The Japan Professional Football League (J.League) has an ambitious goal and a 100-year vision – to build a richer sporting environment for Japan by nurturing a new sporting culture rooted in community-based sports clubs.
The J.League kicked off in 1993. Today, there are 51 clubs in three leagues, coming from 36 prefectures.
Many challenges lie ahead for the J.League, says Chairman Mitsuru Murai. Born in Saitama Prefecture, he graduated from Waseda University in 1983. He spent 25 years with Recruit before joining the J.League in 2008. He became chairman in January this year.
Japan Today catches up with Murai to hear more about the future of the J.League.
What are your biggest challenges?
One is to increase crowd attendance. Currently, the average attendance per game in J1 is about 17,000. We want to get it up over the 20,000 level. To do this, we need to improve the level of play to make games more appealing to fans. That takes time because we don’t have big names in our league, like Messi or Ronaldo, for example.
We also want to make sure the stadiums are safe and somewhere to bring the family, especially behind the goals. You can bring even small children to the seats behind the goals here, which is something you can’t do in every country.
How do you raise the playing level?
One way is for players and coaches to gain experience playing overseas. When the J.League started 20 years ago, it was almost unheard of for Japanese players to go to overseas clubs. They weren’t good enough. I’m proud that so many have now gone abroad. And when they return, they also lift the quality of the game in Japan.
I notice you are getting a lot of “football tourists” from abroad.
Yes, we are seeing more J.League fans coming from Asia, especially Hong Kong. They combine football matches with visits to tourist sites, hot springs and so on. Considering there are 51 clubs in the J.League, that is a lot of places to visit.
Are all J.League teams financially stable?
Almost all clubs are in the black. The J.League stipulates that any team that stays in the red for more than three consecutive years will lose its league membership.
What are your expansion plans?
There are currently 51 clubs in 36 prefectures. Eventually, we hope to add clubs from every prefecture. J1 has 18 teams, J2 has 22 and J3 has 11, so any new clubs will initially join J3.
What are the conditions of entry?
For a new club, the conditions are different for each division. For J1, clubs must have a stadium with a minimum capacity of 15,000; for J2, it is 10,000. In addition, the club must be financially stable and have corporate status.
What’s happening with stadium infrastructure?
Some stadiums are being rebuilt but the trend now is to build new stadiums with roofs and nearer to train stations.
How many foreign players are allowed per team in the J.League?
The limit is four per club plus one more from Asian leagues with which we have partnerships, namely Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar.
As you know, there have been a few racist incidents this year. How are you trying to prevent such incidents form tarnishing the game in Japan?
We have acted quickly on this but, ultimately, the clubs have to take responsibility to stamp out racism swiftly. This is not just a problem for sports. It’s a problem for society as a whole. But football is a global game, with close connections to other countries, so it is our responsibility to take the lead in stamping out racism. The J.League has joined in the global movement to eradicate discrimination.
Speaking of the global game, what did you think of Japan’s performance at the World Cup?
I attended Japan’s games in Brazil and I think that perhaps there was too much pressure from the media on the Japanese team. Expectations were too high. Japanese football is improving but so, too, is the football in other countries, especially at club level. J.League clubs need to play more official games against top European opposition rather than having so many friendlies. Coaches and referees need to go abroad, too.
How many referees do you have in the J.League?
There are 15 full-time professionals and more than 100 amateurs. I’d like to see more professionals.
Has football remained popular at grassroots level?
Yes. Football is still the most popular sport among children in Japan. For the 3rd year in a row, becoming a J.League player has stayed the most popular dream of young boys.
How many games do you see each week?
Usually two on weekends. I try to see games in all three divisions. Since becoming chairman in January, I have visited or seen games involving 47 of the 51 clubs.
What is a typical day for you?
Monday to Thursday, I am here with internal meetings, or meeting sponsors and doing media interviews. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, I visit clubs and watch matches. Sometimes, I also go overseas for FIFA meetings and to countries where we have tie-ups.
Do you play any sports?
Last year I ran in the Honolulu Marathon. Besides watching football, I like baseball and tennis, too.© Japan Today