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Country Japan Japan
Confederation AFC
Founded 1993; 22 years ago (1993)
Divisions J1 League
J2 League
J3 League
Number of teams 53
Domestic cup(s) Emperor's Cup
Yamazaki Nabisco Cup
Fuji Xerox Super Cup
International cup(s) AFC Champions League
Current champions Gamba Osaka (J1)
Shonan Bellmare (J2)
Zweigen Kanazawa (J3)
Most championships Kashima Antlers (7 titles)
TV partners SKY PerfecTV!
Website Official Website
Former logo

The J.League (Jリーグ J Rīgu?) (Japan Professional Football League (日本プロサッカーリーグ Nippon Puro Sakkā Rīgu?)) is Japan's professional association football league including first division J1 League, second division J2 League and third division J3 League.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7] It is one of the most successful leagues in Asian club football and the only league given top class 'A' ranking by the AFC. It is currently sponsored by Meiji Yasuda Life and thus officially known as the Meiji Yasuda J.League.


For history of Japanese club association football before the inception of the professional league in 1993, see Japan Soccer League.
For detailed history of J2 League, see J2 League#History.

Phases of J1[edit]

Before the professional league (1992 and earlier)[edit]

Before the inception of the J.League, the highest level of club football was the Japan Soccer League (JSL), which consisted of amateur clubs.[8][9] Despite being well-attended during the boom of the late 60's and early 70's (when Japan's national team won the bronze Olympic medal at the 1968 games in Mexico), the JSL went into decline in the 80's, in general line with the deteriorating situation worldwide. Fans were few, the grounds were not of the highest quality, and the Japanese national team was not on a par with the Asian powerhouses. To raise the level of play domestically, to attempt to garner more fans, and to strengthen the national team, the Japan Football Association (JFA) decided to form a professional league.

The professional association football league, J.League was formed in 1992, with eight clubs drawn from the JSL First Division, one from the Second Division, and the newly formed Shimizu S-Pulse. At the same time, JSL changed its name and became the Japan Football League, a semi-professional league. Although the J.League did not officially launch until 1993, the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup competition was held between the ten clubs in 1992 to prepare for the inaugural season.

Inaugural season and J.League boom (1993–1995)[edit]

J.League officially kicked-off its first season with ten clubs on May 15, 1993 as Verdy Kawasaki (current, Tokyo Verdy) played host to Yokohama Marinos (current, Yokohama F. Marinos) at the Kasumigaoka National Stadium.

After the boom (1996–1999)[edit]

Despite the success in the first three years, in early 1996 the league attendance declined rapidly. In 1997 the average attendance was 10,131, compared to more than 19,000 in 1994.

Change of infrastructure and game formats (1999–2004)[edit]

Main article: J2 League

The league's management finally realized that they were heading in the wrong direction. In order to solve the problem, the management came out with two solutions.

First, they announced the J.League Hundred Year Vision, in which they aim to make 100 professional association football clubs in the nation of Japan by 2092, the hundredth season. The league also encouraged the clubs to promote football or non-football related sports and health activities, to acquire local sponsorships, and to build good relationship with their hometowns at the grass-root level. The league believed that this will allow the clubs to bond with their respective cities and towns and get support from local government, companies, and citizens. In other words, clubs will be able to rely on the locals, rather than major national sponsors.

Second, the infrastructure of the league was heavily changed in 1999. The league acquired nine clubs from the semi-professional JFL and one club from J. League to create a two division system. The top flight became the J.League Division 1 (J1) with 16 clubs while J.League Division 2 (J2) was launched with ten clubs in 1999. The second-tier Japan Football League (former), now became third-tier Japan Football League.

Also, until 2004 (with the exception of 1996 season), the J1 season was divided into two. At the end of each full season, the champion from each half played a two-legged series to determine the overall season winner and runners-up. Júbilo Iwata in 2002, and Yokohama F. Marinos in 2003, won both "halves" of the respective seasons, thus eliminating the need for the playoff series. This was the part of the reason the league abolished the split-season system starting from 2005.

European League Format & AFC Champions League (2005–2008)[edit]

Since the 2005 season, J.League Division 1 consisted of 18 clubs (from 16 in 2004) and the season format became similar to the European club football. The number of relegated clubs also increased from 2 to 2.5, with the third-from-bottom club going into Promotion / Relegation Series with the third-placed J2 club. Since then, other than minor adjustments, the top flight has stayed consistent.

