The Japan Football Association at 100

Captain Homare Sawa and her teammates of Japan celebrate their victory at the FIFA Women's World Cup Final on July 17, 2011 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. © Alexandra Beier/FIFA via Getty Images

2021 marks the centenary of the Japanese Football Association, an association that is at the forefront of the game in Asia. But that hasn’t always been the case…

Two events set in motion the creation of the Japan Football Association. In 1917, Tokyo played host to the Far Eastern Games, a multi-sport gathering based on the Olympic Games. Football had been a part of the games since 1913 when the Philippines and a Chinese selection played in Manila for the first official international match on Asian soil. The Japanese didn’t join in until 1917 and lost both games - 5-0 at the hands of the Chinese and a humbling 15-2 reverse the following day against the Philippines. With no football association behind them, the Japanese team had no environment in which to develop.

Sir Conyngham Greene (1854–1934), circa 1910-1915. © George Grantham Bain Collection
Sir Conyngham Greene (1854–1934), circa 1910-1915. © George Grantham Bain Collection - click to enlarge

A gift from England
The second event that propelled football forward in Japan was the presentation of a silver trophy to the Japanese people in March 1919 by The Football Association in London. The British Ambassador to Japan, Sir William Conyngham Greene, and the diplomat William Haigh were working on arranging the royal visits of the Japanese Crown Prince, later Emperor Hirohito, to England, as well as a visit by the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, to Japan, and Haigh believed that the presentation of a cup would help to strengthen the ties between the two countries.

The problem was that there was no organised footballing structure in Japan or a competition at which the trophy could be presented. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 had swept away many of the old social and cultural structures as Japan sought to modernise, and association football had been welcomed as part of this process. But it had still to gain a widespread following. The Football Association enclosed a letter with the trophy, indicating its desire that the cup be awarded to “the winning team” of the Japanese national championship. This proved to be the final impetus needed to form a football association, for which Haigh helped to draft the regulations.

The JFA is created
The Japan Football Association (JFA) was formed on 10 September 1921, and within two months a competition was organised which is now known as the Emperor’s Cup and which remains the primary cup competition in the country to this day. Known originally as the All Japan Championship Tournament, for over 40 years it afforded the winners the title of national champions and was dominated by the teams of the high schools and universities, with the winners receiving the cup presented to the Japanese nation by The FA in London.

A Swedish and a Japanese player fight for the ball at the 1936 Summer Olympics preliminary round match between Japan and Sweden. © Ullstein bild via Getty Images
A Swedish and a Japanese player fight for the ball at the 1936 Summer Olympics preliminary round match between Japan and Sweden. © Ullstein bild via Getty Images - click to enlarge

In the early years of the JFA, international matches were never afforded a high priority and were largely confined to bigger sporting gatherings. Along with regular appearances at the Far Eastern Games, Japan first entered the Olympics at the 1936 Berlin Games, where they scored a notable 3-2 win over Sweden before losing 8-0 to Italy in the quarter-finals. It was only relatively recently, however, that any of the international matches played by Japan before 1951 were actually recognised as full internationals. The four matches played before the creation of the JFA in 1921 are still not recognised, however, so the first Japan game in the record books is their 12-1 defeat at the hands of the Philippines at the 1923 Far Eastern Games in Osaka.

 

Seven matches to celebrate (click to open)

JAPAN 1-2 PHILIPPINES

Football tournament of the 6th Far Eastern Games
Municipal Sports Ground, Osaka
Wednesday, 23.05.1923
Goal: Shimizu 5

JPN • Fukusaburo Harada - Usaburo Hidaka, Shizuo Miyama - Toshio Hirabayashi, Kiyoo Kanda, Sawago knot - Naoemon Shimizu, Kisaka Rikuzan, Takuzo Shimizu, Shiro Azumi, Yoshio Fujiwara.
Coach: Mitsujiro Nishida
PHI • Not known

Japan’s first international match was played two years after the formation of the JFA, but it wasn’t until 2007 that it was afforded official status. Defeat at the hands of the Philippines in this game was perhaps unsurprising as the Japanese were up against opponents who were at the forefront of the development of football in Asia. Indeed, the first international on Asian soil had taken place in Manila at the first Far Eastern Games in 1913 and the Philippines had beaten the Japanese 15-2 during the sides’ first meeting in 1917, when Tokyo first hosted the games. Unfortunately, details of the game in 1923 are sketchy, but we do know that Takuzo Shimizu scored Japan’s first official international goal early on in a game they lost 2-1.

