Tokyo: Finding football in the capital

No game? No problem. The Japan Football Museum has everything to keep you entertained if you can’t get to a match

Tokyo is basking in springtime sun when I step off the train at Ochanomizu. It was a relatively short journey today, crossing the pink tree-lined banks of the Arakawa River, leaving behind Saitama for Tokyo.

I changed trains at Shinjuku Station, which was stuffy and warm. Plastic pink petals fluttered as trains endlessly rolled in and out of the platforms.

And now as I walk along the banks of the Kanda River in the centre of the capital, real pink petals are floating gently to the ground.

Yes, it’s cherry blossom season in Tokyo. Tourists are flocking to Ueno Park, Shinjuku Gyoen and Naka-Meguro, taking endless photographs, enjoying picnics under the explosions of pink and white.

Ochanomizu isn’t a popular cherry blossom viewing spot. It isn’t a particularly popular anything spot. There are few reasons to visit here. The name literally means “tea water” and dates back to the 1600s, when Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, liked to have his tea made from the water in the Kanda River that flows through this area.

But I’m not here for Edo era history. I leave the river behind and turn on to Football Avenue.

Travel back in time

Five minutes later and I’m transported back to 2002. It’s early in the morning on a bright and sunny Friday in June. Sunlight is streaming in through the window as I sit in my bedroom watching England play Brazil in the quarter-finals of the World Cup. England are winning. Michael Owen has put us ahead. The clock is ticking down to half-time. We actually look good value for our lead. I think this is it. This is our year. Thirty-six years of pain are coming to an end.

I was young and naive.

Rivaldo equalises for Brazil in the the second minute of first-half added time. And I don’t want to talk about Ronaldinho’s second-half goal.

Brazil England World Cup 2002 Japan Football Museum
“Brazil’s Beautiful Reversal” was not so beautiful for England

So as I stare at a plaque titled “Brazil’s Beautiful Reversal” (beautiful isn’t the word I would choose), complete with England players lying distraught on the pitch (a familiar sight), I find it reassuring, in a way, that I can relive England’s glorious footballing failures wherever I am in the world.

And where I am today is Japan Football Museum, which was opened to mark the 2002 World Cup, the tournament Japan co-hosted with South Korea.

But it’s not only the World Cup remembered here. The museum charts the path of Japanese football from long before that showcase competition. And most of what it records are incidents of heartbreak.

The Agony of Doha

Japan first qualified for the World Cup in 1998, and it was anything but plain sailing to reach that point. Four years earlier, the Samurai Blue had to experience the “Agony of Doha”, a point in the team’s history where it must have felt like World Cup qualification would never come.

Stuck on the wall in a quiet corner of the museum is a tactics sheet. It was drawn up by then manager Hans Ooft ahead of Japan’s final qualification match against Iraq in Qatar. Six teams were competing for two World Cup spots. The equation was simple for Japan: win and they were through. A draw would do, so long as either South Korea or Saudi Arabia failed to win.

Japan Iraq Agony of Doha Hans Ooft World Cup Japan Football Museum
Abstract squiggles from Hans Ooft on his tactics sheet for Japan’s World Cup qualifier with Iraq in 1993

South Korea beat North Korea 3-0 and Saudi Arabia beat Iran 4-3. With those games having just finished, Japan were 2-1 up against Iraq. The World Cup was within touching distance. Even if you don’t know the rest of the story, you can guess what’s coming next. A corner won as the clock ticks into stoppage time. A short ball played. A cross swung in. The ball headed into the back of the net. Japan players collapsing to their knees. The commentators in silence.

Ooft’s tactics sheet looks like an abstract squiggle. There are some bizarre phrases, such as “aggressivity (sic) high” and “don’t kill your midfield” scribbled on the side. Underlined three times is “90 min”. The equalising goal came in the 91st minute. A moment in Japanese footballing history forever captured in time.

World Cup winners

It isn’t all crushing disappointment in the museum, not for Japan, or England, either.

A room dedicated to the World Cup celebrates each winner on the wall with photographs and the year of triumph. There’s also a replica FIFA World Cup trophy on display. I hold it and look at the photograph of Bobby Moore lifting the Jules Rimet. This is the closest we’re going to get to a repeat of 1966.

Bobby Moore celebrates England’s World Cup win at Wembley Stadium, London in 1966

In the next room, though, there’s a real World Cup winner’s trophy. And it belongs to Japan.

While the men have laboured through mediocrity, disappointment, fleeting moments of hope and back into mediocrity, the women have been winning actual competitions, including the biggest one of all.

