Improving Japanese Rugby and Soccer

(This is the first in a series by our Japanese correspondent on men’s winter sports codes aiming for international status.)

Getting started

By Neil Smith, our columnist in Japan

While the relative strength and performance of individual players is not the only way to assess how well the sports structure in a given country is functioning, it does offer a clear guideline.

We must first check the state of soccer and rugby and the level of Japan’s professional players on the world stage back when Japan launched its leagues for professional soccer and rugby.

J-League for soccer started in 1993 and Top-League rugby began in 2003, Corporate rugby was moving toward professionalism from the early-1990s and those teams are the core teams in the Top League.

Struggling to make an international impact

Yasuhiko Okudera

Back in those days, Japan was far from being a significant presence in world rugby or soccer.  Although high school and university matches at the national championships were regularly sold out, with the university semis and finals filling the National Stadium (in excess of 60,000), matches between corporate teams struggled to get more than 5,000 spectators.

In the case of both soccer and rugby, many of the spectators at corporate matches were employees of the company that owned the teams, had received free tickets, and were offered a day off work in lieu.

Sakata off to score another try

Yasuhiko Okudera spent a decade in the German Bundesliga (1977 – 86), a regular first team starter for the three teams with whom he played, but he was really the only soccer player active in a major soccer country’s league.

In rugby, the only standout player was Yoshihiro (Demi) Sakata. He spent 1969 -1972 in New Zealand playing for Canterbury province as a regular starting player on the wing, scoring 30 tries in only 27 matches (I watched him play in many games at Lancaster Park).

It is clear that, prior to the 1990s,  the Japanese sports development model was not producing world-class performers in the two major winter sports.

Enter the J-League and Top League competitions

Former England star, Gary Lineker, playing in Nagoya

These both share one clear aim: that of raising the standard of Japanese soccer players so the national team could compete on the international stage.

One common thread in the sports, and across all teams was the large number of foreign players, mainly stars who had effectively retired from top level international play (including Zico, Lineker, Stoijkovic, Littbarksi, and Schillaci in football and Joe Stanley, Ian Williams, and Norm Hadley in rugby.

Also players such as Graeme Bachop, Tony Brown, and John Kirwan played for corporate teams in the period leading up to the Top League.

The total number of foreign players was estimated to be about 100 in 1995. Their role was to improve the level of Japanese players through training and games, and thus to enhance their teams chances of winning the league.

Without doubt, the more professional approach to training and playing they introduced had a major influence on young Japanese players, so we must see this approach as being largely successful.

The issue is whether this is a temporary measure or a permanent state of affairs.

Flash forward to 2017

What’s the situation today regarding foreign players in Japan’s domestic leagues and Japanese players active overseas?

The fewer foreigners in the J-League now are far more likely to be young and upcoming players from Asian countries, than ageing stars from the leading soccer countries.

The situation is quite different in the Top League, where an increasing number of players from the leading rugby nations (mainly Southern Hemisphere) are playing here, many of these still in the early to middle of their careers.

Naturally these players command high salaries so the owners have a strong incentive to give these players more game time than young Japanese players in the squad.

The situation is very similar in the Sunwolves Super Rugby team, where 16 of the 49-man squad were not born in Japan.


( The next article will look at the national teams, and the growth in player numbers and spectators.)