The JT got the scoop and now it’s official: Longtime Japan international Mana Iwabuchi has signed for Aston Villa in England’s Women’s Super League.

Iwabuchi is the first Japanese player to enter the increasingly prominent WSL in over six years, and only the fourth Japanese woman ever to play in England’s first division, which has attracted a number of stars in recent years as women’s clubs have invested more into their squads, writes Dan Orlowitz.

As for women’s soccer over here, the Japan Football Association’s “hop-skip-jump” strategy to boost the game has suffered two crucial stumbles this year, with the delay of the Tokyo Olympics (hop) and Japan losing out on hosting the 2023 Women’s World Cup (jump).

Mana Iwabuchi — skills, assists and goals 2020 | WOMEN'S FOOTY COMPS
Mana Iwabuchi — skills, assists and goals 2020 | WOMEN’S FOOTY COMPS

But that still leaves the “skip,” and it’s a big one: The kickoff of the new pro WE League in six months’ time. The league has put “women’s empowerment” right in its name and set out an ambitious vision for professional women’s soccer in Japan, as Orlowitz reported back in July.

Though players will be paid, a footballer’s career has a limited shelf life (unless you’re “King Kazu”), which is where Nadecare comes in. Launched by JEF United Chiba forward Ami Otaki in 2019, the organization aims to support women’s soccer players in achieving their career goals — as well as to raise the sport’s profile in a country that just eight years previously was No. 1 in the world.

Key to success of the WE League, says Otaki, will be teams gaining independence from their associated men’s clubs. “If we don’t break away from the men’s teams and find our own sponsors, we’ll still be considered ‘baggage’ for the clubs and the value of the league will go down,” she tells Orlowitz. “We’re going to have influence and attention as a new league, and we have to create value off the pitch.”