Maryland businesswoman leading launch of Japanese league

The woman leading Japan’s ambitious effort to launch a professional women’s soccer league lives some 6,700 miles away from where the players will ultimately take the field.

Kikuko Okajima of Baltimore, Maryland, is the chairwoman of the WE League and she doesn’t simply want to further the women’s game in her home country. She’s looking to change the culture surrounding the sport, too.

“The challenge is that it will be a first,” Okajima said. “Women’s sports are never viewed as professional. There’s no professional team sports in Japan for women. There’s obviously professional golfers, and professional ice skaters — individual athletes can be professional. But no team sports are professional.”

Okajima is a former player for Japan’s national team who went on to a successful business career in Japan and the United States. She’s now using that acumen to start a soccer league from scratch.

The WE League, which stands for Women’s Empowerment, was announced in June by the Japanese soccer federation. The league is supposed to start play next fall, after the Tokyo Olympics.

The league has received 17 applications, surpassing expectations. Eight of the applications were affiliated with men’s J-League teams. As many as 10 teams for the inaugural season will be announced later this fall, Okajima said.

The WE League will sit at the top tier of women’s soccer in Japan, supplanting the Nadeshiko League, which has been around for three decades. A few Nadeshiko players are paid, but the majority are amateurs.

At least 15 players on each WE League team must be signed to professional contracts, including five players who make the equivalent of at least $50,000 annually. At least one team executive must be a woman and, within three years, women must make up at least half of the team staff.

Okajima hopes the league will be a viable destination for players around the world, including the U.S. She’s hoping to position the league alongside the National Women’s Soccer League and the FA Women’s Super League.

But there’s another goal, too. That’s developing Japanese players and lifting the play of the national team. Japan, which won the Women’s World Cup in 2011, is currently ranked No. 11 in the world.

“It’s good for players because the Japan national team has the opportunity to play against many foreign players,” Okajima said. “But if you’re not on the national team, you don’t really play with or against foreign players. And then once you’re selected to the national teams, you have to face a new challenge dealing with the bigger, faster players. So it’s good for all the Japanese soccer players to have a teammate from U.S. or Europe to play with and play against.”

One of Okajima’s biggest tasks is finding and building a fans base — from afar and in the middle of a pandemic.

Nadeshiko fans are mostly older and male. Average attendance is about 1,500 and games are played at inconvenient hours of the day, like when kids are at school.

Okajima wants to bring women and girls to the games, and schedule them at family-friendly times. She wants to make the matches a destination, with street fairs outside where people can sell vegetables, crafts, or even get breast-cancer screenings. The goal for the first year is to average 5,000 fans per game.

“I think the first thing is that you have to make each of the games self-sustainable, meaning that you’d have to have enough ticket sales. And in order to do that we have to have a different fan base: Families, young girls and others. To get that new type of spectator is a big challenge because a lot of women who we want to target go J-League, men’s professional league,” Okajima said. “So we need to have female fans interested in women’s sports.”

One of her more ambitious plans is to embrace social issues, like LGBTQ rights. That’s a bold proposition in Japan, where sports haven’t traditionally mixed with human rights efforts.

Japan Football Association President Kohzo Tashima agreed the goals of the WE League are lofty when the JFA announced the league.

“Our aim is to contribute to build a sustainable society through promoting female social participation and enhancing diversities and choices. How we contribute to the society through sports is an important mission for all of us in the sports world,” he said in a statement. “We will work to establish the career of women’s professional footballer, which is the dream of many girls, and further promote women’s empowerment and solve social issues.”

Most important for the league’s survival, Okajima needs to find sponsors. She’s hoping to match the recent success the NWSL has had in attracting big names, like Budweiser.

She said there’s one major sponsor poised to come on board. After that, she hopes others will follow.

“The corporate sponsors, they don’t traditionally look at women’s sports as good exposure,” she said. “We need to change that, and show that women’s soccer and athletes can bring value to sponsors.”

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