JAPAN 3-2 SWEDEN

A Swedish and a Japanese player fight for the ball at the 1936 Summer Olympics preliminary round match between Japan and Sweden. © Ullstein bild via Getty Images
click to enlarge

Football tournament of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, First Round.
Hertha Platz, Berlin
Tuesday, 04.08.1936
Spectators: 5'000
Referee: Wilhelm Peters GER
Goals: Kawamoto 49, Ukon 62, Matsunaga 85; Persson (2) 24 37

JPN • Rihei Sano – Tadao Horie, Teizo Takeuchi (c) – Motoo Tatsuhara, Koichi Oita, Kim Yong Sik – Akira Matsunaga, Tokutaro Ukon, Taizo Kawamoto, Takeshi Kamo, Shogo Kamo.
Coach: Shigeyoshi Suzuki
SWE • Sven Bergkvist – Otto Andersson, Erik Kallstrom – Victor Karlund, Arvid Emanuelsson, Torsten Johansson – Gustav Josefsson, Erik Persson, Sven Jonasson, Karl Erik Grahn, Ake Hallman.
Coach: Gustaf Carlsson

Japan faced a strong Swedish side in the first round of the Olympic Football Tournament at the 1936 Berlin Games, but the Swedes severely under-estimated their opponents, especially after taking a 2-0 first-half lead through Erik Persson. In one of the great Olympic comebacks, the fleet-footed Japanese side surprised their European opponents with three second-half goals in what one Swedish newspaper described as “one of the most ignominious defeats suffered by the team in many years”. Japan captain Teizo Takeuchi, a keen student of the game, had been the flag bearer for the whole Japanese Olympic team at the opening ceremony and he travelled around Europe after the Games to learn as much as he could.

MEXICO 0-2 JAPAN

Kunishige Kamamoto of Japan scores the opening goal during the Bronze medal match between Mexico and Japan during the Mexico City  Olympics in 1968. © The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images
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Football tournament of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Bronze Medal Play-off.
Estadio Azteca, Mexico City
Thursday, 24.10.1968
Spectators: 50'000
Goals: Kamamoto (2) 20 40
Referee: Abraham Klein (ISR)

MEX • Javier Vargas - Manuel Alejandrez, Javier Sanchez Galindo, Hector Sanabria, Mario Perez, Luis Regueiro, Luis Estrada (37' Bernardo Hernandez), Juan Ignacio Basaguren, Vicente Pereda, Cesareo Victorino (37' Elias Munoz), Albino Morales
JPN • Kenzo Yokoyama - Hiroshi Katayama, Yoshitada Yamaguchi, Mitsuo Kamata, Takaji Mori, Aritatsu Ogi, Teruki Miyamoto, Masashi Watanabe, Kunishige Kamamoto, Ikuo Matsumoto, Ryuichi Sugiyama.
Coach: Ken Naganuma

Japan had surprised everyone by making it through to the semi-finals of the 1968 Olympic Football Tournament in Mexico City, and there was no shame in their 5-0 defeat at the hands of a powerful Hungary team. But the Japanese had one more trick up their sleeves. Few fancied their chances of winning a medal against a Mexican team with a home crowd in the Azteca behind them. Striker Kunishige Kamamoto was arguably the stand-out star of Japanese football in the pre-J.League era, and the 1968 Games provided the scene for one of his finest moments as he scored twice in the first half as Japan ran out 2-0 winners, taking his tally of goals to seven in the tournament and finishing as top scorer. In an era when success was hard to come by for Japan, their bronze medal at the Mexico Olympics was a remarkable achievement.

