Japan: Soccer v Rugby Part 2

To read part 1, scroll down to  November 19.

School based structure

By our Japan correspondent, Neil Smith

Women’s soccer is popular

Sport for school students was all co-coordinated by athletic associations for primary, junior high, and high schools respectively, all under the auspices of the Ministry of Education and Sport.

Each primary school had its own team participating in leagues with other schools. In a move to encourage more participation in kids’ sport by local residents, the primary school athletic association was disbanded approximately 20 years ago, with soccer and local sports clubs were established nationwide.

These clubs tended to be general clubs offering a wide range of sporting activities and funded in the main by the local authorities.


Setting up a club structure

This approach did not meet the JFA’s (Japan Football Association), plans to grow the game through a vertically-integrated club structure, in line with the accepted Western model, so they moved to establish local clubs starting from 5-6 year-olds and running up to adult teams.

Along with this, the JFA started the J-League with plans to expand it to three divisions of professional teams (J1, J2, and J3), each of which had its own age group youth teams.

This provided a pathway for players in the local teams to become professionals.

Soccer continued to be played at junior high and high schools but parallel to this are age group teams at local clubs.

Leagues were made open to teams from clubs and schools, meaning that players had the choice of playing for their school team or the club team.

Growing the game and grass!

Making a breakthrough with grass for kids

Realizing that local soccer clubs and regional associations face the same issues in developing soccer from the grassroots, JFA offers a range of projects and programmes, two of which my NPO (non-profit organization) is directly involved in.

The first is the JFA Green Project, designed to promote the conversion of kindergarten and school grounds and local soccer fields from dirt to grass. After 10 years, this has been responsible for several hundred locations.

The second is Sports Managers College (SMC), a programme offering advice from external specialists in the various issues involved in starting and successfully running a soccer club. These two projects are nationwide and run every year, and both are now in their 10th year.

A professional approach

The national women’s team

With professional teams in most prefectures now, all of them named for the city of their home base, it is easy to see how young players in a local club or playing at school can look to their local professional team as their model and goal.

Professional teams are encouraged to be part of the local soccer community, through activities such as players helping coaching of junior teams at kindergarten and primary age levels.

There is a clear pathway from junior soccer at a local club, through junior and high school or the local club, to academies for elite players and age group teams (all co-coordinated by the national association), to professional teams in three leagues (starting with the local pro team named for their city or prefecture), and ultimately the national team.

I am not so naïve as to claim the JFA is perfect and accept it has its flaws. However, this is the case with any sporting body in any country round the world and is no reason to refuse to accept the very real advances this association has made in a relatively short period.

However, the combined efforts of the national and regional associations has seen player numbers rise slowly but steadily, especially at the lower age groups, accompanied by a clear rise in the quality of Japanese soccer players. (See my earlier article on September 9 and 12 for trends in player numbers.)

Rugby not moving in the same direction

The short answer about the state of the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) is that is exhibits almost no sign of the constructive change and reform implemented by the JFA over the past two decades.

It is still housed in the same dark, gloomy, cramped offices at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium (Chichibunomiya), built just after the end of WWII.

Posts still tend to be awarded based on the old-boys’ network and a lot of the work is either voluntary or rather lowly paid.

In my dealings with the local union over the last couple of decades in the small country town where I live (think Greymouth or Hokitika as a NZ equivalent), I have observed a massive void in both leadership and co-ordination by the national union to aid the local union and affiliated clubs in their promotion and development of rugby.

I hear the same story from friends and acquaintances nationwide, even in the more populous regions.

What’s the evidence?

The Sunwolves play in Super Rugby but have had limited success

I could point to the lack of continuity for youngsters whose first contact with rugby is through Rippa Rugby (called tag rugby here) as one component of P.E. at primary schools.

There are three things wrong with this.

~ First, these children are not choosing to do rugby, it is chosen for them.

~ Second, 95% of primary school grounds are hard-packed gravelly dirt, singularly and spectacularly unsuited for rugby in any form, so many of the children are not tempted to continue.

~ Third is the lack of continuity due to there being little to no rugby offered at junior high or high school level (trends in player numbers are provided in my earlier article).

Regarding professional teams, there is now one team participating in Super Rugby but the main domestic competition is the Top League, in which all participating teams are owned and operated by large corporations, and as such have little obvious links to any community.

The upset win over South Africa in 2015. Can the national team improve with the World Cup on home soil?

There are various events organized in which 1-2 professional players turn up and stage a rugby festival, attended by youngsters in each region, but these are one-off and do very little to form a genuine base on which to develop rugby.

The hope is that hosting the World Cup in 2019 will provide the catalyst required to bring about changes of anything near the required breadth and depth.

We can only hope this turns out to be true.