Are you big in Japan?

Note by JAC: Greg has just returned from two weeks in Japan and will be writing us several posts about his experiences there. This one features soccer, a sport Greg plays.

by Greg Mayer

Are you big in Japan? Cristiano Ronaldo is, at least as judged by the prominence of his much-larger-than-life visage on the entrance to Soccer Shop KAMO in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Soccer Shop KAMO, Shinjuku, Tokyo.

I went in to the shop, on Koshu Kaido Avenue, a bustling commercial boulevard that separates Shinjuku from Shibuya in modern west Tokyo, during a recent visit to Japan.

Koshu Kaido Avenue, Tokyo. Note the pruned gingko trees which line the street.

The shop has multiple floors, but I only visited the first, which features jerseys and other branded merchandise, from local teams like FC Tokyo, but also clubs from around the world. Manchester United has long been known as an international brand, especially in Asia, but judging by the merchandise on display, Barcelona and Chelsea are the most popular (not Ronaldo’s Real Madrid).

Although best known for sumo and baseball, Japan is an up-and-coming power in world football, having co-hosted the 2002 World Cup with Korea, and with a number of players in top European leagues. I saw some fields and players at a distance on Honshu, but on Okinawa I got to see youth and adult players up close.

A ‘futsal’ field in Shinjuku Chuo Park, as seen from the observatory atop the south tower of the Tokyo Municipal Government Building. In the U.S., futsal is the indoor game, and this would just be considered a small-sided field, but it’s called ‘futsal’ in Japan.

Especially interesting was a beach soccer team practice and scrimmage I got to watch at Araha Beach on Okinawa. Because sand is a high-friction, uneven surface, beach soccer is played largely in the air, with moving the ball off the head, chest, and thighs as important as the feet, and even passes with the foot being mostly aerial chips over defenders. This goal keeper (making a save in the photo) would receive the ball, advance it by juggling from one thigh to the other, then drop the ball from his left thigh and take a ferocious volley shot with his right foot. Because of the shorter field, this was a very productive approach for the offense, and reminded me of foosball, where the goal keeper is often the most dangerous attacking piece.

A skilled keeper making a save during practice, Araha Beach, Okinawa.

In the following short video, you can get a sense of the aerial nature of the game, as the play advances from the backfield to a shot on goal without the ball ever touching the ground.

And in this short video, you can see a player (he was one of the best) receiving a corner kick and then setting up his own bicycle kick. Bicycle kicks are very rare in regular soccer, but there were a few during this one brief scrimmage.

The fitness and skill of the players is phenomenal.


  1. Mark R.
    Posted June 15, 2017 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    I’m surprised they use the American “Soccer” instead of the proper name: Football

    • Randy schenck
      Posted June 15, 2017 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      My guess on that is Okinawa is a bit different than mainland Japan. Much more involved with Americans on the Island. I must say, if they are playing this game on the beach in summer time weather, that would be a killer. It is very hot in summer.

      • Posted June 15, 2017 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

        The “Soccer Shop KAMO” is in Tokyo, so that probably reflects general Japanese usage. Here’s Google’s translation of “association football”: “アソシエーションサッカー Asoshiēshonsakkā”. And “soccer”, of course, is an originally British term, used to distinguish asocciation football (soccer) from Rugby football (rugger). Perhaps a Japanese reader could further enlighten us on usual and proper usage.


        • Randy schenck
          Posted June 15, 2017 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

          I cannot help with the language but the association football (soccer) in Britain does make sense. Since the end of WWII, Japan had to construct everything from scratch and they copied much from the British plan. They looked around the world and decided their geography and layout was a good match.

        • Posted June 15, 2017 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

          I’m not Japanese but I have lived in Japan. The sport is called soccer (sakka) all over the country. Along with baseball (yakkyu) it’s one of the most popular sports.

        • Stephen Mynett
          Posted June 16, 2017 at 6:04 am | Permalink

          The exact etymology of soccer is not known for certain but it is almost certainly of English origin, a popular theory among linguists is that it originated in English Public schools. Not only sports but other things were abbreviated in similar ways, breakfast becoming brekkers is still one heard at times and rugger has already been mentioned.
          The standard format was to use the first three or so letters and add er or ers but it seemed that even the Public School “wits” of Eton, Harrow etc drew the line at calling something Asser so worked on the second half of association instead.

          On a different track, I have always wondered why nearly all the world uses a sane definition of public school, ie one for everyone, while in England a public school is only for the rich and/or elite.

          • Posted June 16, 2017 at 6:53 am | Permalink

            They’re called public schools because originally anybody (with money) could send their children to them at a time when most people who received an education did so through private tutors hired by the family or possibly through the Church.

            At least that is what I read.

            • Mike
              Posted June 17, 2017 at 8:24 am | Permalink

              makes sense.

  2. Posted June 15, 2017 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    In San Sebastian, northern Spain, the beach is a huge grin between two lovely headlands. 25 years ago, the Sunday football league marked out 4 full-size pitches for the teams to play on. Beautiful place, and the food is great, too. But not good enough for…

    Dalian Atkinson, recently deceased and former Aston Villa centre-forward, who played for the local La Liga team, Real Sociedad. In an early display (in the 90s[?]) of anti-cultural appropriation, Dalian refused to eat the local nosh and imported from Blighty case-loads of baked beans. Or so the story goes.

