The 2022 World Cup held in Qatar had several thrills and spills, but for the Asian continent, it was special for several reasons. After decades of disappointment, this World Cup felt like Asian Football Confederation (AFC) outfits rose to the occasion. Most AFC teams shocked the global football fraternity by defying the odds. In doing so, it suggested that the gap between the best in Asia and traditional footballing powerhouses has narrowed.
Saudi Arabia clinched a historic 2-1 win over eventual World Cup champions Argentina. Iran overcame a tricky Welsh side led by Gareth Bale in a 2-0 victory and narrowly missed out on qualification to the knockout stages after a 1-0 loss to the United States. South Korea remained resolute in a 0-0 draw with Uruguay before edging past Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal to book their place in the Round of 16. However, amongst the AFC contingent, no one stole the show like Japan, whose feats in this tournament were simply unparalleled.
Placed in what many labeled a Group of Death alongside former World Cup champions Spain and Germany, most fans would not have expected the Samurai Blue to progress to the knockout stages. Yet, Japan managed to pull off massive upset wins over Spain and Germany to top their group and set up a date with 2018 World Cup runner-ups Croatia in the Round of 16.
Asia watched and stood alongside Nippon in their quest to reach the FIFA World Cup Quarter Finals, a stage that Japan has never reached in its football history. Unfortunately, despite their gutsy performance against the Croatians, the Samurai Blue crashed out of the tournament in a penalty shoot-out, to the disappointment of millions of Japanese fans and millions more around the wider continent.
Despite the defeat, the recent World Cup exploits of the Samurai Blue have certainly boosted Japanese football’s popularity in Southeast Asia, a region of strategic importance for Tokyo that is threatened by increasing Chinese presence. Beijing has ramped up its efforts in recent years to increase its presence in Southeast Asia, which could prove problematic for Japan.
To dilute China’s influence in the Southeast Asian region, Japan has been adopting a strategy of wedging itself between China and various ASEAN states. While most scholars have discussed various economic policies adopted by Tokyo to raise its influence in Southeast Asia, Japanese football has also played a key part in increasing Japanese presence in the region as well.
The Japanese Football Association (JFA) and the J.League have a strong influence on regional football. The JFA has signed several Memorandum of Understanding (MOUs) with ASEAN states such as Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand. The J.League, the professional league that includes the top three divisions of the Japanese football league system, has also signed partnership agreements with ASEAN states Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Singapore, and Indonesia.
The MOUs with individual ASEAN member football associations entail the JFA contributing to various aspects of macro football projects such as youth coaching and coaches’ education. In doing so, the JFA can propagate Japan’s football philosophy within the football ecosystem of a particular ASEAN state. Every nation has a different football philosophy, which is derived from the socio-cultural elements of that particular country. In some regards, a football philosophy could be seen to be an extension of that country’s ideology. Hence, through the various JFA-established MOUs Japanese football philosophy can permeate through various facets of society, which creates the perception of Japanese football superiority.
Likewise, the J.League Partner Nations scheme helps further push the notion of Japanese football superiority. As part of the agreement, players from J.League Partner Nations will not be counted as foreigners. This arrangement was groundbreaking in Asia, where there are strict limitations on the usage of foreign players in both domestic and continental competitions. Yet, despite the freedom to utilize players from these Southeast Asian states, only some have been signed by Japanese outfits.
There is certainly a significant gap between Japan and Southeast Asia when it comes to the quality of players, and thus Japanese outfits have signed the best in the ASEAN region. Nevertheless, the fact that only the most elite stalwarts have graced the league further propels the J.League’s status as one of the best in Asia. While most members of Japan’s 2022 World Cup team ply their trade in Europe, most started their careers in the J.League. As such, following this World Cup, more Southeast Asian players and Southeast Asian fans would certainly place Japan on a higher pedestal.
Besides the mechanisms in place with the JFA MOUs and J.League Partner Nations agreements, football has become a vehicle for Japanese football to influence other aspects of Southeast Asia. For instance, Japan has a prominent football presence in Cambodia. At the international level, Japan seems to have a firm grip over the national team. While Ryu Hirose is the Cambodia National Team head coach on paper, the de facto head coach is Japanese icon Keisuke Honda, who does not possess the relevant football coaching licenses. While Honda is a divisive figure amongst the Cambodian fanbase, one cannot dispute the influence he has within the Cambodian football fraternity.
At the professional league level, the CEO of the newly revamped and privatized Cambodian Premier League (CPL) and Cambodia League Two is also Japanese. Satoshi Saito used to be an international marketer for Catalonian giants FC Barcelona but was appointed to helm the CPL. Saito has made it clear that the CPL will emulate the “J.League experience in Japan,” referring to how the J.League’s introduction in 1992 helped significantly raise the standards of Japanese football.
At the club level, Siem Reap-based CPL outfit Angkor Tiger is owned by Japanese businessman Akihiro Kato and many Japanese brands come in as sponsors. Furthermore, there is an overwhelming majority of Japanese players in the foreign player quota spots. In 2022, 39.2 percent of the foreign quota positions in the CPL were filled up by Japanese footballers, which indicates a clear preference for Japanese foreign players by most, if not all, sides.
In this regard, Japanese football plays a crucial supplementary role in Tokyo’s efforts to wedge itself between Cambodia and China. Beijing has long held a firm grip on the Hun Sen regime through various investments, including Cambodian infrastructure projects such as the recent construction of Cambodia’s first toll expressway. Japan has also invested in Cambodian infrastructure projects and is currently engaging with Phnom Penh to initiate future similar strategic projects.
The reality is that Japan’s investments in the Khmer Kingdom pale in comparison to that of China. Tokyo is fully aware that it cannot completely eliminate Cambodia’s dependency on Beijing. Yet Japan’s overwhelming presence in the Cambodian domestic football scene helps provide Tokyo with a unique dimension that Beijing does not possess.
In Singapore, Japanese football has a similarly entrenched place in the local football ecosystem. Since 2011, the JFA and the Football Association of Singapore have maintained an MOU, renewing it once in 2015 and again in 2022. Since 2019, a Japanese head coach has been in charge of the Singapore National Team.
In the Singapore Premier League (SPL), 41 percent of the foreign player spots were occupied by players from Japan for the 2022 campaign. However, most of these Japanese footballers come from Albirex Niigata (S), which plays in the SPL and is the satellite team of recently crowned J2 champions Albirex Niigata. While Albirex Niigata (S) is a team that is mostly comprised of Japanese players, the club has made sustained efforts to integrate with the local Yuhua community it is based in, as well as the broader Singapore society.
Regionally, major Japanese brands have played a major role in football. Between 2008 and 2021, Japanese brand Suzuki was the title sponsor for the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Championship, the most prestigious ASEAN footballing tournament. Another Japanese brand, Mitsubishi Electric, inked a deal to be the title sponsor for the 2022 edition of the competition and thus, continues the Japanese affiliation.
It is safe to say that in football-crazy Southeast Asia, Japan has been making the right moves to solidify its presence in the industry. The recent World Cup performances have further improved the impression of Japanese efforts in football and act as a supplement to the policies that Tokyo is adopting to wedge against China.