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Women’s Soccer Breaks New Ground with Japan’s First Pro League

By Staff Writer
March 02, 2022
Recent sports events prove that female athletes are increasingly gaining attention, and the sector has huge potential for further growth. In Japan too, the momentum appears to be on the rise. This September, WE League (Women Empowerment League), Japan’s first professional women’s soccer league, kicked off. The inauguration of the league is a pivotal step not only for Japan’s women’s football or female athletes in general, but also for society at large. Kikuko Okajima, chair of WE league said “WE league upholds the philosophy of contributing through women’s soccer and sports to the creation and development of society, filled with diversity and lifestyles where everyone can shine,” in the occasion of the conference at Foreign Press Center Japan (FPCJ). Her talk leverages the project’s bold ambition to upgrade women’s status in sports and society in Japan.
WE League
The new league promises to raise the status of women’s soccer even higher

Building confidence in women’s player

“WE league supports women to chase their diverse dreams and ambitions through soccer and other sports,” says Ms. Okajima. Herself being one of the pioneering female soccer players in Japan in 1970’s, and having a business experience in the USA, she understands the importance of female leadership in both sports and society. In fact, joining the league requires members to have at least 50% women executives in management and having at least one decision maker who is a woman. Similarly, its board members include 10 females out of 16 members. The club also actively strives to inspire confidence among players. “It struck me when I was in the USA that Japanese women tend to have less efficacy and awareness to acknowledge positively their self-esteem.” She continues to say, “this applies also to Japanese players.” Thus, WE league has established an empowerment division, and assigned people in charge of empowerment in each club. This develops confidence and professionalism for the player through interactive exercises. Chika Hashiguchi, a PR representative for WE League, adds “Consequently, the players now can affirm themselves positively, and since then they have started to express their opinion on social issues through social medias, on which they have hesitated to speak out their points of views before.” Hashiguchi continues, ”Through the foundation of WE League, we wanted the players to realize the tremendous potential they have inside themselves and we encourage them to be proactive. We also simply believe that pursuing the job they sincerely love can brighten them and consequently the positive energy resonates to fans. We reckon that that is our way of contributing to women’s empowerment in the sports industry and Japanese society”.

Building on a strong foundation

Japan already has a large number of women’s soccer clubs, dating back to the formation of the L. League 30 years ago, although they have always been semi-professional, with most of the players working as employees of the companies sponsoring the teams. This, however, gave the ambitious new WE League a sizeable pool of talent to draw from. 17 existing teams applied for membership in the new league, and in October 2021 it was announced that 11 had been selected to compete in the inaugural season. Eight of them are affiliated with teams in the men’s J-League. Nevertheless, the inauguration of such unprecedented initiative had traversed a rocky path. Hashiguchi recalls the difficulties the founder member of the league experienced vis-à-vis kicking off the project. “We had merely two years to establish the League since the idea was crystalized in 2019. Although the league, the clubs and players had the shared goal and passion for developing women’s soccer in Japan, each of us had solid diverse ideas, so finding consensus among all in such a short time was quite hard”
Eleven teams` logo 
Eleven teams will compete in the inaugural season of the WE League
The new league will serve as the top tier for women’s soccer in Japan, while the existing Nadeshiko League will make up the second and third tiers. High-performing teams will be eligible for advancement into the WE League until it reaches the desired size.

In describing the process of forming the League, Ms. Okajima noted the difference between the league styles in America and those in Japan. While the ones in America have been backed by individual investors, including notable people like tennis star Naomi Osaka and presidential daughters Chelsea Clinton and Jeanna Bush, sports teams in Japan are typically backed by corporations. This meant that the American leagues could often receive large infusions of funds from people who believed in supporting women’s sports, while “in Japan, we do not see such a movement where women invest in women’s sports.” On the other hand, she noted that while US women’s soccer leagues have twice seen their funds dry up as investors pull out, the Japan teams can generally count on steady, if somewhat smaller, support.

Growing with worldwide talent

While the teams of the WE League will only be playing in Japan, the players themselves will hail from around the world. Clubs have been provided financial assistance to sign experienced players from around the world, who will be able to share their know-how and playing style with their Japanese teammates. In addition, the Japan Football Association is providing support for signing players from Southeast Asia, where the JFA has spent the last few decades fostering a growing sports program, including youth leagues for boys and girls.

Empowering career development for female prayers

Another feature of the club is preparing in parallel a second career development for the players. For instance, the league encourages the players to acquire coaching license. Subsequently, as there is a demand for female coaches from other Asian countries, WE league encourages female players to expatriate to sustain the upgrade of the women’s soccer activities abroad. Equally it encourages them to develop their careers after retirement in those foreign countries.
Women’s soccer players
Women’s soccer has grown worldwide, now Japan will have its own professional league.

A revolutionary approach to sports partnership

Regarding to sponsors, Ms. Okajima says “We support socially significant values to be deeply engrained within society. Partners are chosen as for their support of women’s activities and gender equality.” Many of the partners of the league are companies which are engaging for the first time in such a collaboration. “I believe this is significant. They started inclusion of women in their company vision, or support of women’s activities or trying to cater to women consumers”. Ms. Okajima adds “I believe this is the prime example that changes are happening within Japanese businesses”. Another type of partner includes fashion brand “X-girl”, whose street style fashion targets female teenagers and young women, which are also the target of WE league when it comes to spectators. Traditionally, most supporters of women’s soccer have been males in their thirties to sixties. “Through the partnership with X-girl, we want to attract younger females to come to the stadium” she asserts.

Ms. Okajima concludes that “In addition to the performance of players, horizontally integrating our vision through partners is equally important.” To sustain the league’s goal, a cross-sector network of platforms, called “WE Action,” will be launched. The aim is to “make our voice louder” to progress towards a more diversified society. Hashiguchi also notes “All the members of WE League strongly believes soccer can positively change society. Through WE ACTION, we proactively continue to aim at empowering Japanese society hand in hand with our various stakeholders.”

Through these activities, career development, and partnerships, the league can enhance the landscape of Japanese female sports and the society at large.
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