The J. League has grown steadily in the first two decades since its launch in 1993.
Now, over the next 20 years, the league is looking to go global.
In 2012, the top soccer league in Japan established its Asian Strategy Office, later renamed Asia Office, to map out its plans to expand its market by promoting its brand throughout the region. Last April, the league again changed the department’s name, this time to the International Relations Department, in order to be able to respond to any overseas matters.
Speaking to The Japan Times in a late February interview a few days before the start of the J. League’s 24th season, Shusaku Yamashita, the leader of the International Relations Department, insisted that it was inevitable that the league would look outside of Japan to continue its development.
“We only have a pie of 120 million (people in Japan), and society is aging,” Yamashita said. “We had been saying that we would focus on domestic communities. But when you see your local community, the market is a little too small. So we want to make our market bigger. While our league tries to be community-oriented, we also want fans and money to come in from outside of Japan so that domestic communities will make profits from it too.”
Despite the name alterations, the International Relations Department’s focus remains Asia — Southeast Asia in particular.
The J. League has become one of the top soccer leagues in Asia today, bringing in an annual revenue of ¥13 billion, and it has contributed to the Japan men’s national team going to five straight World Cups (competing in the 2002 edition as co-hosts), starting in 1998. Other Asian leagues have attempted to model themselves on the J. League.
But at the same time, major European leagues are phenomenally popular in Southeast Asia, especially England’s Premier League. It is unrealistic that the J. League can compete with them right away.
So the Japanese league has taken its own route. It’s more of a symbiotic, let’s-grow-together approach.
The International Relations Department has only five members of staff, including its manager and the league’s managing director Daisuke Nakanishi (only two of them, including Yamashita, are full-time at the department). But they have restlessly worked to tighten the relationships and bonds with the leagues, administrators and government officials.
Yamashita and his fellow International Relations Department members also engage in grassroots activities, not just business matters.
They have, for instance, gone to places like Bhutan and Mongolia to give away used replica J. League jerseys to children. It’s recognized as part of “Sport For Tomorrow,” a Japanese government-led international sports project for developing countries ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“I tell the countries, ‘Let’s develop your country’s soccer through your own league, and send your national team to the World Cup. And in order for that to happen, we’ll provide support,’ ” Yamashita said. “If we talk to them that way, it’s easier to get sympathy from them.”
Starting in 2012 with the Thai Premier League, the J. League has concluded partnership agreements with nine Asian leagues, including Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore and Iran.
“We would like to create an economic bloc of soccer with Japan and the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries, making our league a genuine top league that 700 million people watch,” Yamashita said. “Furthermore, to expand the bloc to the Pacific Rim involving countries like the United States, Australia, Mexico and China.
“By that time, we would be able to form a group that can compete with Europe.”
The J. League eventually aims to become the Premier League of Asia. Yamashita said that in order for the J. League to gain that status, it’s vital to sign star players from those countries.
“If they do well, it leads to more people wanting to watch (the J. League), and they will recognize the player names and their opponents,” Yamashita said.