    This was obviously before the days when footie players discovered pasta, protein and scientific diets and lived on cups of tea and frothy beer and cut their wonky teeth on fry-ups provided by Mrs. Miggins, the club landlady, who gave details of your bedtimes and any meetings with ‘girls’ to the mean-but-fair brylcreemed manager, who combined a reputation for authentic never-forget-yer-mining-roots socialism with casual, arbitrary and unpublicised violence on his ‘lads’ in the privacy of the dressing room. Those were the days.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted June 16, 2017 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      Football’s changed Dermot. As the great Ian Rush apocryphally put it when talking about moving to Italy to play for Juve – “it’s like a foreign country”. He liked his baked beans too. Is it only us who eats the stuff? Very strange to see piles of french fries and fried eggs and sausages on American truckers’ plates without a tsunami of be-tomatoed beanlets soaking them through. It’s a travesty is what it is.

      Anyway, when an 18 year old French kid who’s barely played for an entire season is being hawked about by Monaco for a starting bid of _one hundred million quid_ then you begin to realise how unmoored from reality the game is. Two years ago my club signed Anthony Martial for the then insane, ludicrous fee of £35M. Now, that would pay the agent’s fee if you wanted to sign a world class player, the majority of whom are valued at a minimum of seventy to eighty million quid.

      Does it actually matter if today a young Phil Neville would be worth £30-35M? Does it matter if the prices reach four figures and there’s a billion pound player in the next couple of decades? I don’t really know. I look at team sports in America, and the gobsmacking money that swills around there, and I think why shouldn’t football be in that kind of financial galaxy?
      And the standard of modern players really is something else(even if my favourite players are from two decades ago). If you sent Cristiano Ronaldo back to the good old days of Leeds-hates-Chelsea, baked beans, turning up pissed for the cup final and tying teammates to the middle of the motorway on a night out…does anyone doubt that Ronaldo would not just take the more physical nature of the game back then in his stride but would adapt and excel? That he would destroy teams back then even more easily than he does now?

      I’m partly talking to myself here so apologies. I love football, and I want to see it do well as a sport, and I despair at the brute economic thinking that powers the people who run my club, at the sporting philosophy of our almost unbearable manager, who I’ve hated with a religious intensity for the last fifteen years and who now wanders around the United bench like a less charming, more bumptious and arrogant Mussolini, hoiking and spitting and cursing whenever a United player asks to come off with a broken spine, and who has apparently made it his mission to utterly and resoundingly crush the spirits of any young players silly enough to believe in the value of independent thought; at the awful oligarchic structure of the British FA and their refusal to change what is to them a winning(ie. profitable) formula for the sake of the good of the national team, at the recrudescence of a kind of ‘boisterous’ ‘do one you fackin cant’ mentality among previously constrained supporters who see things like women’s football and foreigns everywhere as an existential threat and are loudly emboldened in their charming atavistic earthiness by Brexit, Farage, ‘Crush The Saboteurs’, etc..

      Thank you dr Sullivan. See you next week for another session.

  3. Posted June 15, 2017 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    Very cool, thanks!

  4. darrelle
    Posted June 15, 2017 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Now that looks like a fun game (the beach soccer). I can’t believe my friends and I never came up with something like this.

  5. E.A. Blair
    Posted June 15, 2017 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    I guess I would be considered “big” in Japan, ’cause I’m taller than the average Japanese man and somewhat heavy (but not sumo sized).

  6. Posted June 15, 2017 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    “This goal keeper (making a save in the photo)…”

    I was going to say that it doesn’t look like he made the save, but then I noticed the ball’s shadow.

  7. Randy schenck
    Posted June 15, 2017 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    That beach area, by the way, is on the China sea side of the Island. Not far from where I lived for 5 years.

  8. Blue mAAs
    Posted June 15, 2017 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    I myself am just returned last Thursday, the 08th of June (Japan’s, and then USA’s same date), from (only) eight days’ time inside and surrounding Koshu City, Yamanashi Prefecture. As a member of a local delegation sent to the its longtime partnership – city there.

    May I ask, Dr Mayer, how did you ‘like’ those 13 – hour nonstops out of and back in to O’Hare, not ? ! Except, o’course, for ‘different’ seats, likely, I have no idea how pilots ‘do’ this killer flight – deal ! Over and over and over.


    • Blue
      Posted June 15, 2017 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

      Aren’t the pilots’ cockpits locked and allegedly, security – wise, … … inaccessible — as in re their / themselves’ taking periodic walks down aisles and / or exercising and stretching stints inside wider areas of the plane’s fuselage ? !

      They cannot do that, can they ?! On either such flight, I never saw one do that, that is. The attendants were so busy up and down aisles and have a wide rear galley area so I am not asking in re to them.


  9. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted June 15, 2017 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    I hear it was somewhat of a sensation when Japan won Sweden 3-2 in soccer at the Berlin Summer Olympics 1936. A radio reporter repeated the phrase “Japanese, Japanese, everywhere Japanese” at their herculean group effort so much that it became a longstanding quote [ ; ].

  10. Draken
    Posted June 16, 2017 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    Things are easy when you’re big in Japan, or so I’m told.

  11. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted June 16, 2017 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    The Japanese are reliably skillful in international tournaments, and reliably likely to fall apart whenever they face opposition who are physically tougher. If they could marry physical strength with their excellent technique they’d be a threat in any knockout stages.

  12. Posted June 16, 2017 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    So there’s now beach volleyball and beach soccer. What’s next, beach hockey? 😉

  13. Posted June 20, 2017 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    Not in Japan, but I like read manga 😀

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