Today, I would like to discuss something that has been close to my heart for a long time now: soccer.
First, I have a story to share. When I was about eight, my parents informed me that I would be participating in a local soccer league. Now, you would have thought I would have been excited about the whole thing. Truth be told, it was the total opposite and I was downright pissed. I was angry that I was being told to play soccer…so much, in fact, that I cried under the table for three days as an attempt to convince my parents that they were making the wrong decision (this hissy fit comes in second to the time I threatened my mother that I would pee in her car if she made me sell Camp Fire candy and actually followed through with said threat). Needless to say, my parents did not cave in and I was “forced” to participate in this “dreaded sport” and ended up falling in love with it. Since than I have played on many teams and even coached during summer at Santa Cruz Soccer Camp where I taught young kids how to play soccer.
Yet, something puzzled me when I came to Japan as an exchange student and I joined a soccer club at Tokyo International University: where were all the girls? Now, to be totally fair, there were some girls. However, my first semester on the team they were only managers. In fact, when I showed up to the field my first day, all the boys assumed I was a new manager and thought it was “cute” that I brought my own cleats. Once we started playing, none of the boys would pass me the ball. It took me literally knocking down the captain and highest ranking senpai (I did not know this at the time) for them to acknowledge my presence. After that, things went fine and I was a regular member of the team. My second semester, I joined a less competitive group and there were actually girls playing this time. Not as skilled as the girls I played with in America, but girls none the less. They even invited me to join the girls’ team – unfortunately, I did not have time for two teams.
Anyway, my point is, Japan’s women’s soccer is extremely underdeveloped and has really only started taking off in recent years. This past weekend I participated in a soccer clinic for jr. high school girls which they titled “Girls Soccer Festival: Come Enjoy Soccer Happily.” I just tried to ignore the second half of the title. The advertisement given to my jr. high school said that this clinic was for new people who just have an interest in soccer and would like to “enjoy playing happily.” Silly me, I thought this meant I would be teaching beginners.
To my pleasant surprise, when I arrived at Saitama Stadium, I could not find a single girl who had never touch a soccer ball before – excluding P.E. class. Most of the 40 girls that were there were members of soccer teams and came for extra training.
Now, I might get a little rude her in a few moments, but remember I am a silly American looking at these girls through silly American eyes. I was a little too shy/nervous to go by myself, so my boyfriend came with me for moral support and to help me with any wild Japanese that might be thrown at me. When we arrived at the stadium, I could not for the life of me find any girls. Even when I saw the large group of 40 girls passing soccer balls with one another, I told Jun (the boyfriend) that they were boys and we had to keep looking. Jun corrected me. One thing about Japanese society that you just have to come to accept is how Japanese men and women look very similar, especially with Japanese very androgynous fashion styles (seriously, sometimes when I see people walking down the street I can’t tell if they are boys or girls. Same with some of my students). But, in all seriousness, to me it almost felt like these girls were trying to make themselves look like boys. Like, it was almost shameful to look like a girl and be playing soccer. Now, I know that this is a very old fashion idea as Japanese women are starting to become unpowered, but if you heard a team of Japanese girls singing this song before playing soccer, what would you think?
Mirror Mirror on the wall
pretty girl, don’t play ball
let’s get ugly. let’s get mean.
let’s go out and beat this team
Now, I know playing soccer is not about looking pretty…but I did not see a single pony tail that day. The girls with long hair kept their hair back with headbands (something boys do) while everyone else had boy-like hair cuts. I talked with one of the coaches (she is an elementary school teacher in Tsurugashima, which is near where I live). She had this to say about soccer:
As you know, generally speaking gender gap has lessened in USA, much more so compared to Japan, I guess. So all soccer players from U8 are already educated to be tough, bossy and assertive.
I think Japan has to follow this culture (read American culture) if Japan wants to be more competitive in women sports. It is a taboo to say in US ” this is not what a girl should do” but in Japan people can still say so.
One of the trick I do before the game is, I say” hi guys, don’t look timid, show me your mean face! Really really mean face, please.” and they look mean, horribly mean. That even scares me a bit. That is called a good game face.”
This is a nice picture from the Canada vs. Japan game. You can really see the difference in hair and style.
Japanese women who play soccer really seem to represent a controversy, a clash if you will, with modern thinking and Japanese tradition. Even the name of the women’s league is a little strange “Nadeshiko Japan.” Nadeshiko is a pinkish flower and it means “love which burns” or “the love that endures to be easily to be discovered.” Now, that’s all cute and all, but to me it is seems to be an attempt to make women’s soccer a little feminine. Imagine if in America we called women’s soccer “Rose America” or “Daisy America.” I know that our two cultures are different, and I should be glad that there is a women’s league in Japan that is strong (a little stronger than the men’s side on the national front), but I just have a hard time accepting the whole flower thing. However, there is another meaning to the nadeshiko flower that means “boldness” or “brave” which I think is a little more fitting than the love centered meanings.
I am sure I will write an entry about Japan’s only slight obsession with flowers at another time. Also, further research showed me that “Nadeshiko”, a kind of dianthus, come from the phrase “Yamato Nadeshiko”(大和撫子) which means “ideal Japanese woman”. While I might not like the whole flower thing, I guess this meaning shows a move in the right direction?
Best picture ever. Japan’s Yuka Kado fights for the ball with Korea DPR’s Sin Rol Ryon
Anyway, here is a brief history on Nadeshiko Japan taken from Wikipedia so you do not have to do your own research:
The Birth of “Japan women’s national football team”
During 1960s and 70s, women’s football players and teams were increasing in Japan, and some teams made up a regional league in each places.
In 1980, “All-Japan Women’s Football Championship” was held, and the next year 1981, Japan women’s national football team played the first international match in Hong Kong. After while, the team continued playing matches in Japan or in other countries, however it was not “All Japan”, but temporarily organized as a selection of members from any regional league.
In 1986, Ryohei Suzuki took office as the coach of Japan women’s national football team, the first “All Japan”. In 1989, the “Japan Women’s Football League” (abbreviated to “L.League”) was established, and the women’s national team attended “FIFA Women’s World Championship 1991” in China.
Japan women’s national football team has attended Atlanta Olympic Games, FIFA Women’s World Championship 1995 and so on, so the national team and L.League were very popular.
But in 1999, Japan missed the participation in Sydney Olympic Games, it caused withdrawal of a series of teams from an L.League before long, and the Japanese women’s football was to be on the verge of the decline.
In August 2002, Japan Football Association appointed Eiji Ueda, who had acted as supervision of representative Macau National Football Team, as director representative, and it should have expected a comeback of women’s football and planned team reorganization for the Athens Olympic Games .
At first, the team was always defeated, but Ueda made up the team stronger, and the team gained wide support in Japan. In particular, the game against the Korea DPR, which decided the participation in the Olympics, not only made the audiences rush to the National Stadium, but was also a TV program that recorded high rating.
Nadeshiko Japan is currently ranked number 9 in the world by FIFA. Let’s hope that they keep going!
As a final remark, I was quoted in a Japanese news paper about the event so here is a link to that article: http://sports.yahoo.co.jp/news/20090301-00000105-mailo-l11.html
The section you should be concerned with is here:
It pretty much just explains that I am a foreigner working in Japan who has played soccer since I was eight. I am quoted saying that I hope Japan can create a women’s soccer environment like in America. I said more about wanting girls to gain the confidence that they do not have to stay in traditional Japanese roles and can do anything that a Japanese man can, but I guess that was a little too much for this newspaper to handle.
The reporter looks really goofy…