JAPAN 3-2 IRAN

Japanese players and staff celebrate qualifying for the 1998 FIFA World Cup after their 3-2 victory against Iran. © Etsuo Hara/Getty Images
click to enlarge

1998 FIFA World Cup Qualifier, Play-off.
Larkin Stadium, Johor Bahru, Malaysia
Sunday, 16.11.1997
Spectators: 22'000
Goals: Nakayama 40, Jo 75, Okano 118; Azizi 46, Daei 58
Referee: Manuel Diaz Vega ESP

JPN • Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi - Akira Narahashi, Naoki Soma, Masami Ihara (C), Yutaka Akita, Motohiro Yamaguchi, Hidetoshi Nakata, Hiroshi Nanami, Tsuyoshi Kitazawa (Masayuki Okano 91), Kazuyoshi Miura (Shoji Jo 63), Masashi Nakayama (Wagner Lopes 63).
Coach: Takeshi Okada
IRN • Ahmad Abedzadeh - Ali Akbar Ostad-Asadli (Mehrdad Minavand 55), Mohammad Khakpour, Mohammad Ali Peyravani, Ali Manrousian, Majid Namjou-Motlagh (Ali Ashgar Modir-Rosta 80), Javad Zarincheh (Mehdi Pashazadeh 65), Hamid Estili, Mehdi Mahdavikia, Ali Daei, Khodadad Azizi.
Coach: Valdir Vierra BRA

Today, a World Cup without Japan would be considered a major surprise. But although the national team is currently chasing their seventh successive appearance at the 2022 finals in Qatar, there was a time when Japanese fans could only dream about taking their place amongst the world’s elite. After nine unsuccessful qualifying campaigns from 1954 to 1994, those dreams finally came true in the unlikely setting of the Larkin Stadium in Johor Bahru, just across the water from Singapore, in a game that became known as the “Ecstasy of Johor Bahru”. Hidetoshi Nakata was at the heart of everything Japan did in a pulsating game. A minute after Mehdi Mahdavikia had hit the post, Nakata’s pass put through Nakayama to give Japan the lead. And when Japan found themselves trailing with just 15 minutes to go, Nakata’s pinpoint cross found the head of Shoji Jo, who brought the scores level. Then, with just two minutes left in extra time, and moments after Ali Daei had blazed over from close range, Nakata’s shot was parried by Ahmed Abedzadeh in the Iran goal and Masayuki Okano was first to the ball to fire home the Golden Goal winner. It was well past midnight, but the Japanese fans who had turned Johor Bahru blue for the day celebrated until dawn. At last, Japan had qualified for a World Cup.

JAPAN 1-0 RUSSIA

Junichi Inamoto and Egor Titov fight for the ball at the Group H game Japan vs Russia at the FIFA World Cup in 2002. © Imago/Allstar
click to enlarge

FIFA World Cup 2002, Group H
International Stadium, Yokohama
Sunday, 9.06.2002
Spectators: 66'108
Goal: Inamoto 51
Referee: Markus Merk GER

JPN • Seigo Narazaki - Naoki Matsuda, Koji Nakata, Kazuyuki Toda, Tsuneyasu Miyamoto (c), Tomokazu Myojin, Junichi Inamoto (Takashi Fukunishi 85), Takayuki Suzuki (Masashi Nakayama 72), Atsushi Yanagisawa, Hidetoshi Nakata, Shinji Ono (Toshihiro Hattori 75).
Coach: Philippe Troussier FRA
RUS • Ruslan Nigmatullin - Andrei Solomatin, Yuri Kovtun, Aleksei Smertin (Vladimir Beschastnikh 57), Viktor Onopko (c), Yuri Nikiforov, Valery Karpin, Marat Izmailov (Dmitri Khokhlov 52), Igor Semshov, Yegor Titov, Ruslan Pimenov (Dmitri Sychev 46).
Coach: Oleg Romansev

