A Visit to Nadeshiko’s Hometown Around Japan Episode 11. AS Harima Albion
In the city of Himeji, the hometown of AS Harima Albion, female soccer teams from Hinomoto Gakuen High School, Himeji Jogakuin High School and Himeji Dokkyo University, are active and known for their strength. The city government promotes a project called “Himeji Project – a Town of Women’s Soccer,” by cooperating with industry, academia, and the private sector to create a bustling atmosphere in town.
Himeji Castle, elegant with white plaster walls and known as ‘White Herron Castle,’ is the symbol of the city. Registered as a World Heritage site, the castle overlooks the city from a hilltop. The wide pedestrian street leading to the castle from JR Himeji Station is dotted with a variety of wooden benches, tables, and counters. Stopping by, not just walking, is important to connect people in the town. As you stroll around, you may be surprised at people’s friendliness.
This time, we would like to express the warmth of the city towards women’s soccer. First, let me introduce some people in the company where players of AS Harima Albion work.
Providing a long career for both players and ex-players
IBES Techno Co., Ltd.
With more than half of its workers being engineers, IBES Techno Co., Ltd. expanded its Himeji plant in August 2021. The company now employs Kanami Niibori, Shiho Yoshida, Manaka Kawano, and some ex-players from the team. On the terraced café overlooking the Inland Sea, they gathered along with the president and the senior managing director.
Akihisa Umeda, the president, treasures communication among workers. He has created in-house communities to help increase conversation, nurturing a cheery atmosphere in the workplace.
Always a substitute player until university, Umeda adopts a unique payment system. Players can get a bonus based on their attendance or scoring in games. His earnest hope is to give his employees enough motivation to compete for the championship.
“If the team moves up a little bit more in ranking and stays there, it would be easier for me to talk about them during our morning assembly,” he laughed.
Michihiro Amano, the senior managing director, says that having players in their office has been a great advantage in terms of sales promotion.
“When suppliers and clients come to our new plant, many of them notice the displayed uniforms at the entrance. They often ask us about them. Introducing the players is common sales talk.”
We asked the bosses and colleagues of players about their attitude towards work.
“They are punctual. I guess it’s hard to work, then practice every day, especially on rainy days, but they work diligently,” answered Marina Yoneda.
“They work hard within their limited working time, which is really helpful,” said Maki Iwamoto.
The team’s brisk movements at play seem to have an influence on their work, raising their reputation. However, some worry about the risk of injury.
“I hope they won’t get hurt. And I can imagine, while you live alone, housework becomes a burden. They start working from eight in the morning, then finish practicing at eight at night. Seeing them continue such a life, I really respect them,” said Mai Niihama.
“I’m proud of myself for working with players seen on TV. I hope they’ll grow to be a favorite to win the championship. If the team’s name becomes more popular, our company’s name would be widespread too,” said Yuka Mimata
Among the workers we interviewed was ex-player Yume Nagasawa. After leaving the team in August 2021, Nagasawa still works for IBES Techno as a nursery-school teacher at its in-house childcare facility, Island Hoikuen.
“I don’t see the players during my work, but I do at the company residence I live at, and we eat out together sometimes. To me, they are still as close as they were when I played on the team, and nothing has changed in our relationship since then. I really hope they do well in the Nadeshiko League.”
IBIS Techno hopes to support players who are “determined to keep their top-level performances.” Working for a company that treasures talented employees, Nagasawa now plays at the SWH Ladies Nishinomiya Futsal Club, one of the teams in the Japan Women’s Futsal League. She is aiming to become a member of the futsal national team.
A city with sports led by women
Tetsuro Honjo, Director, Sports Promotion Division, Himeji City
There are three major sports clubs in Himeji City: AS Harima Albion, Victorina Himeji (V. League Women), and Himeji Egrets, which will join the W league for the 2022-2023 season. While the city has a ‘brave, masculine’ image seen in traditional festivals such as “Nada Kenka Matsuri (Nada Fighting Festival),” sports in the region are led by the three female teams above.
“Women are stronger in this area, I would say,” laughed Tetsuro Honjo, the director of Sports Promotion Division.
“We want the teams to get more involved with children. My hope is that through their performances, they can show people that playing soccer or sports is fun.”
On June 13th, 2021, an event called “Atsumare (get together) Himeji Soccer Kids!” was held by the project’s executive committee as part of the “Himeji Project – a Town of Women’s Soccer.” At Himeji Athletic Stadium, nicknamed Wink Athletic Stadium and the home of AS Arima Halbion, children received passionate guidance from their guest coaches; Kenji Honnami and Karina Maruyama, now a married couple. I hope those children running happily on the grass pitch that day will play for the team in the future. As Honjo said, “the team is expected to grow and become more appealing to locals as their home team.”
Local enthusiasm makes Himeji a role model for Hyogo Prefecture
Kenichi Mikitani, President of Hyogo Football Association
Takao Tsuda, Representative Director and President of Himeji Football Association
The executive committee for the “Himeji Project – a Town of Women’s Soccer” consists of multiple bodies: Himeji city government, Himeji Football Association, AS Harima Albion, Himeji Dokkyo University, Hinomoto Gakuen High School, Himeji Jogakuin High School, the Himeji Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and Himeji Urban Development Foundation.
Representative director and president of Himeji Football Association, Takao Tsuda, worked hard with AS Harima Albion to realize the above-mentioned ‘get-together’ event for kids. “People here have the spirit to support the community. The Himeji Chamber of Commerce also has a strong sense of unity,” said Tsuda.
“Unless you have a strong team or splendid facility, top players would move to Kobe or Osaka. As a result, local teams are left behind in all of Hyogo Prefecture. If the teams can increase their unity, soccer will grow in each region.”
Luckily, Himeji has strong teams where girls can continue to play. Many go to either Hinomoto Gakuen or Himeji Jogakuin High School, then Dokkyo University, finally moving on to AS Harima Albion after graduation.
“I’d like Harima Albion to continue to proceed and become a strong team. Outside of Kobe, they can be a good role model in the region. Our organization will support them too,” said Kenichi Mikitani, the president of Hyogo Football Association.
Referring to the impression of Himeji City, Mikitani said, “it’s like the companies gather to carry one portable shrine, which is Harima Albion. This unified force is one of the characteristics of Himeji.” In Hyogo Prefecture, a large number of small and medium-sized municipalities exist, spanning from the southern-most Awaji Island to Toyooka City, close to the Sea of Japan. Women’s soccer in Himeji has high expectations to be a model of developing and promoting the sport outside the metropolitan city of Kobe.
The team is now planned to collaborate with professional soccer club Vissel Kobe, where Mikitani serves as vice president. The two teams will hold soccer schools for children together, with coaches from Vissel Kobe and players from AS Harima Albion touring around Himeji.
Well, why is it possible for Himeji to pave the way for women’s soccer so easily?
“Maybe because the city’s name includes ‘Hime (princess),’” Mikitani laughed.
This time, we visited people in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, the hometown of AS Harima Albion.
Text by Kazuhiro Ishii