Friday 21 July 2023, 13:00

Kobayashi: Women’s football can help change Japanese society

  • WE League is the first fully-professional league for women in Japan

  • League was launched in 2021 with 11 teams

  • It aims to revive women’s football in Japan and become a driving force for gender equality

In the last few years, women’s football in Japan – the only country to have won the FIFA Women’s World Cup at senior, U-20 and U-17 tournaments - has suffered something of a downturn. The national team were eliminated in the round of 16 of the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2019, eight years after winning the title, and the once thriving domestic league has also been in the doldrums. At the same time, women are struggling for equality in the country itself and Japan was ranked 116th out of 146th in the 2022 Global Gap Index, published by the World Economic Forum.

Miyuki Kobayashi, a WE Board member and head of its Empowerment Division

Japan’s recently-founded WE League aims to change both situations. Although the acronym gives little away, the full name leaves little doubt about what its stands for: the Women’s Empowerment League. Miyuki Kobayashi, a WE Board member and head of its Empowerment Division, is clear about what she believes it can achieve. “Women’s football can help change Japanese society.” Launched in September 2021 by the Japan Football Association (JFA) with 11 teams, the WE League is Japan’s first fully-professional women’s league and intends to become one of the strongest women’s leagues in the world. It also aims to become a driving force to gender-equality in Japan.

Japan played their first women’s international match in 1977 but the first full women’s league was not formed until 1989. A number of Japanese corporations entered teams and, although the league was not professional, their investments ensured good working conditions and it attracted players from around the world. However, as the economy contracted during the early 2000s, the league withered, reaching the point where some clubs stopped charging for admission. Japan won the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011 against all the odds, but the players were to all effects and purposes amateurs who trained after work and their success was not enough to give the league a new lease of life.

Kobayashi has her own experience of the difficulties women players have faced. “I didn’t play football as a child, as there were no opportunities,” she said during a presentation for FIFA’s Diploma in Club Football course in Tokyo. “I started playing at college and helped create a team with my dormitory friend, who also wanted to play. When we started, the coach was mad at us, as we didn’t know how to play! We couldn’t even kick a ball. Then I went to the US to study English (30 years ago). I went to a small college, and they had a team. When I returned to Japan, I wanted to change minds, based on what I saw in America.” To maintain standards in the W League, clubs must meet a number of minimum requirements such as: • At least half the administration staff must be female • There must be at least one female coach for every category in the coaching staff • The head coach must be a JFA S-class (or S-class equivalent), JFA A-Pro license holder • The club must have a U-18, U-15 and U-12 team • The club must have nursing and childcare facilities

In terms of football, the WE League also hopes to inspire grassroots development in Japan and increase access for girls and women to play the sport. Beyond football, it hopes to become a symbol for a gender-equitable society. “The WE League strives to promote an inclusive society in which everyone can dream and live the life they want and where individuals can shine through the power of women’s football and sport,” said Kobayashi. There is one other long-term goal: to help win Japan win a second FIFA Women’s World Cup.