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WE League: Part league, part social movement, kicks off in Japan

On the weekend that ushered in a new dawn for Japanese women’s football

FBL-JPN-WOMEN Photo by KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images

Why did they name it “WE League”? How do I watch it? What did I miss in the first round of games? For all those answers and more, look no further than below.

Empowerment

There was a touch of cringe that came when it was announced that the new fully professional women’s league in Japan would be called the “Women’s Empowerment League” but the goal of the league is quite simply that. As with all leagues, there is the hope that it will grow to attract the best players in the world and improve the level of all who play in it; thus becoming the best league in the world. However, there is a wider goal for the league, that of empowering women and effecting positive change across all of Japanese society to bring about more equality.

Although we have seen more gender equality in the west, countries like Japan still lag considerably behind, as the gaffes in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics highlighted to those outside of the region. As the BBC stated in an article that acts as an explainer for the lack of equality:

“While more women have indeed joined the workforce, many remain in part-time or non-career track roles, which will not allow them to access the top jobs.”

Exemplifying this was Japan’s ranking on The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report in terms of gender parity (120th out of 156 countries).

The WE League will be active in promoting parity across the genders with clubs who participate in the league required [in time] to practice the same parity across their staff, and each will have one female executive. Additionally, players in the league will be encouraged to work towards their coaching badges, the idea not just to show young girls that they can play professional football, but that there is as much room for them in the dugouts as there is in the boardroom.

Thanks to the odd number of teams in the league (11), the two weeks each season that teams are not on the pitch, they will be tasked with promoting the values and ideals of the WE League, putting their visibility to good use.

On the pitch

The league, which has superseded the Nadeshiko League (which itself has been relegated to the second level of the pyramid), has already seen a handful of international signings including players from the Philippines, Australia and Germany. Mirroring the men’s J. League, the JFA is helping subside the cost of players from other parts of Southeast Asia whilst the league itself is helping pay for those from the upper echelons of the FIFA rankings.

The move to a professional setup will hopefully see teams bridge the domestic gap as the WE League looks to become the flagbearer for the region just as the J. League has on the men’s side. However, the need for Japanese players to catch up to their European and North American counterparts who have caught up and overtaken the former World Cup winners is another vital component of the new league. Although the league can’t call upon national team stars like Mana Iwabuchi, Saki Kumagai and Yui Hasegawa, it remains home for the majority of Japanese internationals, as well as those hoping to break into the Nadeshiko team. For those players, as we’ve seen from others around the women’s football world, simply being able to commit themselves to football full time will go some way to closing the widening gap. The increased level of the league will also help on multiple levels for women’s football in Japan.

INAC Kobe Leonessa v Omiya Ardija Ventus - WE League Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images

Whilst there is currently no relegation to the Nadeshiko League, there is a chance of promotion into the WE League to boost the numbers in the top tier. The league is set to follow more of a European calendar (September-May) with a sizeable break over the harshest of winter months (December-February), similar to the Frauen Bundesliga’s winter pause.

How to watch…or not

The league officially launched at 10am JST (2am BST/9am EST) on Sunday with all five first week matches taking place throughout the day. The first hiccup of the new era arrived with the inability for those outside of Japan to watch the first three matches.

With DAZN Japan having the exclusive rights to the WE League, all five matches were free to air on the DAZN Japan YouTube channel. However only the last two matches of the day (Albirex Niigata vs Nagano Parceiro and Elfen Saitama vs Hiroshima Regina) that kicked off at the same time, could be viewed from an IP address outside of Japan. Moving forward, DAZN will hold back several games each match week that can only be viewed with a subscription with two (or at least, it seems to be two at the time of writing) free to air on YouTube. For clarity, again, from what I’ve managed to find using a VPN and not, simply having a DAZN subscription will not give you access to the WE League, you need a specific one for DAZN Japan (¥1925 per month) to view the games which you could only arrange with a VPN. I personally have not gone through the trial and error of trying to set up an account and watching games live with a VPN so I don’t know if it would even work and as such do not encourage anyone to part with their money.

As said, the good news is it seems that there will be matches each week that are airing free on YouTube and in theory, will not be geoblocked. Either way however, the official WE League YouTube account has been swift to upload highlights from each match and those should be viewable wherever you are in the world.

For those in attendance, even allowing for the ongoing pandemic and different safety measures around Japan, the opening day numbers were encouraging. Because of the nature of the league, the target audience is girls and families, and although that’s something we’re trying to move away from in the west, it seems like a sensible first port of call.

The first match of the day at INAC’s home, the Noevir Stadium in Kobe drew the biggest crowd of 4,123 whilst Elfen’s Kumagaya Athletic Stadium saw 1,390 fans through the door giving the league an average crowd of 2,221 for the day. Whilst the numbers aren’t eye-popping on their own, they are highly comparable with other top leagues and, especially as the global health situation improves, those numbers should grow in tandem with the league.