Soccer

WE League chair plots ambitious, progressive path for women's game

by Dan Orlowitz

Staff writer

Top players and female coaches from around the world. Promotion of LGBTQ issues. Community markets outside stadiums. Monetization of players’ biometric data.

Kikuko Okajima’s vision for the WE League, Japan’s new professional women’s soccer competition, is nothing short of ambitious.

But despite playing a key role in the organization of the Japanese women’s game and a successful career in the financial sector, it wasn’t until the coronavirus made virtual meetings the “new normal” that she was in a position to take up the role of chair — from her home in Baltimore, Maryland.

“I was helping, trying to find corporate sponsors or partners, but I was going to serve more of a back-end role,” Okajima, who has lived in the United States for 29 years, told The Japan Times last Monday. “But after COVID-19, the standard procedure of meetings is online.

“Looking at my career, the fact that I was a female player at an early stage, it makes sense, but if there’s no COVID-19 there’s no way the (Japan Football Association) would select somebody outside of Japan.”

Okajima’s contributions to women’s soccer in Japan are indisputable, even if her name was unknown to few beyond the women’s game’s ardent followers before her appointment was announced last month.

A member of FC Jinnan, Japan’s first women’s soccer club, Okajima’s experiences struggling to find opponents, coaches and even pitches led to her decision to help found the Japan Women’s Football Federation — the organization that eventually pushed the JFA to begin registering women’s players and form a national team.

“The (Japanese) press was not kind. They just wanted to focus on our breasts, our hips. We were not treated as female athletes. We were treated as girls playing a boy’s game,” Okajima said.

“Playing in Taiwan (with) FC Jinnan, before the national team was formed, was my first experience being overseas and playing against other teams. It really changed my mindset, that I have to do something, otherwise … we can’t stay like this.

“Other countries sent their national teams to Japan and we didn’t even have the flag on our chest. We had the flag on the side of our arms because we weren’t formally representing Japan.”

WE League Chair Kikuko Okajima will oversee the league from her home in Baltimore, Maryland. | COURTESY OF KIKUKO OKAJIMA
WE League Chair Kikuko Okajima will oversee the league from her home in Baltimore, Maryland. | COURTESY OF KIKUKO OKAJIMA

By 1989, when Okajima was dispatched to Singapore by her employer, Japan had a women’s team as well as the L. League — now known as the Nadeshiko League. But heavy corporate investments in women’s soccer were fueled by the country’s bubble economy, and those dried up just as quickly when that bubble burst in the early 1990s. Okajima’s former club was among the casualties, having been absorbed just years earlier by Nissan SC Ladies.

“All the companies struggled after the bubble burst, so they decided to shut down the program (in 1994),” Okajima said. “It’s understandable, (the team) was more about public relations. … They had some spectators but it wasn’t a self-sustaining business.”

Sixteen years later the Nadeshiko League is still alive, having expanded to three divisions. But despite a temporary surge in interest following Japan’s Women’s World Cup conquest in 2011, crowds have stagnated and clubs get by with miniscule budgets — even as the rest of the world has caught up to and even exceeded Japan in terms of both developing and marketing women’s players and clubs.

One step toward rebuilding Japan’s reputation as a women’s soccer power will be importing foreign talent who can raise the level of domestic players — a strategy the L. League successfully utilized in its early years.

“If we have financial strength and a successful league as a business model, we should be able to bring top players and female head coaches,” said Okajima.

Among her ideas is working with local football associations to schedule youth games around WE League fixtures — and even arranging youth tournaments at stadium subgrounds — in order to allow young players and their families to attend more often.

Outside the stadiums, Okajima envisions gatherings similar to community fairs: attendees would be able to browse vegetable stands and craft sellers; receive mammograms or skin cancer tests at mobile cancer screening centers; and participate in seminars discussing women’s issues.

“I don’t see many female fans and I don’t see many girls (at Nadeshiko League games),” Okajima said, acknowledging the J. League’s success in attracting women and families compared to other men’s leagues across the world. “Those are the groups we want to bring to the WE League as a new type of fan. Female J. League fans can be potential WE League fans. But we need to convince someone who’s never been to a women’s game to come.”

Key to drawing J. League fans to women’s soccer will be the support of Japan’s professional men’s league, which Okajima believes she will have after receiving assurances from J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai.

“I asked Murai if we could schedule doubleheaders, because I understand that the owners of the venues don’t like them because of the maintenance issues, but he says it’s fine and we can plan for them once or twice a year,” Okajima said, adding that she hoped to learn from his leadership style.

“He brought in the DAZN contract (a 10-year, $2 billion domestic broadcast agreement), and that’s huge. He has different ideas for making the J. League brand more valuable. He’s willing to learn from other countries, other successful leagues, and try to implement that in Japan.”

Beleza midfielder Yui Hasegawa (center) takes a shot during a Nadeshiko League game against Nojima Stella on July 19 at Ajinomoto Field Nishigaoka in Tokyo. | KYODO
Beleza midfielder Yui Hasegawa (center) takes a shot during a Nadeshiko League game against Nojima Stella on July 19 at Ajinomoto Field Nishigaoka in Tokyo. | KYODO

As Okajima looks to match Murai’s success in charge of the J. League, she will be aiming to use her business experience to find like-minded corporate partners. In addition to the league’s “open lab concept,” in which players’ biometric data would be marketed to companies looking to develop products for female athletes, Okajima wants to find corporate sponsors who have bought into the league’s ethos.

“We’re hoping that WE League sponsors can be viewed as women-friendly workplaces, companies that are seriously promoting women,” she said. “We’re trying to create more value for sponsors than just being a name on a shirt.”

She is equally committed to using the league to promote social issues — a notorious third rail in Japanese sports — and recognizes the role that U.S. sports have played in the promotion of LGBTQ equality as well as the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Sports have the power to heal people, to excite people, to make the community,” Okajima said, recalling the surge in popularity the Nadeshiko League experienced after Japan’s Women’s World Cup win that came just months after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster. “Women’s soccer created unity and encouragement throughout Japan. People experienced that in 2011 and we hope to bring that feeling back again.

“Obviously in the United States, LGBTQ has become (accepted). I’m sure that many Japanese LGBTQ communities are still in the closet. We hope that there will be an opportunity for them to start talking about (their experience) among themselves or with others. I believe that we can do this, to create an opportunity to speak out.”

Asked whether such strong messages of women’s empowerment and social activism would have been out of place under the current league’s name — “Nadeshiko” coming from “Yamato nadeshiko,” the personification of an idealized Japanese woman — Okajima said it was time to re-imagine what the word could mean, both for those on the pitch and watching in the stands.

“I think it’s about redefining (that word),” said Okajima. “FIFA is trying to promote women’s soccer, and the whole world is trying to use women’s power. In Japan, female workers are its biggest secret — they don’t utilize the ability of female employees. I think it’s about time for women to come out as a group, to show that we can do it.

“I’m a pretty good example. I was happy playing in Japan and then I started to be really active and successful in the business world, and I’ve come back from the U.S. to lead this. We’re trying to imagine a different era.”

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