Taking notice

I remember watching the 2018 FIFA world cup and for the first time taking note of Japan; more specifically, I remember watching the match between Japan and Belgium to get to the quarter-finals of the tournament. Despite their eventual 3-2 loss, I couldn’t help but marvel at the technical skill and determination of the Japanese side. It was a performance that cemented Japan and Japanese football as international contenders and proved the quality that exists far from traditional footballing nations.

What about away from international competitions however? What is football like in Japan itself? And most importantly; if you’ve already acquired a taste for Japanese football, is there any way to continue to keep up with and watch football from here in the UK? Mild spoiler alert — yes there is!

Quick Selection

Introducing Japanese football

Leagues and championships

Ways to watch Japanese football

Introducing Japanese football

It may come as a surprise, but the very first kick of a football in Japan happened just shy of 150 years ago in 1873, following a Royal Navy mission to Japan. Since this beginning, football has become the second most popular sport in the country (behind baseball), even surpassing more traditional sports like Sumo and Kendo.

Japanese football is a different style in the same way that English football is different to Spanish or German. Not known for their physicality during a match, Japanese players instead use speed to their advantage. This creates games that are fast-paced and characteristically fluid and decisive in style.

It’s a style that has brought some success to the men’s national team nicknamed ‘Samurai Blue’ in a short amount of time, as professional football in Japan only began in the early 90’s. It’s the women’s team however, nicknamed ‘Nadeshiko Japan’ that have taken the biggest prize first — The women’s world cup in 2011. This is along with being runners-up at the 2015 world cup and silver medals at the 2012 Olympics.

Players in the Japanese National football team
The Japan national team at the 2018 World Cup
Светлана Бекетова, CC BY-SA 3.0 GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons

Leagues and championships

Football in Japan is accessible to almost everyone in some way or another. There are championships dedicated to professional school and college football, a ‘Champions League’ for competing regions in Japan, as well as tournaments separated by age for the over 40’s, 50’s, etc. This gives an indication to how serious football has become. The league that has become the most famous however (at least outside of Japan) is the J-League.

J league

The J-league is the professional football league in Japan comparable to that of the Premier League in the UK. It is a single season league that starts around late February and runs until early December; broken down into three divisions based on performance, J3 features the lowest ranking teams and J1 featuring the best with promotion and relegation chances each season. Each divisions features the following number of teams:

  • J1 – 20
  • J2 – 22
  • J3 – 15

The J-league has become one of the most successful football leagues in Asia; as such, has attracted a number of overseas players to play for various clubs in the league such as Andrés Iniesta, and Fernando Torres; Gary Lineker even played in the first two seasons of the J-league when it began. The attraction of the J-league works both ways however, as a few Japanese J-league players have made their way into the English Premier League such as Shinji Kagawa and Maya Yoshida, who also play for their national team.

It is a league that has gone through several changes and developments since its concept in 1992, originally only having a single division and playing a split-season scenario until 2005 that included a play-off finish. (This was in fact re-introduced in 2015 for a single season but reversed the year after due to bad reception.) The current format, and rules have stabilised and remained relatively unchanged since 2016.

Despite the popularity and attention the J-league commands, there is another competition that is held in high regard in Japan.

The Emperors Cup

The Emperors Cup is a competition held in Japan, open to any team or club that is a member of the Japanese Football Association (JFA). This means that as well as teams from all three divisions of the J-league, regional teams, prefectural teams, even college and university teams have a chance to participate; in this sense the idea is remarkably similar to the FA Cup in English Football.

The 2020 competition saw a total of 2,432 teams take part.

It’s a competition that was in started in 1921 with a little helping nudge from the Football Association in England. Following a handful of state visits between the two countries and the work of British ambassadors in Japan, a silver cup was donated to help strengthen diplomatic ties. A note was delivered with the cup stating, “It should be awarded to the winning team of the Japanese national championship”. This prompted both the development of the Japanese Football Association as well as the All-Japan Association Football Championship — later renamed as The Emperors Cup.

