Eight years ago, Japan won the FIFA Women’s World Cup and earned its place among women’s soccer’s elite nations.
Now, as the sport known as “WoSo” packs stadiums in London, Madrid, Monterrey and Philadelphia, the country that introduced the likes of Homare Sawa and Saki Kumagai to the world is playing catch-up.
The Japan Football Association (JFA) declared its intent to not get left behind last Thursday after its board of directors voted to establish a new women’s professional league beginning in 2021, with the current Nadeshiko League set to continue as an amateur competition.
For Japan, where women’s soccer often struggles to attract crowds or media attention, it’s an ambitious vision. But it’s also an admission that the success and reputation of the country’s national program is not enough to keep pace with the sport’s rapid growth elsewhere.
The JFA’s announcement came just one week after Australia’s soccer federation announced equal pay for its men’s and women’s national teams, and days before a record 38,262 fans attended the North London Derby between Tottenham and Arsenal’s women’s teams at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Such success is long overdue, says Philadelphia Inquirer soccer writer Jonathan Tannenwald.
“We do not know the true potential of professional women’s soccer because it has rarely ever — and in many countries, never — been marketed and promoted as a professional sport like men’s professional sports,” he said.
That’s certainly true of the Nadeshiko League, where the burst of interest that followed Nadeshiko Japan’s 2011 triumph in Germany faded away as key players such as Sawa and Aya Miyama retired.
Yuriko Saeki, a J. League executive committee member advising the JFA regarding the new league, previously oversaw women’s soccer at Villarreal and still works at the Spanish club. She believes that the league’s success will hinge on improvements to how the women’s game is promoted in Japan.
“The rapid growth of Spanish women’s soccer in the last five years has been pushed by marketing,” Saeki told From the Spot. “The level of competition has risen as a result of improving the status and branding of women in the sport.
“Japan absolutely has to compete with the rest of the world when it comes to marketing. But at the same time, they’ll be expected to improve the quality of play.”
Saeki believes that while Japan is late off the starting block compared to European countries, it will be able to make up for lost time by learning from other countries’ struggles. That’s especially true of Spain, where a players’ strike over wages resulted in the cancellation of eight fixtures.
“Spain’s big clubs have come under societal pressure to enact gender equality, and some clubs have reluctantly created women’s teams or simply bought out women’s clubs without conviction,” Saeki explained. “Is the overall goal to organize a league, monetize it and create an environment in which broadcast rights can be sold? Or is it to sign the players to professional contracts?
“In Spain the answer was never made clear and the league moved forward in an ambiguous fashion.”
The new Japanese league will launch with six to eight clubs, likely including three sides that provided a combined 17 players to Japan’s 2019 Women’s World Cup squad — NTV Beleza (9), INAC Kobe Leonessa (5) and Urawa Reds (3).
If the JFA hopes to sign the entire league to professional contracts, it could stand to learn from the struggles of past attempts to establish women’s leagues in North America and the current success of the National Women’s Soccer League.
“The No. 1 reason why the NWSL has succeeded financially — which is where it all starts — is the U.S. Soccer Federation and Canadian Soccer Association subsidizing their national team players’ salaries to play in the league,” said Tannenwald. “That takes the financial burden off club owners and makes running things much more manageable.
“That setup did not exist (in NWSL predecessors WUSA and WPS), and the budgets always ended up being exceeded. It costs a lot of money to run a sports team, and the owners weren’t ready.”
Saeki, however, believes Japan can set itself apart from other nations by redefining what it means to be a professional athlete.
“I don’t think that ‘pro’ should be defined as ‘someone who’s able to (make a living only) playing soccer,'” she said. “I also think athletes need to understand that if they do things other than play soccer, it doesn’t make them amateurs.
“There are studies that have determined that Olympic athletes who have chosen the path of dual careers can be more competitive, and I think that players benefit from not drowning in the bubble of sports.”
One of the most potentially volatile issues organizers will need to grapple with is the sport’s recent association with social justice movements — best embodied by outspoken stars such as American firebrand Megan Rapinoe — and Japan’s cultural reluctance to allow sport to entangle with politics.
“I think ‘women’s sports’ is often perceived as a synonym for feminism, and that isn’t necessarily the case when approaching from the perspective that sports should be free of politics or ideology,” said Saeki. “It’s a difficult and delicate problem.”