2015 marks the 24th year of professional football in Japan after the J.League kicked off in 1992 with the first edition of the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup.
Football-wise, the last two decades-and-a-half have seen Japan become a powerhouse of Asian football who regularly attend World Cups and Olympics games. The country continues to ship players to some of Europe’s best clubs: in recent years Japanese players have worn the shirts of Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Manchester United, Milan, and Inter.
But in order to protect its reputation as Asia’s best, Japanese football must overcome several challenges, particularly when it comes to improving the level of domestic football.
With FC Tokyo’s Yoshinori Muto joining Mainz this summer, there are now nearly 30 Japanese playing across Europe. While this has greatly helped to improve the level of the national team and promote the image of Japanese football worldwide, it is also clear that the J.League continues to suffer from the lost of its best players.
While the improved level of Japanese youth academies guarantees a continuous influx of new young talent, this is not enough to maintain the level of a league that regularly ships off young stars in their early 20s.
Japanese clubs have only in recent years learned to earn hard cash for their players. FC Tokyo will receive about €3.5 million for Muto, a far cry from five years ago when Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki were poached by Borussia Dortmund and Stuttgart for paltry six-figure sums. They were later sold to Manchester United and Leicester (via Mainz) for €33.5 million in total.
Yet so far, Japanese clubs have not shown much dexterity when it comes to investing in foreign players who could serve as assets both on the pitch and in the transfer market.
Current J.League rules allow clubs to have three foreign players, a fourth from an AFC member nation, and a fifth from one of several Southeast Asian nations who have signed partnerships with the league.
While one would expect that Japanese clubs would make the most of their foreigner allocations as clubs across the world do, this is not the case. First Stage winners Urawa Reds, who were unceremoniously eliminated from the AFC Champions League in the group stage, boast just one foreign player: Slovenian Zlatan Ljubijankic, who starts most games on the bench.
Because Japanese clubs are unable to participate directly in the international market, the whole business is monopolised by a small number of international agents. Of the 60 foreign players currently belonging to J1 League clubs, more than half are from Brazil and another quarter hail from the Korean peninsula, leaving only a dozen or so from the rest of the world.
The lack of internationalisation presents several problems, the first of which is a lack of international atmosphere in the league. In the modern era, this represents a missed opportunity to bridge cultures and establish the J.League’s place in the global football community.
A lack of diversity on the pitch also makes it difficult to market the league abroad. A rare example of success in that respect is Indonesian international Irfan Bachdim, who boasts over four million Twitter followers and plays for Consadole Sapporo in the J2. His presence at Ventforet Kofu in last season’s J1 campaign sparked a broadcasting deal for the J.League in Indonesia, opening a huge door for Japanese football to the South East Asian market.
But for now, Irfan’s case remains an exception rather than a rule, as no club has shown interest in attempting to replicate his impact.
The lack of diversity has also affected Japanese clubs’ performance in the AFC Champions League. Only Kashiwa Reysol have shined on the continental stage in recent years, reaching the 2013 semifinals before receiving an 8-1 aggregate thrashing by eventual champions Guangzhou Evergrande. Gamba Osaka were the last Japanese club to lift the trophy in 2008 when they defeated plucky A-Leaguers Adelaide United.
In a way it’s natural that Japanese clubs have recently struggled against Chinese clubs as the latter have poured millions of dollars into signing top foreign players and managers. But the most humiliating defeats have come at the hands of South Korean teams, who have even less funds available than J.League clubs, or Australian clubs, who have fewer years of professional football history.
The trend might improve this season with Gamba Osaka and Kashiwa Reysol both qualifying for the quarterfinals, but it is clear that for Japanese clubs need to internationalise sign more skilled foreigners in order to compete in Asia.
All of Europe’s top leagues thrive on their multi-ethnicity, with top clubs sporting not only the best players from Europe and South America, but also from Africa and Asia. Closer to home, the Thai League has grown in leaps and bounds in recent years, today featuring players from a number of top footballing nations including England, France, Germany, and Holland.
Japan too needs to adapt to this new global trend, as introducing valuable players from abroad will not only result in improved football within the J.League, but also in increased marketing opportunities.
The first step is for Japanese clubs to bring fluent English speakers into their staff. While many J.League teams have translators for foreign players and coaches, the lack of English ability in the front office greatly hinders the potential for international operations.
But as we look ahead to what could be another disappointing transfer season in Japan, there is a clear need for J.League clubs to improve their scouting and learn to take some risks when betting on new players.
Internationalisation is not an easy process, and some growth pains are to be expected, but the world will not wait for Japan to overcome its notorious shyness. Globalisation has become one of football’s most important elements, and it is time for the Japanese footballing community to embrace it.