Japan Women's World Cup 2011 trophy Japan Football Museum
Japan’s women showed the men how it’s done by winning the 2011 World Cup

In 2011, Japan won the FIFA Women’s World Cup after a 3-1 win on penalties against the United States in the final. And that wasn’t the end of the success.

A silver medal followed at the 2012 London Olympics, the Americans this time taking the top prize.

But Nadeshiko Japan only had to wait two years for more glory, this time in the Asian Cup. A second major trophy in the space of three years was added with a 1-0 victory over Australia in the final.

Japan also reached the final of the World Cup in 2011, but suffered a heavy 5-2 defeat to the United States. But this result shouldn’t overshadow an incredible era of success for women’s football in Japan, during which time the national team established itself as a world power.

Japan Women's Soccer League poster Japan Football Museum
A poster marking the start of the Japan Women’s Soccer League in 1989

And the museum recognises these achievements. In addition to the World Cup trophy, there’s memorabilia and awards collected from other women’s teams. There’s also an iconic poster from 1989, marking the launch of the Japan Women’s Soccer League, which is now known as the L.League.

And there’s one more memorable poster to look out for in the museum.

Sayonara Pele

In early September 1997, Typhoon No. 9 was bearing down on Japan, but nothing was going to get in the way of two very special football games. As Andrew H. Malcolm of The New York Times put it at the time “…it is hard to believe that any winds could sweep this city the way Pele and the New York Cosmos have”.


The Brazilian legend was in Japan for two exhibition games as part of his retirement tour. First up was Furukawa Electric SC (now known as JEF United Chiba) on September 10, where approximately 30,000 fans watched Cosmos win 4-2 at the National Stadium in Tokyo, with Pele scoring the fourth goal.

Four days later on September 14, 65,000 fans flocked to the same stadium to see Pele’s Cosmos in a 3-1 victory against the Japan national team. It was a new record attendance for a football game in Japan.

This match also marked the retirement of Kunishige Kamamoto, Japan’s all-time top goal scorer. He hit 80 goals in 84 national team appearances. The forward spent his entire playing career with Yanmar Diesel (now Cerezo Osaka) and his domestic stats aren’t too shabby, either: 262 goals in 311 games.

The Silver Cup

Kamamoto scored the majority of his goals in the Japan Soccer League, which came to an end in 1992, to be replaced by the J.League. And the museum charts the launch of the competition and its continued growth.

But amid exhibits dedicated to this brave new world of Japanese football are some fascinating glimpses into the country’s turbulent past.

The oldest football competition in Japan is the Emperor’s Cup, which began life as the National Association Football Tournament in 1921. This was also the year that the Japan Football Association was founded. But before all of that came the arrival of the Silver Cup trophy.

In the early 1900s, football was slowly starting to make its presence felt in Japan. Teams began playing internationally and the British government saw this as an opportunity to strengthen relations between the two countries.

So in 1919, after the British Embassy in Japan received a request about receiving a trophy, the English Football Association presented the Silver Cup. Two years later, it was lifted for the first time by Tokyo Shukyu-Dan (still going today as the country’s oldest football club) in the inaugural National Association Football Tournament.

The Silver Cup was awarded each year until January 1945, when it was confiscated by the government under its second world war metal contribution policy. The trophy was melted down, most likely to be made into weapons, and disappeared from Japanese football.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. In 2011, with the JFA celebrating its 90th anniversary, it needed a way to mark the occasion. And what better way than bringing back the first ever trophy awarded in Japanese football. The English FA felt the same, and a new Silver Cup was produced and given to the JFA during a presentation at Wembley Stadium in London. FC Tokyo defeated Kyoto Sanga 4-2 in the 2011 Emperor’s Cup final to become the first team to lift the Silver Cup in 66 years.

Time to leave

I could have spent longer in the museum, but like my mother would say when I was a child, “why don’t you go outside and play?”. So I step back from the exhibits and take the stairs up to the exit – picking up a handy pocket-sized Japan Football League fixture list from the reception on the way.

Back outside I blink against the bright sunshine and sling my jacket over my arm. It’s hard to believe it’s exactly one week since the Kofu snow fest.

I follow Football Avenue back to Ochanomizu Station, crossing the Kanda River, where the water collects fallen cherry blossom and carries it towards Iidabashi.

There’s still time left in the day for a spot of cherry blossom viewing, but after seeing some classic national team football shirts and reading absorbing snippets of Japanese football history, my day already feels complete.

Japan Football Museum
Open: Tue-Fri, 1pm-6pm; Sat-Sun (and holidays) 10am-6pm
Special opening hours: 10am-6pm (check website for latest details)
Admission: 500 yen (adults), 300 yen (school students)
Location: JFA House, Football Avenue, Ochanomizu, Bunkyo-ku

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