench in 2022. But what do they want to do with it? What's the bigger objective this year?

Dan Orlowitz  06:22 

Japan have reached the round of 16 three times in the past. And now the goal is to get to the quarterfinals and beyond, with the JFA’s stated goal of winning the entire tournament by 2050. Still 28 years out, but there aren't that many tournaments between now and then. I think that one of the most important things with this group in particular, playing against two former World Champions, is how well Japan will do in those circumstances. Rarely have the Samurai Blue gotten to play against marquee countries in competition. These games against Spain and Germany, are going to be a major benchmark for Japan. This country has had professional soccer for 30 years now. And this is going to be a big test in terms of seeing how far Japan has come and how much farther it needs to go. 

And I think we're in sort of a quandary where we have high expectations for these players. But conversely, Japan really does play at its best when expectations are low. If you look at 2010 in South Africa, 2018 in Russia, there were protests before South Africa calling for the manager to be fired. Shortly before Russia, Vahid Halilhodžić, the manager, was fired. And they brought in Akira Nishino with less than three months before the tournament to be head coach. And they were 30 minutes away from toppling Belgium and getting to the quarterfinals. So it's a real challenge here. We don't know how much faith to have in this team as a whole. But they can absolutely get there. And it's a team with a lot of leaders, no egos, but a lot of players who can step up and be leaders, and that may be the key in the end.

Jason Jenkins  08:13  

Okay, this may seem trivial in the grand scale of things, but I want to touch on the team uniforms for a second. Japan's kit may seem a little superficial, but this is something we're going to see all over Japan and beyond and kind of ties into how the Japan brand as it were, as seen overseas. Tell us a little about them.

Dan Orlowitz  08:32  

You're absolutely right. And Japan's national team uniforms have always been some of the most popular among soccer fans around the world. This year is no different. Adidas — which has supplied the National Team's uniforms for well over 20 years now — has brought out these origami-inspired designs. So once again, you're seeing an integration of Japanese culture and history into the uniform that the players are wearing. And that's very important. This design was leaked in Blue Lock, a popular soccer manga and anime, which is another reminder of just how much Japanese pop culture has contributed to Japanese soccer culture. There's also a sort of what they call fashion kits, these pink-and-green uniforms that were designed in collaboration with NIGO, the man behind the Bathing Ape brand, this is another reminder of how much of a role Japan has taken in the greater global soccer culture.

Jason Jenkins  10:03

Okay, so now we know the players. So let's set the stage and talk about this World Cup in particular, what are some of the storylines in 2022 thus far?

Dan Orlowitz  10:13  

Well, Jason, the fact that we're talking about a World Cup in November shows you how unusual a World Cup this will be. Qatar will be the first Middle Eastern country to host the World Cup. Their selection in 2010 was incredibly controversial. Throughout the preparation process these last 12 years, they have been accused of human rights violations in terms of how the workers building the stadiums and other facilities have been treated. The country has been criticized for its stance on LGBTQ people. And there have been concerns raised over whether gay fans will be safe attending this World Cup or as safe as they have been in the past. 

And more recently, there has been controversy over FIFA’s Supreme Committee, the organizers of this World Cup paying for fans to come — covering their flights, tickets, hotels and all that — if they say good things about Qatar and about this World Cup on social media, and refrain from criticism and even report people who are criticizing Qatar.

Jason Jenkins 11:23 

And that's not the only issue facing this World Cup right? There are concerns about accommodation, the overall cost for average fans and of course the cultural issues such as nightlife and how alcohol in a Muslim country like Qatar. But I want to touch on the actual physical strain being put on the teams themselves. Perhaps even more for some Japanese players, especially those playing in Europe. Can you talk a little about that?

Dan Orlowitz  11:47  

For the players, this is going to be a really difficult world cup with a compact schedule, they will have just one week from their last European games in many cases before the World Cup kicks off. And already we've seen the impact of this World Cup in terms of the number of players who have been injured over the last couple of years. It's been a tough three years to be a soccer player, especially with COVID and the restrictions that they've had, having to bubble, having to be really careful just in day-to-day life, or else, they risk being sidelined for several games, and they risk their teammates being sidelined. And on top of that, on top of the disruptions to the 2020, 2021, league calendars in Europe, in the J. League as well. They had to fit in all of these World Cup qualifiers, so they have to travel for their countries. They have to go back and forth, whether it's to South America or to Asia. And it's not easy, especially for Japan's Europe-based players. Maya Yoshida, a captain of this Japan side who represents Asian players in FIFPro, which is the players union, he's gone on record talking about just how physically difficult it was to travel, how many days of his life he spent in the air these last couple of seasons. That's an incredibly challenging ask of any player.