Japanese teams did not treat the Asian Champions League that seriously in the early years, in part due to the distances travelled and teams played. However, in the 2008 Champions League three Japanese sides made the quarter-finals.[10]

However, in the recent years, with inclusion of A-League in Eastern Asia, introduction of FIFA Club World Cup, and increased marketability in the Asian continent, both the league and the clubs paid more attention to Asian competition. For example, Kawasaki Frontale built up a notable fan base in Hong Kong, owing to their participation in the AFC Champions League during the 2007 season.[11] Continuous effort led to the success of Urawa Red Diamonds in 2007 and Gamba Osaka in 2008. Thanks to excellent league management and competitiveness in Asian competition, the AFC awarded J.League the highest league ranking and a total of four slots starting from the 2009 season. The league took this as an opportunity to sell TV broadcasting rights to foreign countries, especially in Asia.

Also starting the 2008 season, Emperor's Cup Winner was allowed to participate in the upcoming Champions League season, rather than waiting a whole year (i.e. 2005 Emperor's Cup winner, Tokyo Verdy, participated in the 2007 ACL season, instead of the 2006 season). In order to fix this one-year lag issue, the 2007 Emperor's Cup winner, Kashima Antlers', turn was waived. Nonetheless, Kashima Antlers ended up participating in the 2009 ACL season by winning the J.League title in the 2008 season.

Modern phase (2009–2014)[edit]

Three major changes were seen starting in the 2009 season. First, starting that season, four clubs entered the AFC Champions League. Secondly, the number of relegation slots increased to three. Finally, the AFC Player slot was implemented starting this season. Each club will be allowed to have a total of four foreign players; however, one slot is reserved for a player that derives from an AFC country other than Japan. Also, as a requirement of being a member of the Asian Football Confederation, the J.League Club Licence regulations started in 2012 as one criterion of whether a club was allowed to stay in its division or to be promoted to a higher tier in professional level league. No major changes happened to J.League Division 1 as the number of clubs stayed at 18.

Future (2015–)[edit]

From 2015 the J.League system changed to a three-stage system. The year is split into a first and second league stages, followed by a third and final championship stage. The third stage is composed of stage one and two's total point champion and up to four other teams. These additional four teams consist of the following: Stage one and stage two's top point accumulator, and stage one and two's second placed points accumulator. These five teams then take part in a championship play off stage to decide the winner of the league trophy.


Year Important Events # J Clubs # ACL Clubs Rele. Slots
  • JFA forms a professional league assessment committee.
  • The committee decides the criteria for professional clubs
  • Fifteen to twenty clubs from Japan Soccer League applies for the professional league membership
  • The J.League officially kicks off its first season
1994 12
  • Following clubs are promoted from Japan Football League: Cerezo Osaka and Kashiwa Reysol
  • The points system is introduced for the first time: a club receives 3 pts for any win, 1 pts for PK loss, and 0 pts for regulation or extra time loss.
  • Following clubs are promoted from Japan Football League: Kyoto Purple Sanga and Avispa Fukuoka
  • The league adopts single season format
  • J.League average attendance hits the record low 10,131
  • Following club is promoted from Japan Football League: Vissel Kobe
  • The league goes back to split-season format
  • The points system changes: a club receives 3 pts for regulation win, 2 pts for extra-time win, 1 pt for PK win, and 0 pts for any loss.
  • Following club is promoted from Japan Football League: Consadole Sapporo
  • Yokohama Flügels announces that they will be dissolved into crosstown rivals Yokohama Marinos for the 1999 season
  • The league announces the J.League Hundred Year Vision
  • The league announces incorporation of two-division system starting 1999 season
  • The league hosts J.League Promotion Tournament to decide promoting and/or relegating clubs. As a result, Consadole Sapporo becomes the first club be to relegated.
  • Yokohama Marinos merges with Yokohama Flügels and becomes Yokohama F. Marinos
  • Penalty kick shootouts are abolished in both divisions; however, golden goal extra-time rules stayed
  • The points system changes: a club receives 3 pts for a regulation win, 2 pts for an extra time win, and 1 pt for a tie
  • Japan Football League (former) is also restructured, as it becomes the 3rd-tier Japan Football League.
Note: To distinguish between the former and the current JFL, the new JFL is pronounced Nihon Football League in Japanese.
16 2
2000 16 2
2001 16 2
2002 16 2 2
  • Extra time is abolished in Division 1 and traditional 3–1–0 points system is adopted
16 2
  • No automatic relegation this season, as the top flight expands to 18 clubs in the following season
  • Inception of the two-legged Promotion / Relegation Series
16 2 0.5
  • J.League Division 1 expands to 18 clubs
  • J.League Division 1 adopts singles-season format
18 2 2.5
2006 18 2 2.5
Note: If a Japanese club wins the AFC Champions League, the host loses its right.
18 2 2.5
2008 18 2 + 1 2.5
  • Four clubs enter AFC Champion League.
  • Implementation of 4th foreign player slot, a.k.a. AFC player slot
  • Promotion / Relegation Series is eliminated and 16th-place club is now relegated by default.
18 4 3
2010 18 4 3
  • J.League champions qualifies to the FIFA Club World Cup as the host for next two seasons again
18 4 3

