Soccer | From the Spot

J. League shows sense of humor

by Dan Orlowitz

Sometimes a sports organization’s greatest strength is the capability to laugh at itself.

Developing this skill has been one of the J. League’s biggest challenges in the modern age of social media-based marketing.

It’s a challenge that transcends sports in Japan, where a company’s brief foray into irreverence can result in significant blowback from customers who aren’t in on the joke.

But just as Japanese corporations have slowly adapted to social media, Japanese soccer clubs are picking up hints from the likes of clubs such as Roma, which laces its English-language Twitter account with memes and banter, as well as Major League Soccer, which arguably wrote the manual on making “sports Twitter” hip and entertaining.

The last few years in particular have seen a number of clubs’ Twitter accounts evolve from simple alerts informing fans of when official websites have updated into fully organic social channels, giving fans a more open and authentic peek behind the scenes.

Over that time, April Fool’s Day has also become a chance for the J. League and its clubs to show their sense of humor.

The most popular April Fool’s prank for Japanese soccer clubs is that of “surprise” signings and transfers, usually arranged in cooperation with other sports organizations.

Kawasaki Frontale’s ever-polished marketing team led the way this year, announcing midfielder Kengo Nakamura’s mixed martial arts debut for RIZIN, with RIZIN general manager Nobuhiko Takada replacing the 2016 J. League MVP at Todoroki.

While Nakamura surely won’t be fighting anytime soon, he will actually participate in RIZIN’s Yokohama Arena event later this month in another show of strength as two-time J. League champion Frontale expands its footprint across Kanagawa.

Vegalta Sendai announced the installation of a “Hyodo traffic light” at its clubhouse, a play on the Japanese word for traffic light (shingō) and the name of defender Shingo Hyodo.

Elsewhere, Cerezo Osaka “unveiled” an android version of striker Ken Tokura as part of a project to promote sports in Maishima, where the club’s training ground is located, while SC Sagamihara’s Seitaro Tomisawa announced his new career as an enka singer.

The league itself spoofed the return of its founding chairman Saburo Kawabuchi, with the man himself participating in a video created for the prank.

Given Kawabuchi’s long and sometimes-controversial association with Japanese soccer, including his oversight of the Flugels-Marinos merger, it’s by no means the “safest” joke the league could have made. That they chose to do so is a positive sign.

With most of the April Fool’s content having been published at midnight or early in the morning, the stage was set for clubs to respond to the government’s announcement of the new era name.

Less than two hours after the reveal of the Reiwa Era, Kagoshima United tweeted comments from defender Rei Yonezawa, the only current J. League player whose name includes 令 (rei), the first character of the new era’s name.

Gamba Osaka promoted its May 6 home game against FC Tokyo as the team’s first Reiwa Era-match, then upped the ante by announcing the sale of “Osaka Derby Of First Reiwa” T-shirts on its website ahead of the May 18 showdown against crosstown rival Cerezo.

That announcement turned out to be another April Fool’s joke, this one coming at the expense of Cerezo, which last October released “Osaka Derby Of Last Heisei” shirts to much derision from fans who quickly picked up on the shirt’s poor English translation.

It may be a while before the J. League reaches the banter level of European competitions, but it’s a relief to see that the league is capable — at least for one day a year — of having some fun.