Jason Jenkins  13:15

So we've got a lot of issues swirling around here, we've got issues of human rights, we've got issues of money and corruption. What has been the international response?

Dan Orlowitz  13:26  

A number of Football Associations internationally have been constant and very consistent in their criticism of Qatar and of FIFA. Some cities in certain countries such as France and Germany, have gone so far as to ban public viewing events. Of course, there will still be private fan zones and that sort of thing. But normally, governments that would be fully in support of their national team are staying back and they're saying that they don't want to endorse this World Cup being in Qatar. A number of national teams have been very outspoken about the situation, and they've been pushing for reforms to how Qatar treats its workers. Netherlands, Austria, Australia, these are countries that have been making statements, and you'll be seeing captains wearing rainbow armbands. We've seen some videos released by players condemning the treatment of workers and urging this to be a World Cup for everyone, which is what it's supposed to be.

Jason Jenkins  14:27

And where does Japan stand in all of this? 

Dan Orlowitz  14:30  

Well, it's funny you should mention that. The Athletic surveyed every Federation that's participating in this World Cup, and Japan is one of the few that did respond and said that while they are concerned over human rights, quote, they “trust FIFA’s assurances that will lead to the resolution of social issues.” Take from that what you will. Overall, I think the country will rally around the team but sports media, though they may cover the controversy to the extent that it is a global issue, they're not going to cover it as prominently as media in England and the United States, for example. But you know, Jason, I do think that this is something that we've seen at global sporting events throughout history. You look at Nazi Germany hosting the Olympics, Cold War boycotts, the Munich massacre in 1972. Even looking at the Winter Games in Beijing, which I did cover for The Japan Times, there was the use of a Uyghur flame-bearer in the opening ceremony. How the doping accusations against the Russian figure skater were handled. And then, of course, the invasion of Ukraine that started right after closing ceremonies. This has always been an issue. I think that FIFA and the International Olympic Committee tout these sorts of events as being beyond politics. But the reality is that when you are waving a flag, that is politics, that is geopolitics. And right now with the world in such a significant state of uncertainty. It is a weird time to get out the flags because sporting events like these, they can bring out the best in people in terms of patriotism, but it can also bring out greed and nationalism and racism and it's a very complicated thing, and sometimes it is hard to balance what the players are doing on the pitch versus everything that they represent.

Jason Jenkins  17:03 

So as you said earlier, this will be Japan's seventh straight World Cup appearance and their fans have gained a sort of positive reputation worldwide for their character, their enthusiasm and even for sometimes their cleanliness as we see online. Why is there such a strong attachment between Japanese fans in the World Cup and have those fans changed over the years?

Dan Orlowitz  17:27

The costumes, the cheering, even the trash bags, as you mentioned, those made a very strong impression when Japan made its debut at France 1998. At the time, it was such a huge thing for Japan to even be there. To finally reach the World Cup after coming so close in the past, narrowly missing out on USA in ‘94, after the agony of Doha. And to get there was just such a big thing for those fans even if Japan was out after the group stage. And then the world came to Japan four years later for the 2002 World Cup co-hosted with South Korea. And that tournament is widely considered to be one of the greatest World Cups of all time. And I think that legacy has made Japan part of global soccer culture. One thing you'll see a lot of Japanese fans wearing is hachimaki, the traditional headbands that usually have the rising sun in the middle, and some words of encouragement on the sides. And not only will fans going into the World Cup, bring their own to air, but they will bring or even make their own to hand out to other fans who they meet. And that's just sort of a way to spread the good word about the national team and to build diplomatic goodwill. That's just sort of the reputation that Japanese fans have. And I think that soccer fans can be sort of cynical at times and to see Japanese fans just really happy to participate and be passionate about their team is a breath of fresh air for many.

Jason Jenkins  19:20 

How did the pandemic affect soccer in Japan?

Dan Orlowitz  19:23

Well, it's been a very difficult three years for the J. League having to overcome the pandemic, having the 2020 season essentially cut in half and compressed to fit 33 rounds into half a year instead of a full season. For most of the last three years, fans haven't been able to fill stadiums. There have been restrictions on attendance. They've had to sit separately from each other. They haven’t been allowed to cheer and sing, which is one of the trademarks of Japanese active support. So to go through nearly three years with fans only clapping and waving their flags or their towels or their scarves … it's been a very different atmosphere from what we've been used to in covering the Japanese game.

Jason Jenkins  20:17  

And you've talked about how the World Cup isn't necessarily as special as it used to be. What does the World Cup mean to Japan now?

