JapanThis year marks the twentieth anniversary of the establishment of the Japanese Soccer League; The J League. 2012 also marks the 100th anniversary of the ending of the Meiji Period in Japanese History. Comparing the twenty year anniversary of the birth of the J League and the hundred year anniversary of the ending of the Meiji Era may at first seem almost crazy, but the two periods actually have a lot in common, starting with the similar methods used by both the Japanese Football Association and the first Meiji leaders to develop long term success, as well as the unforeseen similarities these methods created, and the common problems the two systems now share.

First of all let’s just acknowledge what ‘long term success’ exactly is for both the JFA and the Meiji Leaders. For Japanese football it is the growth of a league that began in 1992 with ten teams where now it has thirty eight, playing over two divisions. It is qualification for the last four World Cups, reaching the knockout stages in two of those tournaments. It is winning the AFC Asian Cup a record four times in twenty years. It is an incredible period of growth for football in Japan which began essentially in 1992 with the creation of the J-League; from amateur to the knockout stages of a World Cup in twenty years.

For the Meiji Leaders it is a period of economic improvement for Japan which has been the basis for the country’s success today. An isolated, island community with little economic strength before this period, by the end of it Japan had established itself as a major world power because of changes made during the Meiji, to the point where Japan is now the third largest economy in the world.

For those who don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of modern Japanese history, let’s just have a quick recap. Before 1868 and the beginning of the Meiji period, Japan lived, roughly speaking, under a feudal regime which was led by a Shogun and his Samurai subordinates. During this period Japan’s economy was underdeveloped and centred primarily on food creation and consumption. Moreover at the order of the Shogun, Japan was placed in almost total isolation from the world, stagnating the foreign economy. In 1853, Commodore Perry of the US came to Japan with ships and weaponry much ahead of Japan technologically, and forced Japan to open up its borders to trade with the USA.

Perry’s invasion created wide scale unrest throughout the country which eventually led to the overthrow of the Shogun and the creation of the Meiji government. Led by the Meiji Emperor and a small group of innovators, Japan set about developing itself into a World Power so that it could firstly regain total control of its own sovereignty, and secondly become powerful enough to be recognised as an equal to countries like Germany, the UK and the USA, all through the creation of a successful economy. By the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 Japan had done just that; it had become the first Asian country to be deemed a Great Power because of the its economic and military strength, and from there its success and development has continued to grow in the twentieth century. Importantly, all of this success has come through the use of original and highly radical methods first introduced during the Meiji Era.

Which brings us back to the J League. In 1992 when the J League was set up, football was not a sport played regularly in Japan. Baseball was, and still is the most popular sport in Japan, with traditional sports like Sumo, Judo and Kendo also regularly finding screen time on Japanese TV channels when football did not. Football was not played regularly by anyone but a minority few, and it was not watched regularly because of its amateur level. In this way the early Meiji innovators and the original JFA members that were creating the J-League had something very important in common; they were both playing catch up with other nations from the beginning, and it was this common set of circumstance that led to a common methodology in completing their aims.

This methodology began with Meiji innovators going abroad to learn from specialists, usually Europeans, in fields that would be useful for kick-starting Japan’s economy.  Hundreds of Japanese men were sent around the world, often with government sponsorship, to learn skills such as engineering, economics and manufacturing techniques which would be helpful in improving Japan as a country. So too were hundreds of Europeans brought to Japan for help in the buildings of railways, industrial machinery and the like; initiatives key to Japan’s economy in the twentieth century.

The JFA also employed the same method in the early 90s, hoping to stimulate development of football in Japan. Household names such as Lineker, Stojkovic and Littbarski were brought to the J League to play at great expense, as were established managers like Arsene Wenger, Ossie Ardiles and Carlos Rexarch, allowing keen Japanese players and coaches to learn quickly, almost via osmosis.

This is a practice still used by the JFA today; Japan has long had foreigners in key roles in the national set up. Managers of the national team have in the past included Zico (a Brazilian), Philip Troussier (a Frenchman) and the current incumbent, Alberto Zacherroni (an Italian), showing an understanding by the JFA that the fastest way to achieve parity with those in front of you is sometimes to take from them.

It was not just in coaching that the JFA took from other countries. In early seasons the JFA originally copied a championship playoff/knockout system from US sports such as Baseball and Basketball. An unsuccessful idea, this was discarded in favour of the European League finishing system eventually, but it showed that the JFA always had one eye on other countries to learn from in the hopes of catching up quickly, just as the Meiji leaders did in the early years of the twentieth century.

