In a regular season, J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai’s news conferences would rarely draw more than 30 media representatives to the league’s headquarters at JFA House in downtown Tokyo.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic brought the league to a halt, Murai and other league officials quickly adapted to the “new normal” — regularly giving briefings to as many as 300 reporters at a time on Zoom.
While Murai has not avoided controversy during his seven years in charge, it is his candor for which he will best be remembered when he steps down as chairman in the winter of 2022.
Speaking to The Japan Times, he reflected on his changing relationship with the media and his accomplishments since taking over before the 2014 season.
Has your relationship with the media changed as a result of your frequent Zoom news conferences?
Because of the novel coronavirus, the situation is changing moment by moment.
Everything can change in a week. To gather the board of directors once a month, to have a news conference once a month, it’s not enough of an opportunity to gather and share information. At some points this year I’ve had to give two news conferences a day. Add them all up and I participated in over 70 in 2020.
There’s a saying: “Both fish and organizations last longer if you expose them to sunlight.” If you take fish out and dry it, it will last for a long time. But if you don’t, it will go bad quickly.
So we take the information we have and put it out in the sunlight. If we worry that something leaking could hurt us and that we should try to hide it, that information will be leaked and the J. League as an organization will suffer.
That’s why since I became chairman I’ve made it my policy to not hide anything, and to lay everything out there. And by doing that, the media will point out when I’ve missed something, or when there’s something they want to know.
By opening myself up in this way, I get a lot of information. That’s been a dramatic change in my relationship with the media.
The environment for media covering the league has also changed, with fewer opportunities to talk to players and coaches.
There are some merits to the changes. Last night I went to Tokushima, and they (Tokushima Vortis) clinched promotion to the J1.
The news conference took place on Zoom. Until now you’d have had to go to Tokushima and be in the press room to get that information, but now you can participate from Tokyo.
So in a sense, Zoom has allowed soccer journalists to cover clubs around Japan.
My news conferences sometimes have 300 people attending, including broadcasters in Kyushu. Until (this year), on the third floor of JFA House in Ochanomizu, the news conference following the board of directors meetings had around 30 people attending — and they were the only ones who could get this information.
In that sense we’ve become open, and we’ve become closer with the media.
That said, when we’re only able to ask players two or three questions — and teams are developing owned media platforms of their own — it does feel like the media isn’t always able to maintain its relationship with the players.
Having given news conferences with 300 people, and now speaking to you one-on-one like this and seeing how much we’ve discussed, I definitely see where you’re coming from.
Even within environments like Zoom calls, I think there are merits on both sides to giving players and journalists more opportunities and time to interact. This year we had to prioritize everyone’s safety because of the coronavirus, but if there are things we can improve we want to improve them.
The 2021 season will be your last as chairman. How do you look back on your seven years in charge until now?
I was never a (professional) player, or a manager, or a coach, or a club chairman. I came from the business world, and I’m grateful to the soccer community for being so broad-minded and willing to accept an outsider.
A lot has happened. When I arrived we were in financial trouble.
After that, we signed our (10-year, $2 billion domestic broadcasting) contract with DAZN and recovered quickly. Then famous players came to the league and our attendance increased. Then the coronavirus hit and we ended up back at the beginning.
A lot has happened, but personally it’s been a quick seven years. I’ve been so busy I didn’t notice it had passed so quickly.
But during my tenure, I’ve learned that within the global soccer community, Japan has a lot it can be proud of.
I want the rest of the world to see our supporters. Even with 20,000 fans in the stadium, they (follow the anti-infection rules so well) that you can hear the players on the pitch. Despite the pandemic, none of our clubs have collapsed (financially) … and I haven’t heard of any situation in which salaries aren’t being paid. We can absolutely be proud of our financial fair play, and our safe and secure stadiums.
Shortly after your appointment there was the “Japanese Only” incident, and then the controversy over the two-stage format (which took place in 2015-16). Sometimes you’ve been a bit of a villain to the fans. What did it take to overcome that criticism?
The “Japanese Only” incident resulted in (the league’s first-ever) closed-door game. If I wanted to protect people who love soccer, I knew we couldn’t ignore that incident.
The people who raised that banner — they may have said certain things (about what the banner meant). But since then, J. League fans have demonstrated a consensus on being against racial discrimination. I feel like by not being ambiguous about how I handled that incident, I formed a closer relationship with our supporters.
When the two-stage format started I was chairman, but the decision was made before I was appointed. Rather, I was the one who made the decision to end it after two years, when it had been planned for four.
I’m glad I was able to convince our sponsors to let us end it early. I always thought it would be a betrayal of the supporters, especially those who travel to away games every weekend, if their club that had worked hard all season wasn’t rewarded and the champion was decided in a few games at the end of the season.
There were a lot of people who didn’t understand the circumstances, and many people thought that the format was my idea. It’s a misunderstanding, but I didn’t feel the need to correct it.
What are you most proud of during your tenure?
We’ve had 56 clubs (in 2020), so making any decision as a league is difficult. What J1 and J3 clubs do is very different. But this year, during the pandemic, all 56 clubs banded together and faced the situation as one, and it showed the strength of our teamwork as a league.
Everyone is different — the clubs are rivals. Because (Vortis and Avispa Fukuoka) were promoted, V-Varen Nagasaki couldn’t earn promotion. The clubs are rivals, but they overlooked that to work together and ensure the continuation of the league.
Because of that teamwork, we were able to weather the coronavirus and complete the season. So if there’s something I’m proud of, it’s our solidarity.
Have you thought about what you want to do after leaving the J. League?
I haven’t thought about anything. I’ve got one year left. It’s just like soccer — you haven’t won in the 80th minute, and if you slack off anything can happen. I’ve got about 15 months left, and until then I can’t rest or give anything less than my best.
The chairman’s job isn’t about harvesting fruit, it’s about planting seeds. If I have one more year, I can still plant a lot of seeds. They might not bear fruit for 10 or 20 years, and by then maybe everyone will have forgotten who planted the seeds. A leader’s role isn’t to collect achievements, it’s to plant as many seeds as they can.
If I have a year, I can plant a mountain of seeds, and I want to keep coming up with new ideas.
What advice would you offer to the league’s next chairperson?
I think whoever is chosen next will be better than I am, so I hope they’ll work freely. I’d never give them suggestions on what they should or shouldn’t do. They should forget everything that’s happened before, believe in their ideas and go for it.
This is the third part in a three-part series.
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