The Hidden History of Women’s Football in Japan

Work continues at the National Football Museum to unlock the #hiddenhistory of women’s football and we are working with our wider network of specialists to learn more about the International game. This week we hand over to David Hanley, who is currently compiling a history of women’s involvement in association football in the 20th century. Here he looks at 20th century development of women’s football in Japan.

As was the case in the rest of the world, the playing of football by girls and women in Japan was a rare sight prior to the 1960s. Girls enjoyed the sport in schools scattered about the country prior to the Second World War as part of their physical education, but there is no evidence of organised matches. It was not until after Tokyo hosted the Olympic Games in 1964 that interest among schoolgirls around Japan began to grow (although there was no Olympic women’s football tournament until 1996), and it did so in three areas in particular: Tokyo, Shimizu, and the Kansai region.

Kansai

The Kansai region is dominated by the cities of Kobe, Kyoto and Osaka. The first club in the region which saw continued activity was at Kobe College, which possessed something which most schools did not – a large grassy area on which the girls could exercise. Fifteen of Kobe College Junior High School students began training in the autumn of 1966. At about the same time, girls at nearby Fukuzumi Elementary School also took up the sport, and on 19 March 1967, the two teams met in a widely publicized match. The younger girls won by a goal to nil.

1News of schoolgirls forming teams in the 1960s excited the media, and the players at Kobe College, featured here on the cover of the 23 December 1966 issue of Asahi Graph.

Football spread across the rest of the Kansai region. In 1975, there were enough clubs to allow the founding of the Kansai League, with matches played on Kobe College’s grounds. Aside from the hosts, the other competitors were a mix of teams from private girls’ schools, a public junior high school and a team of women from a mothers’ centre. The ways in which these clubs had been founded – some by teachers at private girls’ schools, some by mothers looking to keep fit, and some by schoolgirls moving from one stage of their education to another – would be repeated all over Japan.

Tokyo

At the same time, a league for clubs from Tokyo and Yokohama, called the Keihin League, got underway. Unlike in Kansai, independent club teams were also involved, including Japan’s first club, FC Jinnan, which had been founded by Chihiro Itami in 1972. Jinnan won the league, and in March they took on Kansai League champions Nishiyama High School, in the first de facto national final, which was won by the schoolgirls.

The Keihin League lasted just one season, as a new Mitsubishi-sponsored Tokyo-only league, the Chicken League, began in 1976. As part of the Mitsubishi Group’s 100th anniversary celebrations, it had developed a new sports facility in Tokyo, which opened in 1975. The facility included a small football pitch with artificial turf, and eager to raise awareness of its benefits, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which already had a men’s team, decided to create a new club for its female employees. The league ran for five seasons, until the Tokyo Football Association decided to form its own league in 1981, with matches played on full-size natural pitches.

2The first Chicken League winners, Jissen Women’s University, take on Nishiyama High School, first Kansai League champions and later the first national schools’ champions, in 1977.

Shimizu

In the late 1970s, the number of clubs had continued to grow around the country, and though the main centres were still Kobe and Tokyo, the girls and women of Shimizu City in Shizuoka Prefecture were gaining in strength. Indeed, Shimizu had seen the creation of girls’ teams in elementary schools as early as 1959, with a teacher by the name of Tetsuji Hotta leading the way. Among Shimizu’s elementary schools, one club stood out in the late 1970s – that of Irie Elementary School. In May 1978, they became Shimizu Daihachi Sports Club, and before long would become the most feared club in all of Japan.

National Developments

In April 1979, the Japan Women’s Football Federation was founded, introducing a new All-Japan Championship, with the first tournament to be held in March 1980 on Mitsubishi’s artificial pitch. With the Tokyo FA’s decision to play on natural pitches in 1981, the national championship also moved to natural pitches. FC Jinnan won the first championship, but this would be their only title. Shimizu Daihachi were beaten semifinalists, but this would be the last time they would be beaten for many years – they won the following seven championships in a row.

International Developments

4Plans for international competition saw a Japanese official travel to watch England play Sweden in Leicester in 1980, and the decision was soon taken to invite England, Denmark and Italy to play in Japan a year later.

The new Tokyo League and the move to grass pitches were not the only major developments in 1981. The third was the official backing of the Japanese Football Association for a national team. FC Jinnan had represented Japan unofficially at the Asian Ladies Football Confederation’s second Asian Cup tournament in 1977, and the fourth such competition in 1981 would be the first time that Japan would field an official team. Nishiyama High School manager Seiki Ichihara was chosen to lead the group, which lost twice and won once. In September of the same year, England, Italy and Denmark were invited to visit Japan to play two matches each, with the event linked to the Portopia ’81 festivities in Kobe. Japan played England in Kobe in their first match, with the players selected from the Kansai League and from Shimizu Daihachi. For their second match, against Italy in Tokyo, Shimizu Daihachi’s players would be joined by players from the Tokyo League. Of the fifteen players who got a chance against England, thirteen were still in school. The team which faced Italy was slightly older, but the result was the same: a heavy defeat. England scored four goals, Italy scored nine.

5The Italian and Japanese teams pose before their first meeting in 1981. The two sides would play each other six times over the next five years. Italy won every match.

Disappointed but pragmatic, Japan’s amateur female players and coaches vowed to work even harder. Through the 1980s, the players took time out from work, university and school to play for their country across East Asia and even to Italy – often paying their own way. Domestically, the All-Japan Championship expanded to include participants from the entire country. In 1989, six clubs became the founding members of the new Japan Ladies Soccer League. The first major FIFA-sponsored competition, a trial World Cup, came in 1988. Japan lost all three matches. Three years later, at what was considered the first full FIFA Women’s World Cup, Japan again lost all three matches. There was still much work to do.

3A number of Jissen graduates formed FC PAF. Here, in March 1989, they take on the first unofficial national collegiate champions, the Hyogo University of Teacher Education.

If you have any stories or memories of women’s football  – national or international – please get in touch via our contact page. We’d love to hear from you.

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