“History of the Nadeshiko League” 12. “The Birth of Nadeshiko”
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.
On July 7, the day of the Tanabata star festival, 2004, the Japan Football Association announced the nickname of the Japan women’s national team following a public subscription conducted in May and June. Nowadays, it is common for Japan national teams to have nicknames, however, at that time, although the mass media gave teams nicknames, this was the first time that such a name was officially adopted by a league organization.
The new name was brightly written with a brush by team captain Homare Sawa on a giant sheet of paper carried by five members of the Japan women’s national team appearing in charming yukata. Following the national team’s exploits at the Athens Olympics held in August that year, the nadeshiko pink flower became the symbol of women’s football in Japan.
The origins of the name can be traced back to the appointment of Saburo Kawabuchi, previously the chairman of the J. League, as the president (captain) of the Japan Football Association in 2002. When “Captain” Kawabuchi watched the Asian Games held in Busan, South Korea in October, he was so impressed by the efforts of the female players in spite of their poor training environment that he ordered conditions to be improved for the national team and invited the Asian qualifiers to Japan in an effort to help the team qualify at all costs for the Athens Olympics in 2004.
Japan needed to win in the semi-finals to gain one of the two spots reserved for teams from Asia. The opponent was the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) – the strongest team in Asia and an opponent that Japan had not beaten in over a decade. However, with the vociferous backing of 31,324 supporters at the National Stadium in Tokyo, the players raised their game.
Japan took the lead through Eriko Arakawa in the 12th minute and went further ahead through an own goal resulting from a failed attempt to clear a cross from Arakawa in injury time of the first half. In the 19th minute of the second half, Mio Ohtani scored a third goal from a cut-back by Tomomi Miyamoto following a corner kick from the right by Emi Yamamoto, and the team ran out comfortable 3-0 winners.
In response to the passion generated by this game, which had a nationwide audience rating of 16.3% on TV Asahi channels and a momentary highest audience rating of 31.1% in the Kanto area, the Japan Football Association launched a public subscription for a nickname, and “Nadeshiko Japan” was chosen out of 2,700 responses.
Women’s football games at the Athens Olympics started ahead of all other events two days before the opening ceremony. Nadeshiko Japan spearheaded the Japanese Olympic Team’s campaign and took the lead through a goal by Arakawa off a pass by Ohtani following a long freekick by Hiromi Isozaki. The team worked tirelessly to defend this lead and ran out 1-0 winners. This game captured the attention of the entire nation. The name “Nadeshiko” came to be spoken by people all over Japan. Until then, most people knew nothing about women’s football and hardly anyone showed an interest, however, it now became the focus of attention.
The Japan Women’s Football League, which at that time was popularly called the “L. League”, also responded immediately. Before the league was resumed in September following the Olympic Games, it announced the new nickname of “Nadeshiko League”.
In the second division “L2 (Nadeshiko League Division 2)” that was launched this year, Okayama Yunogo Belle became the runaway champions with a perfect record of 14 wins, and it went on to become a powerhouse in Division 1. The inaugural champions of Divison 1 were Saitama Reinas (renamed as Urawa Reds Ladies the following year).
Because the Japan Football Association had made the “vitalization of women’s football” one of its main initiatives, all games in this year’s L. League were held in stadia with spectator stands for the first time in a while. The game between Nippon TV Beleza and TASAKI Perule FC (the first and second-placed teams in the previous season), which was staged just before the break for the Olympics at Inagi Central Park General Ground in Inagi City, Tokyo, attracted 2,500 spectators.
The nadeshiko (dianthus) is a perennial herb that is widely distributed in the Northern Hemisphere and is also indigenous to Japan. Its pretty pink flowers bloom between early summer and fall. In Japan, the nadeshiko flower has appeared in poetry since composition of the Manyoshu (“Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”) during the Nara period, and it underwent selective breeding and gained the deep affection of people during the Edo period. Since the Chinese characters used to write nadeshiko have the meaning “caressable child” , this flower is likened to children and women, and the term “Yamato Nadeshiko” has come to symbolize Japanese women as being graceful and demure while at the same time having mental strength. It was the ideal name for expressing the image of Japanese women’s football, symbolizing the team’s solidarity in facing up to challenges.
Thanks to the exploits of “Nadeshiko Japan”, women’s football came to the awareness of the general public, and the Nadeshiko League emerged from its winter cold to enjoy a period of prosperity.
Yoshiyuki Osumi (football journalist)