A fine win over Russia was greeted with relief in Japan. Both Japan and South Korea – co-hosts of the 2002 finals – had been the first hosts to go into a World Cup without having previously won a match at the finals, but the South Koreans had beaten Poland in their opening game while the Japanese had failed to break their duck with a draw against Belgium, but that ghost was laid to rest against Russia. Junichi Inamoto was the hero of the day, finishing off a brilliant move early in the second half. Koji Nakata’s cross from the left wing into a crowded penalty area was smartly laid off by Atsushi Yanagisawa, splitting the Russian defence and finding Inamoto, who curled the ball over the Russian keeper. Cue pandemonium across Japan and again at the final whistle. With Tunisia to come, the Japanese finally believed that their team could avoid being the first host team not to make it past the group stage, and they did just that beating the Africans 2-0 before losing to Turkey in the round of 16.

JAPAN 1-0 AUSTRALIA

Japan forward Tadanari Lee (L) scores by striking a volley in the 109th minute, extra time, of the Asian Cup final against Australia in Doha on Jan. 29, 2011. © Imago/Kyodo News
click to enlarge

2011 AFC Asian Cup Final
Khalifa International Stadium, Doha
Saturday, 29.01.2011
Spectators: 37'174
Goal: Lee 109
Referee: Ravshan Irmatov UZB

JPN • Eiji Kawashima - Atsuto Uchida, Maya Yoshida, Yasuyuki Konno, Yuto Nagatomo, Yasuhito Endō, Makoto Hasebe (c), Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki, Jungo Fujimoto, Ryoichi Maeda. (Masahiko Inoha 120) (Daiki Iwamasa 56) (Tadanari Lee 98).
Coach: Albert Zaccheroni ITA
AUS • Mark Schwarzer - Luke Wilkshire, Lucas Neill (c), Sasa Ognenovski, David Carney - Brett Holman, Mile Jedinak, Carl Valeri, Matt McKay - Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill. (Brett Emerton 65) (Neil Kilkenny 109) (Robbie Kruse 103)
Coach: Holger Osiek GER

Japan went into the 2011 Asian Cup having won three of the previous five Asian Cups to match the number of titles claimed by Saudi Arabia, and in Doha’s Khalifa Stadium they were out to claim an unprecedented fourth title. They prevailed against a largely English Premier League-based Australian team looking to win the title for the first time since joining the AFC in 2006. Both sides had chances in an entertaining game, but it was decided by a single goal in the second period of extra time. Yuto Nagatomo received a ball from Yasuhiko Endo tight on the left touch line and then floated an inch-perfect cross which the unmarked Tadanari Lee met with an exquisite left-footed volley that flew past Mark Schwarzer in the Australian goal. From being the also-rans of Asian football, Japan could now claim to be the leading power on the continent as they overtook the Saudis as the most successful team in the history of the tournament.

JAPAN 2-2 (3-1 PSO) USA

Homare Sawa of Japan scores the equaliser during the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup Final between Japan and USA. © Lars Baron/FIFA via Getty Images
click to enlarge

FIFA Women’s World Cup Final
FIFA Women's World Cup Stadium, Frankfurt
Sunday, 17.07.2011, 20:45,
Spectators: 48’817
Goals: Miyama 81, Sawa 117; Morgan 69, Wambach 104
PSO: Boxx saved, Miyama scored, Lloyd missed, Nagasato saved, Heath saved, Sakaguchi scored, Wambach scored, Kumagai scored
Referee: Bibiana Steinhaus GER

JPN • Ayumi Kaihori - Yukari Kinga, Azusa Iwashimizu•120+1, Saki Kumagai, Aya Sameshima - Shinobu Ohno (Karina Maruyama 66) (Mana Iwabuchi 119), Mizuho Sakaguchi, Homare Sawa (c), Aya Miyama - Kozue Ando (Yūki Nagasato 66), Nahomi Kawasumi.
Coach: Norio Sasaki
USA • Hope Solo - Ali Krieger, Rachel Buehler, Christie Rampone (c), Amy LePeilbet - Heather O'Reilly, Carli Lloyd, Shannon Boxx, Megan Rapinoe (Tobin Heath 114) - Lauren Cheney (Alex Morgan 46), Abby Wambach.
Coach: Pia Sundhage SWE

