WE League Chair Kikuko Okajima should have been enraged when Tokyo 2020 president Yoshiro Mori made headlines with his sexist comments toward female sports executives.

Instead, the head of Japan’s first professional women’s soccer league says she is grateful for the former prime minister’s remarks.

“I actually appreciate Mr. Mori for speaking about his opinion, because it’s really created a shockwave all over Japan,” Okajima told From the Spot on Wednesday. “I really appreciate the timing of it, and the way the media is discussing it, and the way women are discussing it all over social media.”

Still, Okajima doesn’t expect to see the beleaguered former prime minister in the stands when the league opens its doors in September.

“I don’t think he would accept even if we invited him,” she said. “I don’t think he’s interested.”

Mori, who resigned from his position on Friday in the wake of sustained backlash from the public, Olympic sponsors and government officials, ignited the furor on Feb. 3 when he said that women “have difficulty finishing (speaking)” at board meetings because they have a “strong sense of competition” and “if one member raises her hand to speak, all the others feel the need to speak too.”

Okajima, who has lived in the United States for 30 years and previously served on the women’s board of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in her home of Baltimore, Maryland, says that’s exactly what’s expected of women serving in executive roles overseas — and that Japanese society is slowly coming around on the issue.

“In the United States it doesn’t matter who you are. You’re expected to speak at board meetings. Otherwise, there’s no point in being appointed as a board member,” she said.

“I think that it’s Japan’s norm for women to take a secondary position or a support position. It’s been like that for such a long time and it’s very difficult for older generations — especially older men — to change that opinion. But looking at comments from different media, younger generations are just questioning why (Mori was) allowed to stay at that position, and why others do not (criticize) him for making such comments.”

Over the weekend, the WE League announced something that would surely not make Mori happy: A female-majority board of directors, with 10 women filling 16 seats at the top of the new league.

In addition to former AFC Women’s Referee of the Year Sachiko Yamagishi, who chairs the Japan Football Association’s Respect and Fair Play Committee, and Yuriko Saeki, a former Villareal coach who serves on the boards of both the JFA and the J. League, the WE League has tapped retired J. Leaguer Ryuji Bando in light of his work on the JFA’s social development goal (SDG) efforts.

Okajima says that the new board members were chosen for their diverse array of skills and experience rather than their gender.

“(Bando) said that he doesn’t really know about women’s soccer or the WE League, but that’s okay. We want his opinion as a former men’s player, and his experience from (working with) SDGs in the JFA,” Okajima said.

“We don’t really care if it’s women or men, we just want to have different opinions from different specialties, and we wanted to have people from different backgrounds.”

While the league’s executive committee — composed of the heads of all 11 member clubs — will be all men, Okajima believes that won’t hinder their collective goal of developing women’s soccer in Japan.

“Obviously the J.League has a longer history, and at the (executive) level they’re all men. In certain areas we probably need to educate them in focusing on certain women’s issues,” she said. “But I don’t think it really matters if it’s men or women. As a league we’re trying to promote women’s soccer in Japan, we’re trying to make the WE League successful. If everybody has that mindset, I don’t think it matters if it’s men or women.”

Mynavi Sendai manager Takeo Matsuda (behind, center) and the team's signings pose for photos at a news conference on Monday in Sendai. | MYNAVI SENDAI / VIA KYODO
Mynavi Sendai manager Takeo Matsuda (behind, center) and the team’s signings pose for photos at a news conference on Monday in Sendai. | MYNAVI SENDAI / VIA KYODO

League moves to reassure players

Okajima admitted that communication between the league and its players needed to be improved after a number of players raised concerns over the transition to professional contracts, which took place on Feb. 1.

While players were employed by their clubs’ parent companies when they played in the Nadeshiko League, the transition to the WE League means they are now responsible for things such as signing up for health insurance and filling out tax returns.

Some, such as current Aston Villa star Mana Iwabuchi, have suggested that the decision to launch the league should have been held back until after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.

“We are to be blamed for not (communicating) earlier. We were waiting to be able to show the final product, and maybe we should have shown the work in progress,” Okajima said. “We hear the messages (from the players), we hear that they’re a little concerned about communication. We will take notes and make some changes.”

Earlier this month, the league established an office for institutional support that will be headed by former JEF United Chiba Ladies general manager Miyuki Kobayashi. The department will organize a variety of seminars and development opportunities for players, including meetings with financial advisers and career planning.

The league will also urge players to earn coaching certifications in order to expand their career options as well as growing demand for female Japanese coaches overseas. Players can earn a JFA “C” badge before they retire, shortening the amount of time needed to reach higher levels.

“Developing countries want to have coaches from Japan, because in women’s soccer Japan is probably the strongest country in Asia, and they want female coaches because (in some cultures) mothers and fathers don’t want to send their daughters to be coached by men,” Okajima said.

“I want to give (the players) opportunities to work in a different country. They probably don’t realize that so many countries are interested in female coaches, so we have to let them know that there are jobs after they stop playing. Right now, not many female soccer players think about second careers. We wanted them to see (the different paths available) so they can start thinking about it.”

As the league prepares for its first set of preseason games in late April, Okajima said that the league has signed a number of sponsors and has budgeted “a pretty significant amount” for its broadcast productions, promising an increase on the number of cameras used by the Nadeshiko League.

Officials are also reaching out to potential players from overseas, with the JFA offering stipends for clubs that sign players from the ASEAN region and the WE League pledging similar amounts for signings from other areas. The stipends, which will cover a full season of living expenses, will cover up to 16 players in total.

“A couple (Southeast Asian players) have sent videos, and we have to distribute those to the clubs. That (recruitment) message is going from the JFA to each country,” Okajima said.

“In the United States we’re going through colleges and NWSL teams. I’m also trying to connect NWSL teams to WE League teams to (arrange) short-term rentals,” she said, referring to the National Women’s Soccer League.

With its new board in place and teams filling out their rosters, the league will soon move into the next phase of promotion ahead of the September opening, including a planned event to mark next month’s International Women’s Day that has received backing from the Foreign Ministry, U.N. Women and Keidanren, Japan’s most powerful business lobby.

“We’re working not just in the sports community, but with any organization that promotes women’s rights and social issues,” Okajima said. “We’re trying to bring all of these resources and experience in, so that we can promote the WE League and promote women’s issues.

“Coming back to the first question about Mr. Mori. He did a tremendous job in bringing attention to women’s issues and their status in Japan. I really appreciate him doing that this time.”

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