The J. League began in 1993 as a professional league of 10 teams. It introduced a two-division system in 1999--at the present time, Division I (J1) has 16 teams, while Division II (J2) has 12. Thus, a total of 28 teams compete against each other under the J. League banner.
Teams face off in league matches and a cup tournament. The round-robin league matches are played among teams of the same division, with teams meeting each other at home and away. J1 teams compete against each other during two seasons (from March to July, and from August to November). The two top J1 teams for the two seasons meet head-on in championship games to determine the victor for the year. J2 teams compete against each other over a single season each year.
After the overall standings for the year are known, the bottom two teams in J1 are automatically relegated to J2 and replaced by the top two teams from J2 for the next year.
All J1 and J2 teams compete in the cup tournament. From the first round to the semifinals, matches are played at home and away. The final is a single match that determines the top team overall.
Each club is allowed up to five foreign players. When the J. League was first formed, clubs signed up some of the world's most famous players--for example, the Kashima Antlers took Brazil's Zico, and Jef United Ichihara took Germany's Pierre Littbarski. These foreign talents lived up to all expectations, wowing fans with world-class skills. They contributed greatly to the J. League's soaring popularity and were a powerful influence on Japanese players, helping to improve their technique considerably.
To belong to the J. League, each club must satisfy certain conditions. In addition to its professional top team, each J1 club must have a satellite team (for training players) and three amateur teams--an 18-and-under youth team, a 15-and-under junior youth team, and a 12-and-under junior team. Conditions are similar for J2 clubs, except that they are not required to have a 15-and-under or 12-and-under team. J1 clubs must have access to a stadium with a seating capacity of at least 15,000, J2 clubs need a stadium that seats at least 10,000, and both require a clubhouse with a certain number of turf fields.
To meet all of these requirements, each club is registered as a corporation, and in many cases companies, local governments and other entities own shares in those corporations. The clubs obtain a considerable portion of their revenue from sponsors, such as companies who pay to have their names on team uniforms.
Each J. League team is based in a "hometown." Part of the team name comes from the name of the hometown, not from a corporate sponsor (as is the case in professional baseball). This is in keeping with the philosophy behind the J. League, that each club should have its roots in a specific community. This philosophy has been encouraged by hometown fans, and has fostered fan clubs that cheer on their adopted teams. One team in particular, the Urawa Red Diamonds, is known for its frenzied supporters, and plays to a full stadium every home game.
There are two main reasons why the J. League was formed. One was to raise the level of soccer in Japan. Before the J. League, the Japan Soccer League (JSL) was the country's most important group of soccer teams. The JSL was made up of a number of amateur corporate teams. But it was realized that if Japan was to put together a credible national team, a professional league would have to be formed along the lines of leagues in Europe and South America, where soccer is king. Six years after the J. League was launched, Japan's national team made it to the World Cup in France.
The other main reason for the J. League's formation was to promote the development of comprehensive European-style sports clubs. Sports clubs in Europe are community based--everyone is welcome to participate in a wide range of sporting activities, to eat at the local clubhouse, and to spend leisure time there. The J. League also decided to base the clubs in their local communities.
This community orientation is seen in the way J. League clubs organize activities for hometown residents. For example, the Yokohama F-Marinos began coordinating a "Make Friends through Soccer" project with the city of Yokohama last year. The project has many objectives, such as: (1) to have players on the club's top team interact with local citizens; (2) to teach soccer skills to youngsters, families and women; (3) to open club facilities to the general public; and (4) to train soccer instructors. On another front, the club has corporate-like departments entrusted with managing and strengthening the team, and promoting hometown activities.
A growing sense of excitement is gripping Japan's soccer scene sa the countdown to the World Cup continues. The J.League is on a roll, thanks to the thousands of supporters who fill th stadiums and cheer on their teams.
These 12-and-under junior players are in grades 3 to 6, and are the youngest selected team members. The team, called "Primary," belongs to the Yokohama F-Marinos club.
About thirty 15-and-under players are chosen after trials for the Yokohama F-Marinos junior youth team. They practice almost every day.
Every year, the Yokohama F-Marinos club enters a float in Yokohama's Minato Matsuri Festival parade.
Soccer training sessions organized as part of the "Make Friends through Soccer Project" attract many local kids every time.