The crowd at the 2011 Women’s World Cup Final in Frankfurt were predominantly backing a Japanese team who had knocked out hosts Germany in the quarter-finals, and they were treated to an epic match. Twice the USA took the lead and twice Japan fought back. Abby Wambach hit the bar and Alex Morgan the post before Morgan put the USA ahead with 20 minutes to go. It looked as if a third world title was on the cards for the Americans, but Aya Miyama pounced on a defensive mistake to take the game to extra time. The Japanese looked exhausted as they prepared for an extra 30 minutes, and their job was made even harder when Wambach headed the Americans ahead at the end of the first period. With just three minutes left, however, Homare Sawa rescued Japan with an exquisite flick from a corner to level once again. The shoot-out was just as dramatic. Ayumi Kaihori saved from both Shannon Box and Tobin Heath as the Americans failed to score from their first three penalties, leaving Saki Kumagai to clinch it for Japan – the fourth nation to win the World Cup and the first from Asia.

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An unexpected Olympic bronze
For many years Japan’s first international match was regarded as being the at the 1951 Asian Games, and although the football tournament at the Asian Games was for many years part of the Japanese international fixture list, it was never the happiest of hunting grounds for the national team. Bronze medals in 1951 and again in 1966 were the sum total of medals won, and it wasn’t until it became a U-23 event in 2002 that the team reached the Final for the first time before finally winning gold in 2010.

Japan players waving to the crowd during the medal ceremony of the Olympic tournament after winning the bronze medal. FIFA president, Stanley Rous (black suit), is seen walking around with unidentified officials. © Kishimoto/FIFA Museum
Japan players waving to the crowd during the medal ceremony of the Olympic tournament after winning the bronze medal. FIFA president, Stanley Rous (black suit), is seen walking around with unidentified officials. © Kishimoto/FIFA Museum - click to enlarge

The Japanese did, however, cause a major surprise at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City by winning a most unexpected bronze medal. Although it was a tournament without South American or European professionals, it was still a strong field. After beating Nigeria and then drawing with Brazil and Spain, Japan beat France 3-1 in the quarter-finals before losing to the eventual winners Hungary in the semi-finals. Japan’s star striker, Kunishige Kamamoto, then scored twice in the bronze medal play-off against hosts Mexico to finish as top scorer as Japan finished in third place.

Japan first entered the World Cup in 1954 and the qualifying tournament consisted of just two matches, both against South Korea. It was the first of nine consecutive qualifying campaigns that ended in failure for the Japanese, and it wasn’t until the 1998 finals in France – and a jubilant night in Johor Bahru – that they eventually qualified. They have been an ever-present feature at the six tournaments since. The other major fixture in the Japanese international calendar has been the Asian Cup and like the World Cup, it has been a story of two halves with Japan entering just two of the first eight editions – in 1968 and 1976 – but failing to make the final tournament on both occasions. It wasn’t until 1988 that they booked their place in the finals, although they finished bottom of their group with just a single point.

Former Uruguay international and FIFA Museum Ambassador Diego Forlán was one of the many international players to have played in the J.League. He played for Cerezo Osaka from 2014 until 2015. © Imago/Kyodo News
Former Uruguay international and FIFA Museum Ambassador Diego Forlán was one of the many international players to have played in the J.League. He played for Cerezo Osaka from 2014 until 2015. © Imago/Kyodo News - click to enlarge

The J.League era
The early 1990s proved to be a turning point, not just for the national team but for Japanese football as a whole. Since the introduction of the Japan Soccer League in 1965, Japanese clubs had been organised around works teams representing the huge conglomerates that dominated the Japanese industrial landscape. That all changed when the JFA undertook a root-and-branch restructuring of the game including the wholescale introduction of professionalism. The much-heralded launch of the J.League in 1993 was the public face of the new Japanese football model, and it coincided with a welcome upturn in the fortunes of the national team. The JFA had put in a successful bid to host the 1992 Asian Cup, and with successive victories over Iran, China and Saudi Arabia, Japan were crowned Asian champions for the first time. Since then, their record has been impressive and without equal.

