As the international reputation of Japanese soccer continues to grow — especially in light of a surprisingly good World Cup performance— so, too, does its domestic scene.
A mere 25 years after the country’s first pro organization — the Japan Professional Soccer League — was set up, what started as a single division of eight clubs has now grown into a three-division league with a total of 54 teams.
If we compare the divisions of the Japanese league to that of, say, England then the first division J1 League is the top tier, the equivalent of the Premier League. One level down is the J2 League, equivalent to English Football League Championship. At the lowest tier, the J3 League is equivalent to League One.
While the J.League has proven to be a great success in the quarter century since its inception, the fact remains these are still very young clubs and in their current form, lack the history and the political subtexts that compel many fans elsewhere in the footballing world to pledge allegiance a particular team. For example, in Spain teams like Real Madrid and Barcelona have the Catalan separatist versus Spanish loyalist angle, Argentina’s Boca Juniors versus River Plate pits the working class against the establishment and in my hometown, Glasgow, the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers stems from the fallout of Irish catholic immigration in the late 1800s. Perhaps it’s a good thing that these narratives don’t really exist in Japanese football.
Some clubs here, though, have carved out a distinct identity for themselves that will appeal to certain types of soccer enthusiasts.
An important footnote before we begin. The season schedule in Japan is different from the August to May schedule most European fans are familiar with. The J.League runs from the end of February until the beginning of December, with the final Emperor’s Cup match in December bringing the curtain down on the season.
So, what kind of football fan are you and what J.League team should you support? Here are five teams you might consider following depending on your own attitude as a football fan.
1. Kawasaki Frontale: The glory hunter’s choice
For the football purist, going to the game is as much a duty as it is a pleasure.
Whether your team wins, loses or draws — we the loyal fans — go to the stadium rain or shine, we sing the songs and we support the players.
These days, however, a lot of fans aren’t like that. Many more recent converts to the beautiful game only want to watch winners.
As the current J1 League champions, Kawasaki Frontale are — on paper at least — the best team in the country. The 26,000-capacity Todoroki Athletics Stadium in Kawasaki City’s Nakahara Ward is one of the league’s more compact venues, but it has an electric atmosphere on match days.
Originally founded in 1955 as Fujitsu FC, the club was a regular fixture in the Kanto Football League and the Japan Soccer League (two semi-professional predecessors to the current J.League). In 1997, they rebranded as Kawasaki Frontale (from the Italian word for “front” or “forward,” hinting at their open, attacking style of play) with their colors and team badge inspired by the Brazilian League side Gremio, with whom Frontale have a long standing partnership wherein the two clubs cooperate on player development and a number of other areas.
- Grounds: Todoroki Athletics Stadium, Kawasaki
- Tickets: From ¥2,100 at the official J.League site
- Web (Japanese)
2. Vissel Kobe: A team of stars
With Japanese soccer buffs, there seems to exist a culture where fans sometimes flock to support an individual rather than a team. I remember when Shunsuke Nakamura — arguably Japan’s greatest ever player — signed with Celtic F.C. (my hometown club in Glasgow, Scotland), we suddenly had an influx of support from Japan. However, few of these supporters continued to follow Celtic when Nakamura moved on to RCD Espanyol in Barcelona, Spain in 2010.
Vissel Kobe have, in recent years, made a concerted effort to appeal to these types of fans. It’s squad of largely unremarkable local players is boosted by three international stars — World Cup winners Lukas Podolski of Germany and Andres Iniesta of Spain, alongside the Brazilian forward Wellington — make Vissel an intriguing team to watch, even if the results thus far have been mixed.
This team, however, has the financial clout of Japanese international e-commerce and internet giant Rakuten behind them, so expect more international stars to come to Vissel’s Noevir Stadium in the near future.
In an allusion to Kobe’s important role in Japan’s past as a major port, the name Vissel is a literal blending of the English words “vessel” and “victory”.
3. Urawa Red Diamonds: J.League’s “bad boys”
Football is a story and every story needs a villain.
For many J.League fans, at least those outside Saitama, the Urawa Reds fit the bill nicely. First off, they have an almost limitless level of funding, being bankrolled by the Mitsubishi Corporation (hence the “red diamonds” in the club name), which is bound to irk some grassroots football fans.
With a capacity of 63,000 people, their home ground, Saitama Stadium, is one of the biggest stadiums in the country and it is one of the best supported teams in the league. There’s an element of the Manchester United sentiment about the Urawa Reds. Some fans of other clubs dislike them simply because they are a big, wealthy club.
Urawa’s fans also have a dark side.
