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How Football Conquered Japan: Ultras, Culture and Obsession

How Football Conquered Japan
Football has taken Japan by storm – COPA90 discover how an obsession with subcultures and active support has created Asia’s biggest and most successful football nation over a very short period of time.

In the 1980s, football in Japan wasn’t important. Clubs struggled to attract spectators, the domestic league was average in quality at best, and baseball ruled supreme. Fast forward to the ‘90s, and football in Japan was booming. So, what changed?

In 1993, a triad of events – which would later become known as the ‘perfect storm’ – changed the face of the game. The first was kick-started by an American soccer coach called Tom Byers.

Byers relocated to Japan and immediately identified the need for players to improve in regards to their technical ability. The resource and untapped potential was evident, so he decided to act, setting up the Coerver Coaching Program.

He travelled Asia, putting on football clinics for school kids, aimed at improving their technique and in-game awareness, and set up 60 football schools across Japan to ensure a consistent quality of coaching throughout the country.

The second event was Japan’s decision to bid for the right to host the 2002 World Cup. Japan had never qualified for a World Cup at the time, but the Football Association were keen to change that, and ploughed heavy investment into turning their dreams into a reality.

“2002 was the tournament that built the modern foundation of Japanese football.”

Dan Orlowitz, Editor at the Japan Times

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, 1993 marked the start of the J-League. For the first time ever, football clubs weren’t owned solely by companies, but instead represented local communities and identities, which in turn fostered an organic supporters culture.

All three events led to a spike in national interest towards football. Overseas stars such as Zico and Gary Lineker would strut their stuff in the J-League, while over 300,000 fans clamoured for tickets to attend international World Cup Qualifiers.

Japanese football has encountered a few setbacks since – not least the ‘agony of Doha’, when Japan failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup by way of a last-minute goal – but, nevertheless, the supporters scene continues to grow.

This is especially true of female support. Unlike in most European countries, where football is dominated by men, Japan has a healthy balance in spectatorship and, in many cases, the women are far more fervent in their support of the Blue Samurai.

For a nation obsessed by various subcultures, football has finally infiltrated day-to-day life and now helps connect people all across the country. The future is bright, and Japan now stands as an example of how football can take Asia by storm.