Japan bid documents. FIFA World Cup 2002, Korea/Japan. © FIFA Museum
Japan bid documents. FIFA World Cup 2002, Korea/Japan. © FIFA Museum - click to enlarge

Despite the agony of missing out on the 1994 World Cup after conceding an injury-time equaliser against Iraq in a match referred to as the “Agony of Doha”, Japan have been ever-present at the World Cup and have also won three more Asian Cup titles. Their record-breaking fourth title in 2011 came just 19 years after their first, a measure of their extraordinary progress during the J.League era.

Central to the promotion of football in Japan was the bid to host the 2002 World Cup. The FIFA Museum Collection features the original bid book presented by the JFA to FIFA. The World Cup was eventually co-hosted with South Korea in what was the first World Cup to be held in Asia. On the pitch, Japan’s victory over Russia in Yokohama was their first at a World Cup, although the first win away from Japan wasn’t until a 1-0 victory over Cameroon eight years later in South Africa. Japan have made it past the group stage at the World Cup three times, the first in 2002, as well as in 2010 and 2018, but they have yet to get beyond the round of 16. That is a record, however, that is routinely bettered by Japan’s other national team…

Japan's Homare Sawa celebrates after scoring her teams second goal during the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup Final between Japan and USA. © Lars Baron/FIFA via Getty Images
Japan's Homare Sawa celebrates after scoring her teams second goal during the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup Final between Japan and USA. © Lars Baron/FIFA via Getty Images - click to enlarge

Champions of the world
Japan’s women’s national team, who are also known by the name Nadeshiko, became one of just four teams to have won the FIFA Women’s World Cup when they beat the USA on penalties in the 2011 Final in Frankfurt, Germany. The Nadeshiko can trace their origins to an international match played against Denmark in 1981, and have had a regular calendar of fixtures since 1986. They took part in the first Women’s World Cup in 1991 and have qualified for every tournament since, reaching the Final for a second time in 2015. They have been less successful in the Olympics and were disappointed to be knocked out in the quarter-finals at Tokyo 2020, but they do have a silver medal under their belt after losing to the USA 2-1 at Wembley in the 2012 Final in London.

(L-R) H.E. Mr Keiichi Hayashi, Sir Bobby Charlton, Japan FA President Junji Ogura and FA Chairman David Bernstein during the Japan FA 90th Anniversary event at Wembley Stadium on August 23, 2011 in London, England with the replica of the silver cup from 1
(L-R) H.E. Mr Keiichi Hayashi, Sir Bobby Charlton, Japan FA President Junji Ogura and FA Chairman David Bernstein during the Japan FA 90th Anniversary event at Wembley Stadium on August 23, 2011 in London, England with the replica of the silver cup from 1919. © Jan Kruger/The FA via Getty Images - click to enlarge

So, Japanese football faces it’s second century in rude health in both the men’s and women’s games. But as a postscript, let’s return to what kicked it all off – the silver trophy presented by The FA to the Japanese people a century ago. After being awarded to the winners of the All Japan Championship Tournament, it sadly didn’t survive the Second World War. When the tournament was renamed as the Emperor’s Cup in 1946, it came with a new trophy donated by the imperial household.

The original silver cup had been requisition by the government and melted down to help with the war effort. But there is a redemption to the story. In 2011, on the 90th anniversary of the JFA, The Football Association commissioned trophy makers Thomas Lyte to make an exact replica, which was handed over to the JFA in a very symbolic ceremony at Wembley and which now resides in the JFA Football Museum.