Dan Orlowitz  20:26 

It's sort of complicated because it is still the pinnacle for this national team. And the goal is to lift the World Cup at the end of it. But the fan base has changed. And one of the biggest changes is how the fans are consuming soccer. 24 years ago, the World Cup was appointment television. This year, they're going to have to go onto their computers and their smartphones because ABEMA, the streaming service owned by CyberAgent, is the only service that will have all 64 games. The broadcasters will have some of the games and of course they'll have Japan's games but it's not like in past World Cups where everything was on TV. And so the internet has really segmented fans into bubbles in that you have J. League fans and casual national team fans and fans who follow the players who are in Europe and fans who are only interested in European leagues and may not even be interested in Japan. You also have a bit of a disconnect in terms of how often you can see these players. As I said earlier, I believe, the ‘98 squad was all J. Leaguers. This year's squad is only six as we record this, and in 2026, they'll probably all be based in Europe. So you have what the pandemic did in terms of maybe pushing away casual fans who treated games as entertainment or social events. And like I said, this isn't ‘98. Japan has been to seven straight World Cups now. And so now it isn't just about being there. It's about achieving that goal: getting to the quarterfinals, getting to the semis. And, again, the clock is ticking on winning the tournament by 2050.

Jason Jenkins  22:17  

So what does this mean for soccer in Japan? It sounds like there's sort of a distance between the fans and the national team. Is that the right way to look at it?

Dan Orlowitz  22:27  

There is in a way, because you can't see national team stars in the J. League anymore. I think that fans are proud to see the players succeeding in Europe, but they can't watch them in person — they have to watch them online. And when you're consuming players through Twitter and Instagram and YouTube, it's hard to form a relationship. And for me, 2010 was really the turning point where most of the squad was based in Japan, and there was a really tight bond between the fans and those players, but after Japan nearly got to the quarters and 2010, that was the start of the “great migration.” You had more and more players going to Europe that summer, and in the summers to follow. And at some point, the balance shifted. And this is where we are. The players are getting better. The players are amazing. But if you can't see them play, are you really going to form that connection? Are they really a national team that represents you? 

Jason Jenkins  23:28  

They're not the hometown heroes anymore. You can't just flip on the TV and see them there. You have to subscribe to a streaming service and dig through social media and maybe casual fans might not jump through those hoops. Is that what you're saying?

Dan Orlowitz  23:40 

I think that I talked about this being a team with a lot of leaders but no egos. The Japan of the 2010s was personified by players like Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, who were rockstars. And this Japan squad doesn't really have that anymore. And that's a really difficult challenge when it comes to attracting fans to this team and creating that attachment. I love Kaoru Mitoma, he's one of my favorite players to watch. And that's true of a lot of J. League fans. But is he an icon in the same way that Keisuke Honda, Shunsuke Nakamura and Hidetoshi Nakata were? I think that that's a much more complicated question.

Jason Jenkins  24:28  

So yeah, sports are entertainment. There's many forms of entertainment now — many, many more forms — and everybody's piece of the pie is a little smaller. And people have different places to look to now. That sounds to be part of the issue, right? 

Dan Orlowitz  24:42  

In a way, yes. I think that you have to look at the whole problem. And if you're asking me “Is soccer dying in Japan?” I'm going to say no, there's more interest than ever. The J. League is about to celebrate its 30th anniversary next season. And it's going to do so with 60 clubs in almost every prefecture of the country, and that's an amazing leap. When you think about the fact that in ‘93, the league started with 10 clubs representing eight prefectures, so to go from 10 in 8 to 60 in 41, I believe, that's incredible momentum. But it's just a weird time for Japanese sports in general, if you think about what the pandemic has taken from us. You look at the 2019 season when the J. League's average attendance cracked 20,000 for the first time. The season had ended above 14,000. So that's down 30%. The pandemic took that momentum from the J. League. It took the Olympics from Japan in a lot of ways. And so this national team is carrying a lot on their backs because if they succeed, if they manage to get into the quarterfinals or beyond, it will be a massive boost to soccer in this country and heading into what will be a celebration of 30 years of professional soccer in Japan. It will be a very good omen for the next 30. And of course, you know who doesn't love a winner, am I right?

Jason Jenkins  26:19  

Dan, although it's thanks for coming back on Deep Dive. Great to see you again.

Dan Orlowitz  26:23  

Good to be on. I look forward to being back again soon.

Jason Jenkins  26:33

Once again a special thanks to Dan Orlowitz for coming through with the assist on 2022 World Cup coverage. If you’d like to read more about the J. League, the FIFA World Cup or this year’s Samurai Blue squad, you can read Dan’s work by following links in the show notes. 

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This episode was edited by Dave Cortez. Our theme song is by LLLL. And our outro song is by Oscar Boyd. Come back next week for more Deep Dive! Until then … podtsukaresama.