“History of the Nadeshiko League” 11. “The Rise of New Powers”
From the time when it was still unusual for women to play football, through to the birth of the Japan Women’s Football League, victory in the Women’s World Cup, and creation of the Japan Women’s Empowerment Professional Football League, social conditions and the environment surrounding girls’ and women’s football have undergone great changes.
We intend to publish a series of 22 articles before the end of the year in which we will look back over the tempestuous history of girls’ and women’s football in Japan.
After the Japan Women’s Football League (the current Nadeshiko League, known as the L. League between 1994 and 2004) was founded in 1989, it flourished thanks to the support that many teams received from large companies, however, when numerous companies withdrew their support due to economic recession, the league was on the verge of collapse by 1999, 10 years after its establishment.
In these circumstances, it was TASAKI Perule FC that shrugged off the effects of the recession and took on the mantle of the league’s leader. In 1998, Perule finished seventh out of 10 teams in both the first and second stages, however, in 1999, it improved greatly to finish second in the league and win the JFA Japan Women’s Football Championship (the current Empress’s Cup). In consecutive seasons in 2001 and 2002, Perule finished second in the L. League behind Nippon TV Beleza, and eventually became champions for the first time in 2003. In the Japan Women’s Football Championship, following its maiden victory, it finished runner-up for two years running and then won two consecutive titles in 2002 and 2003.
Perule’s team at that time was built around a core of Japan representative players such as defender Hiromi Isozaki, midfielders Emi Yamamoto, Naoko Kawakami and Miyuki Yanagita, and forward Mio Ohtani. Many of the players were employees of TASAKI & Co., Ltd., which was famous for pearl and diamond accessories, and had a very favorable environment whereby they worked in the morning and trained at the company’s dedicated ground in the afternoon. As other teams were deprived of support by large companies and became “civic clubs”, it was only natural that Perule attracted the best players and became stronger.
The team’s ace striker Ohtani was the league’s top scorer for three consecutive years from 2001. In 2005, she scored 25 goals to become top scorer for the fourth time. The record of being top scorer for four times was later equaled by Shinobu Ohno and Minami Tanaka (both of Beleza), however, Ohtani was the league’s representative striker at the beginning of the 21st Century.
The forerunner of Perule was Kobe Football Club Ladies. Having been founded in 1976 as a branch of Kobe Football Club, which was established as Japan’s first community-based club in 1970, it quickly became a powerhouse in the Kansai region and also joined the Japan Women’s Football League, which started in 1989. When the team joined the league, it had TASAKI & Co., Ltd. as its sponsor and was officially called “Tasaki Shinju Kobe Football Club Ladies”. In 1991, the team was transferred from Kobe FC to TASAKI & Co., Ltd. and, although some of its players were students, it became almost entirely a “company team”.
The team struggled and was relegated from the league in 1993 and 1994, however, it returned in 1995 and subsequently grew in strength. As numerous rivals lost their corporate sponsors, Perule’s team-building efforts and excellent training environment combined to produce immediate success.
However, this team, too, fell victim to the “crisis of sports teams caused by the declining business performance of companies”. The team was renamed as TASAKI Perule FC the year after its league championship, and it eventually disappeared from the league in 2008.
Meanwhile, Kobe FC, following the transfer of its women’s team to TASAKI & Co., Ltd. in 1991, re-established its women’s branch as a development team comprising mostly junior and senior high school girls, and this team is still active today.
Following Perule, the next champions of the Japan Women’s Football League in 2004 was Saitama Reinas FC. The Japan national team midfielder Kozue Ando was top scorer and also chosen as MVP. This season’s Best Eleven contained five members from Reinas, namely Ando, Japan national team goalkeeper Nozomi Yamago, defenders Yoshie Kasajima and Kumiko Tashiro, and midfielder Saiko Takahashi.
Urawa Motobuto Ladies, which was founded in 1980, included the Japan national team forward Yuriko Mizuma in its ranks and was promoted to the Japan Women’s Football League in 1994 as Urawa Ladies FC. As a “community team”, it lacked financial support and was unfortunately relegated after just one year, however, out of this club, Urawa Reinas was founded in 1998. Under the guidance of former J-League and Japan national team player Yoshinori Taguchi, the team quickly gained strength and was promoted to the L. League in 1999 and, following the amalgamation of Urawa City and Omiya City and others to form Saitama City, the team was renamed as Saitama Reinas in 2002.
In 2005, a year after the team became champions, it was transferred to the Urawa Reds organization to become Urawa Reds Ladies and one of the key powers in the Nadeshiko League. It won further championships in 2009, 2014 and 2019, and the team’s four titles including the one achieved during the Reinas era are second only to the 17 won by Beleza over the 32 years of the Nadeshiko League up to last year.
The history of the Nadeshiko League over the past 32 seasons has been one of teams challenging the supremacy of Beleza, which has ruled over the women’s game as “perennial champions” thanks to its abundant production line of youth players. Within this history, the exploits of TASAKI Perule, which exhibited the good qualities of “company teams” to the end, and Urawa Reds Ladies, which demonstrated that J. League clubs could also have women’s teams, were particularly noteworthy at a time when the league stood at a turning point.
Yoshiyuki Osumi (football journalist)