Stance in the Japanese football pyramid[edit]

Level(s) League(s)/Division(s)
I J1 League
18 clubs
II J2 League
22 clubs
III J3 League
12 clubs

Since the inception of the second division in 1999, promotion and relegation follow a pattern similar to the European leagues, where the two bottom clubs of J1 and the top two clubs of J2 are guaranteed to move. From the 2004 to 2008 season, the third-placed J2 club entered Promotion / Relegation Series against the sixteenth-placed J1 club and the winner had a right to play in the top flight in the following year. Starting on the 2009 season,the top three J2 clubs receives J1 promotion by default in place of three bottom J1 clubs. However, promotion or right to play the now-defunct pro/rele series relies on the J2 clubs meeting the requirements for J1 franchise status set by the league. This has generally not been a hindrance, in fact, no club is yet to be denied promotion due to not meeting the J1 criteria.

Until the 2004 season, the J1 season was divided into two halves, with an annual championship series involving the champions from each half (with the exception of the 1996 season). However, from the 2005 season, the single-season format is adopted as the top flight was expanded to eighteen clubs. Currently, 18 clubs compete in double round robin, home and away. Starting on the 2008 season, the top three clubs, along with the Emperor's Cup winner receive ACL berths for the following season. If the Emperor's Cup winner happens to be one of the top three J1 finisher, the 4th-place club receives the final berth. Starting on the 2009 season, the bottom three clubs are relegated to Division 2 at the end of the year.

J.League awards[edit]

J.League 20th Anniversary Team[edit]

Position Name
Goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi
Defender Naoki Matsuda
Defender Yuji Nakazawa
Defender Masami Ihara
Midfielder Yasuhito Endō
Midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata
Midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura
Midfielder Hiroshi Nanami
Forward Kazuyoshi Miura
Forward Masashi Nakayama
Forward Dragan Stojković


  1. ^ "J-League History Part 1: Professional football begins in Japan". Goal.com. 2013-09-09. Retrieved 2013-12-12. 
  2. ^ "J-League History Part 2: Verdy Kawasaki dominates the early years". Goal.com. 2013-09-09. Retrieved 2013-12-12. 
  3. ^ "J-League History Part 3: Growing pains emerge on the road to the 2002 World Cup". Goal.com. 2013-09-09. Retrieved 2013-12-12. 
  4. ^ "J-League History Part 4: Exporting Talent". Goal.com. 2013-09-09. Retrieved 2013-12-12. 
  5. ^ "J-League History Part 5: Expansion, success, and a bright future". Goal.com. 2013-09-09. Retrieved 2013-12-12. 
  6. ^ "Tokyo Journal; Japan Falls for Soccer, Leaving Baseball in Lurch - New York Times". Nytimes.com. 1994-06-06. Retrieved 2013-11-17. 
  7. ^ "Japan Wages Soccer Campaign". CSMonitor.com. Retrieved 2013-11-17. 
  8. ^ "Football finds a home in Japan". FIFA.com. 2005-12-02. Retrieved 2013-12-12. 
  9. ^ "When Saturday Comes - How Japan created a successful league". Wsc.co.uk. 2010-07-18. Retrieved 2013-12-12. 
  10. ^ John Duerden (11 August 2008). "Asian Debate: Is Japan Becoming Asia's Leader?". Goal.com. Retrieved 19 August 2012. 
  11. ^ 川崎Fが香港でブレーク中、生中継で火 (in Japanese). NikkanSports. March 8, 2008. Retrieved March 8, 2008. 

External links[edit]