The JFA were also great long term planners, much like the Meiji Leaders that preceded them. Where the Meiji leaders created an entirely new legal code that could only really be described as a mammoth undertaking in long term planning, the JFA planned for the long term with their “hundred year promise,” when creating the J-League. The “hundred year promise” was a plan to have 100 teams in the J Leagues by 2092, 100 years on from its original creation, which it is currently on target to achieve, and is an example of long term planning at its most an ambitious.

These similar methods for trying to create success also had similar results for both the Meiji and the JFA, specifically a similar change of identity that the Meiji era’s impact had on Japanese companies, with that of the J league’s impact on the Japanese National team. Meiji Era development set about changing Japan’s economy from top to bottom. Focus on agriculture was shifted to a focus upon manufacturing (first in light textiles, and then on to heavy goods and electronic equipment), and this change brought with it a whole new, factory based mentality taken up by companies such as Mitsubishi, Nissan and Kawasaki; companies which took root in the Meiji Era. It is here that a distinct Japanese working identity developed; an identity based on efficiency, meticulousness, hard work but also on a strong group mentality in an almost family like atmosphere. This unique character came from an amalgamation of techniques and ideas from Europe; two examples being the adoption of the German 100% efficiency marker and the embracing of traditional British ideas of solidarity and unity in the workplace.

Some may argue that this is just a common stereotype, but a “Japanese character” can very clearly be seen every time the Japanese national team go out to play. It is the JFA and their own amalgamation of different footballing philosophies, blended with a distinct Japanese character, that makes the national team a side known for its hard work and strong sense of unity; one that whilst not particularly spectacular or filled with flair, is efficient and effective on the ball.

Much like the Meiji reformers, one may doubt if the JFA intentionally meant to imprint this identity on players when creating the J-League, but you need look no further than one of Japan’s most famous players, Keisuke Honda, a player who grew up with the J- league, to see this “Japanese character” on the football pitch. Honda is best known for being a proficient free kick taker (check YouTube for his impressive free kick in the 3-1 victory against Denmark in the 2010 World Cup, amongst others), and for being a complete, all-round midfielder. Honda’s ability to play out of position, sacrificing his own individual success for that of the team shows an obvious group mentality not always seen by players of other national sides. Moreover, his success in free kick taking shows meticulousness, if not ingenuity; free kick taking after all is an ability born out of practice and repetition, not flair or ingenuity.

Of course stereotyping an entire country with one character can be problematic; for every Miroslav Klose, there is a Mesut Ozil, and for every Keisuke Honda, there is a Shinji Kagawa, but most players in Japan’s national team share the characteristics of these Meiji-developed Japanese companies; being efficient, hardworking, well organised, and holding a strong sense of teamwork; traits that Japanese players have almost come to be known for now.

With similarities in the methods used for success, and similarities in the characters developed out of these methods, then it is only logical that there might also be similarities between what can be predicted for the J-League future, with what has already happened to Japan’s economy. Realistically, it does not look good. The economic growth of the Meiji Era did not end for Japan until the late 1980s but from there Japan’s economic growth has been near 0%, for twenty years. China’s growth, the strength of the US and Germany as well as developing countries with much higher natural resources, such as Brazil and India have all impacted negatively upon Japan’s economy.

In the same way the JFA’s quest to have a football league as strong and as large as those in Europe, or to have a national team capable of winning a World Cup, are also being hampered by the countries they have to compete with. On a footballing scale countries such as Brazil, Germany and Spain, all have far more entrenched footballing traditions, and simply have more people who play more regularly, than their Japanese counterparts. Add to this the threat posed by developing African and South Asian countries and a World Cup win looks increasing unlikely.

In terms of developing a successful J-League too, with top Japanese players moving to Europe early for more money and higher quality of play (examples of this being Honda, Kagawa, Uchida and Nagatomo), foreign leagues may be unintentionally stunting the J-League’s progress and development. In this way, just as Japan’s economy has struggled with its limitations compared to other economies, so too must the JFA be aware that if the aim is to win a World Cup or have a League system as good as those in Europe, it may be, in reality, an unattainable aim.

The 20th anniversary of the J-League system is a good point to look back at what t the JFA has accomplished then. During this period the J-League’s creation has been the catalyst for the growth of football in Japan and, when comparing globally, few other countries can boast such a rapid improvement. This improvement has key similarities with that of Meiji era economic development; similar initial setbacks and similar methods for kick-starting improvement have led to similarly quick progress as well as a strangely similar character for both Japan’s economy and Japan’s footballing identity. However, it will be interesting to look back in another twenty years to see if continued improvement for football in Japan was possible, or if it continued to show a common link with that of the country’s economy, and followed it into stagnation.

By James Darnbrook

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona