In the 1990s, while Japan's economy as a whole experienced the so-called 'lost decade', a number of remarkable success stories occurred. The launch of the J. League, Japan's first professional football league, is an exceptional case of creating a whole new market out of the blue - totalling a cumulative flow of JPY472 billion over the first ten years. Prior to that, Japan's spectator sports market, which is synonymous with professional sports, was dominated by baseball and sumo, and to a lesser extent, by a number of racing sports. Football, as well as hockey, volleyball and others were excluded from professionalism, although these sports had been played at an amateur level for many decades. The only football events that filled the National Stadium in Tokyo, other than occasional major games for Japan's national team, were the annual 'Toyota Cup' match between the club champions of Europe and South America (since 1981) and the final of the Japanese national high school championship. Even at the final of the All Japan National Cup (the 'Emperor's Cup'), that takes place on the national holiday of January 1, the stadium was at best half full. Until the 1990s it was felt in Japan that the sport of football without sponsorship could not take off in a business sense. Put in a different way, for decades the Japanese sports market rejected the product of football and considered only baseball and sumo to be attractive enough for commercial purposes. Thus, the question which this chapter seeks to examine in detail is, what suddenly caused this huge new market to emerge, particularly as the skill level displayed in Japanese football could not possibly have changed to such an extent overnight?
The short answer, simply put, is that the essential 'system' of the J. League worked in such a way as to give life to the market. When an effective 'system design' is in place, a system will function properly. Attempts have been made to study the J. League system and to identify the effective design and structural factors that led to its success. The answer is of great interest to a number of semi-professionalised sports eager to imitate the Japanese football fairy-tale.
At this stage a brief biographical digression is necessary in order to explain how the research that informs this chapter was undertaken. As a senior researcher at the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (RIETI), a think tank of the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), the author was