Japanese Soccer and Rugby: Status and Popularity

(This is the second article by Neil Smith on the winter codes in Japan. Scroll down to September 8 to see the first.) 

International soccer

By Neil Smith, our correspondent in Japan

The national men’s soccer squad for 2017 comprises 23 players, of whom only seven are active in Japan’s domestic league. The best players are currently in professional teams in France, Italy, Germany, England, Mexico, and Spain.

An additional 16 players are on call-up status, but 14 of them play in Japan’s league.

Results too are showing a significant improvement, from regular losses (letting in 5 goals was not uncommon when playing leading countries) to more common victories against top teams.

International rugby

It is quite different in rugby, where the 2017 national squad of 35 players includes eight not born in Japan.

A great moment in the 2015 Rugby World Cup: beating the Springboks

There is a very short list of players active in leading rugby countries and these are predominantly foreign-born players. I may be wrong, but I cannot recall a single Japan-born player who is a regular starter with any of the Super Rugby teams.

For the record, Japan has played 34 matches since 1995 against the leading nations, for four wins.

One was the incredible victory against South Africa at the 2015 World Cup which is still fresh in the memory!

On the debit side there have been 30 losses, conceding 50+ points on 13 occasions, the most recent being vs. Ireland in June, 2017.

The impact of a professional league and the introduction of many foreign players seem to have succeeded in the aim of raising the level of domestic players in soccer’s case but not in rugby’s.

Ups and downs in rugby playing numbers 

Interestingly, player and spectator numbers in the two sports reveal a sharply different picture.

Unfortunately historical data on rugby player numbers is not readily available, so I will offer data on high school player numbers.

The number of registered rugby players at high school (there is no local rugby club structure in Japan) has fallen from a peak of 57,826 in 1991 to 23,474 in 2017, a decline of almost 60%. Similar declines are likely to have occurred at lower levels, though statistics are almost impossible to come by.

One point I will make is that any announced large increase in primary school player numbers is misleading, in that it reflects the inclusion of tag rugby (rippa rugby) in the school PE curriculum rather than an increase in registered players at junior rugby clubs.

Big increases in schoolboy numbers playing soccer

The number of soccer players at high school has fallen nearly 4% from the 1980 peak, but the total number of players aged 15~18 has risen steadily from 83,000 in 1979 to 179,000 in 2016 (the number of registered soccer players at high school is down a mere 3.8% from the peak).

More significant has been the increases from 1979 to 2016:

  • in the 12~14 age group – 45,000 to 265,000
  • the U12 age range – 69,000 to 290,000.

The base is clearly becoming broader, an encouraging state for the future of soccer here, but the situation is far from encouraging for rugby.

Variations in spectator support

Yurtec Stadium: plenty of space for more spectators

There is a similar divergence in spectator numbers.

The total annual spectators at professional soccer matches jumped from around 0.75m in the years leading to the launch of the J-League, to 3.2m in Year One.  Support has continued to increase consistently to 9.5m in 2016 as the league has expanded to include 3 divisions.

Even J-1, the original league, has seen its crowds rise from 3.2m in 1993 to 5.5m in 2016.

What about rugby, I hear you ask. As with player numbers, the statistics are not readily available but the best I can find show that Top League total spectators have risen from 209,000 in 2005 to 492,000 in 2016 but declined to 460,000 in 2017.

There is also a wide discrepancy between crowds for matches featuring top-ranked teams and those with lower-ranked teams (10,000+ in the former group and around 2,000 in the latter).

Even the university national championship final, which used to pack the National Stadium (capacity 55,000), now sees crowds of as low as 12,000 in 2014 and 14,000 in 2016.

That is enough statistics. The next installment will offer some reasons for the differing states of the two major winter sports.