In 2014, a section of the stands in their home stadium unveiled a large banner that read “Japanese only” at one of their home games. To its credit, the Japan Football Association (the governing body for association football in Japan) took a zero-tolerance approach to this racism. The Reds were heavily fined and ordered to play their next game behind closed doors.
There hasn’t been a repeat, so one hopes that the ignorant minority among Urawa’s support have learned their lesson.
I’ll be honest: I don’t like the Urawa Reds and I don’t like their fans — due in large part to the reasons outlined above — but that won’t bother them one bit.
Much like Millwall in England and Rangers in Scotland, “no one likes us, we don’t care” is pretty much the fans’ mantra — and considering that they won the Asian Champions League last season, it seems to work for them.
If you like a club with a siege mentality and a “win at all costs” attitude, then Urawa Reds may be the team for you.
4. Sanfrecce Hiroshima: If you know your history…
As I said earlier, most of the teams in the J.League are largely devoid of the kind of iconic history attributed to many of the European and South American clubs. Sanfrecce Hiroshima are an exception.
The team’s history goes all the way back to 1938, when some of Europe’s biggest clubs were still in their infancy. Originally playing as Toyo Kogyo Soccer Club, they won a number of titles in the aforementioned Japan Soccer League. In a city still recovering from the horrors of war, Toyo Kogyo provided a source of hope.
In 1965, it became not only the first team in Japanese history to win both the league championship and Emperor’s Cup, but also the first team to go an entire domestic season unbeaten. They were “invincibles” decades before the likes of Milan, Arsenal and Celtic achieved such greatness. The Emperor’s Cup is a domestic knockout tournament in which teams from all across Japan — both J.League and semi-professional regional leagues — are permitted to enter. It’s basically Japan’s answer to the F.A. Cup.
Since rebranding as Sanfrecce Hiroshima in 1992, the club has built up an impressive following. The name Sanfrecce comes from local legends. It’s a fusion of the Japanese word san (three) and the Italian word frecce (arrow). In feudal times, the local lord Mori Motonari, in an effort to get his three sons to work together, was said to have told them: “A single arrow can be easily broken, but three arrows bound together are unstoppable.
And indeed, at times in the league, Sanfrecce have looked unstoppable.
Having been relegated twice in the mid-2000s, the latest and greatest chapter in the club’s history was written in 2012 when — just four years after securing a return to the J1 division — it won the first of three J1 national titles.
I always try to take in a game at the magnificent 37,000 seat Hiroshima Big Arch Stadium whenever I’m in town.
- Grounds: Edion Stadium (Hiroshima Big Arch), Hiroshima
- Tickets: From ¥2,100 at the official J.League site
5. Matsumoto Yamaga: A “community club” on the up
Back in Scotland, most of my friends growing up were either Celtic or Rangers supporters. However, I had one friend who was a bit special. He had no love for the green and white or the royal blue. He was that rare breed: a Partick Thistle supporter.
Fans like him are people I really admire. Their team seldom wins anything, is often mediocre and every single game is a desperate fight for points.
But you know what? If this seemingly endless struggle to get ahead is what you love in your football, then perhaps you might want to have a look at Matsumoto Yamaga.
As the current leaders of the J2 League, there’s a good chance that Yamaga will gain promotion to J1 next year. The team’s previous spell in the top division in 2015 ended in relegation after just one season. No mean feat considering that this is a club that only entered the professional leagues in 2010.
Owned by Alwin Sports Project — a non-profit organization setup to promote the prefectural team to the J.League — with an ambitious management team and a number of local community engagement initiatives, it’s hard not to like Yamaga. But then again, maybe it’s just me drawing comfort from the fact that, after all these years away from Glasgow, I finally have a local team in green and white to support again!
Yamaga play at the 26,000 capacity Matsumoto Stadium in Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture. The name actually comes from a café next to Matsumoto station, where the then Nagano prefectural team used to meet for coffee back in the 1960s.
To go from non-league to the top division in a mere four years was an amazing achievement for Yamaga. I, for one, think there’s a lot more still to come from this remarkable little club.
- Grounds: Matsumotodaira (Alwin) Stadium, Matsumoto City
- Tickets: From ¥2,100 at the official J.League site
Japan may not be the first country that comes to mind when we talk about great footballing nations, but with 54 clubs to choose from and a general “feel good” factor currently running through the sport here, there’s probably never been a better time to get into the J.League.
So, what are you waiting for? Grab your scarf, put on your jersey and get out there to support your local club — or the one that fits your soccer fan personality the best!
Are you a soccer fan? Which Japanese club do you support and why? Let us know in the comments below!