The winners of The Emperors Cup receive a host of prizes and trophies including: The Emperors Cup, the JFA Cup, a Certificate of Commendation, a medal, and 100 million yen (currently £650,000). The silver cup donated by the English FA is still presented to the winners to this day.

As well as the men’s tournament counterpart known as The Empress’s Cup is Japan’s all-women competition first beginning in 1979.

1280px Emperors cup
The Emperors Cup trophy that is awarded to the winners of The Emperors Cup competition
Ohtani tanya, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ways to watch Japanese football

If you wish to watch Japanese football in the same way you follow football in the UK; know that it is surprisingly accessible.

There are a variety of options open to choose from depending on how much you want to watch and how much you want you spend doing so; however, know that whatever option you choose, it will be the J-league that is broadcast to the world. The Emperors Cup is rarely — if ever — broadcast outside of Japan TV channels. Sites such as YouTube can offer highlights and maybe more if you’re willing to do a bit of digging; however, here im going to focus on ways that you can watch or stream full length matches on official channels.


Now despite the name, FreeSports is not some illicit company out to scam you. On the contrary, It’s a endeavour created in 2017 aiming to bring a variety of sports to the home without having to pay through the nose. Yes, it is in fact free.

J-league matches form just one part of what FreeSports offers so don’t expect to get coverage of the entire season; although, that doesn’t mean you’re only getting one or two matches every so often. Oh no — remembering this is a free channel for a moment — you will be able to watch at least half of all games played in the J1 league either live or recorded; the rest are featured in a highlights program. This is all in high quality with English commentary would you believe.

That is absolutely crazy for a somewhat niche edition of the sport and following. (Or maybe it’s more popular over here than I thought.)

FreeSports is available to watch at home on channel 64 (Freeview) as well as on Sky and Virgin TV. There is always the potential with some TV channels not to appear in some areas due to signal coverage etc; thankfully FreeSports also has a player online where you can watch live and on demand programs.

Premier Sports (1 & 2)

Part of the same company as FreeSports admittedly, Premier Sports offers an extension to the service already provided by its counterpart.

Premier Sports doesn’t offer a whole lot more to the world of J-league and is more of a step-up for other sports coverage. That being said, it does offer other J-league games to those already on FreeSports. More are available to be watched Live too which is a big thing if your heavily invested. It’s a service that should be considered if you want all that you can get hold of.

Premier Sports is available as an add-on to existing Sky or Virgin customers costing £11 or £13 a month respectively. There is also another option to pay £11 a month for access to Premier Sports as an online only option.


DAZN is an online sports streaming service first developed in the UK back in 2015. Although DAZN was founded in the UK, it is still a company that is bound by regional licensing agreements; as such, to watch J-league on this service a VPN is necessary.

DAZN is the J-leagues official broadcasting partner. This means that if you want to watch every game, this is the service you’ll need. A VPN will be required because the UK version of DAZN shows nothing but boxing, great if you like that kind of thing but mildly annoying for anything else. The Japanese version however is where you will need to log into should you want to watch the J-league. Rights have also been granted to DAZN to broadcast the Asian Football Championship (AFC) in which Japanese teams make a regular appearance.

Every game can be streamed live, or if you miss it, on demand too. It is a subscription model costing 1920 yen or £12.50, but a free trial offering is a good chance to see if it can work for you before deciding completely.

Tokyo rooftop football
Famous rooftop football pitch in Tokyo
Jack French from San Francisco, USA, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


The development of Japanese football has been quite profound in such a short timeframe, attracting attention on the world stage. As much as it’s not an entirely new concept, there should be enough of a difference and change of pace to pique the interest ordinary football fans and Japanese fans alike; if you’re both, there has never been a better time to start watching Japanese football what with the increasing means to do so here in the UK.