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Yoshimi Yamashita may have made history as the first woman to officiate a J. League game, but she’s confident she’ll be far from the last.

The 35-year-old oversaw Sunday’s third-division encounter between YSCC Yokohama and Tegevajaro Miyazaki, becoming the latest in a growing global trend of female referees in men’s competitions.

“In order to get this opportunity I needed the understanding of the Japan Football Association, the J. League, the teams and the players, as well as all of the trust I’d built with my fellow referees across the country, and I felt that responsibility very keenly,” Yamashita said on Monday.

“Before the match I was nervous, but once it kicked off I didn’t have time to think about it. The most difficult part was the coin toss.”

Toshiyuki Mayuzumi, the chairman of the JFA’s referee committee, praised Yamashita’s performance in the 2-0 win by Tegevajaro at Yokohama’s Mitsuzawa Stadium.

“Watching the match I was probably more nervous than Yamashita, but as time went on I was confident in her ability to run things,” Mayuzumi said. “After the game I talked to (J. League vice chairman) Hiromi Hara and officials from both clubs, and everyone said her officiating was stress-free.

“In the past women such as (former international referees) Mayumi Oiwa and Sachiko Yamagishi have officiated Japan Football League games, and Yamashita is running on the path they established. I hope we’re starting to enter a world where referees can be assigned games based on their ability, not their gender.”

Yamashita, who began playing soccer in kindergarten, first took up the whistle in college after an invitation from teammate and fellow referee Makoto Bozono.

Yamashita greets players after Sunday's match at Mitsuzawa Stadium. | JAPAN FOOTBALL ASSOCIATION
Yamashita greets players after Sunday’s match at Mitsuzawa Stadium. | JAPAN FOOTBALL ASSOCIATION

She has quickly risen through the ranks, breaking ground as the first woman to officiate an Asian Football Confederation men’s club match in 2019 before taking charge of two matches at that year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup. After refereeing games in the JFL — the national amateur competition below the J. League — over the last two seasons, she was registered to the J. League’s referee list in December.

“I wouldn’t say officiating is ‘fun’ but there’s a lot that makes it worth doing,” Yamashita said. “The players run up and down the field and use their heads, and referees are the same. We have to keep the rules of the game, and if you understand refereeing on a deeper level you can enjoy soccer more.

“Since becoming a referee I’ve been able to meet a lot of people, and I’ve seen the effort that goes into holding a match. They’re all working behind the scenes and they all love the sport.”

Yamashita hopes that being under the spotlight will lead to more attention toward her fellow female referees as well as the creation of better developmental environments and more opportunities on the field.

“It means a lot that the J. League, by giving me this chance, has created more possibilities for women,” Yamashita said. “We have to keep giving referees more opportunities as their status improves.”

While Yamashita’s biggest assignment yet will come this summer at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, she insists that her focus is always on her next match.

“I’ll be (representing Japan) as a referee, so I want to give 100%,” Yamashita said. “I’ve been working toward (the Olympics) every day, but first I have to focus on the games ahead of me.”

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