Japan are the reigning Women’s World Cup Champions and they are having a strong tournament so far. In the group stage they beat the Swiss 1-0, dominated Cameroon 2-1, and got past Ecuador 1-0. And they have just eliminated the Dutch team by a score of 2-1. Their accuracy and technical ability are mesmerizing to watch and you can see the passion with which they play the game. They control the ball with ease and score goals that don’t seem possible. With this team being so skilled you might think the women’s game is well developed in Japan.
The Japanese Women’s National team had been virtually unknown in Japan until they won the last Women’s World Cup in 2011. Many fans of the sport admit to not hearing about them until their involvement in the tournament. Naoto Takami admits, “I hadn’t known the women’s team until they won the game” Reiko Sky lives in Japan and she remembers Japan’s World Cup fever of 2011 “The feeling was surprise, and then of course joy and excitement. The win created “NADESHIKO fever” in all of Japan.” “It was very sensational!” recalls Mayumi Tsukamoto. The win gave people something to be proud of in a turbulent time in Japan. It was in March of that year, that a magnitude 9 earthquake shook the north of the country and the tsunami that followed completely devastated the area. So when the Women’s National Team won the World Cup Shota Maruo says “people went crazy! Especially since it was after the big earthquake. People felt encouraged.” Reiko tells me it was really something special. “After they won, the team was presented the People’s Honor Award, which is the most honorable award in Japan. And everyone knew about the team and was proud of them.”
With the skill and finesse that seem second nature to the Japanese team, I was expecting to hear about an elaborate nationwide women’s program where female players can hone their skills, but Shundai Ko tells me “There is no pro league in Japan that is especially for women.” By and large the J-League is the most popular soccer in Japan and the lesser-known L-League has been working since 1989 to become a parallel league. The L-League is a non-professional league with the same format as the men’s J-League. Mayumi explains that in the J-League, “the basic policy is they have to have a team, not only men’s but women’s and youth.” So does every J-League team have a women’s team? “Well actually they can’t because I think it takes a lot of money to keep the team, but some have.” Shota is a goalkeeper for the University of Osaka and knows that there is a lack of funding for the women’s program, “They can be professional but they have to work and have another job. They can’t make enough money.” Reiko formerly worked in the sports industry, specifically with soccer, and says that women’s soccer is becoming more prominent “The number of girls who are playing soccer increased and there are many girls’ soccer teams now.” But this trend has just happened recently. Sayaka Ito remembers that when she was growing up “our school didn’t have a girls’ soccer team.” Because of this Naoto tells me the best female players became professional footballers by playing with the men. “Yes, I heard that (Homare) Sawa was used to playing with (Shunsuke) Nakamura,” says Shundai.
People in Japan are starting to notice women’s soccer and these Japanese fans have all noticed the progress of the women’s game in the country. Mayumi and Sayaka say that the women’s games are starting to be advertised and they “can see the games at a bar, the same as the men’s team.” And Reiko tells me there is still the expectation that this Japanese Women’s Team will remain the best in the world. “People tend to take it for granted that the team would win again. People easily get used to winning.” Naoto says “some of the big fan groups put a lot of pressure on them. But generally we just hope.” Shoko Fuko says they take competition very seriously but “in Japanese culture they don’t have enemies. They respect the other players.” Shundai has the same feeling, “we always say ‘Do your best.’” Shota knows the team has the talent and skill to win again. “They have to,” he says grinning.