Japan's second-class citizens the world's best

Despite all the positives steps women's football has taken in Japan, there still remains a huge disparity between men and women in terms of salary, funding and, arguably, respect.

There are two, widely-read, weekly football magazines in Japan.

This week's Weekly Soccer Digest had on its front cover a compilation of Japanese stars heading to the 2012 Olympic Games – Hiroshi Kiyotake, Maya Yoshida and Takashi Usami from the men’s team and Homare Sawa, Aya Miyama and Nahomi Kawasumi from the women's.

On the back page was a sponsor's advertisement that featured Sawa and Miyama alongside Inter Milan's Yuto Nagatomo.

Inside there were nine pages dedicated to the 'Nadeshiko', including in-depth feature articles with Yuki Ogimi and Miyama.

Soccer Magazine took a similar approach with nine pages on the Nadeshiko including a feature-length profile on forward Karina Maruyama.

As an aside, there's also two full-length glossy magazines dedicated entirely to the Nadeshiko's Olympic campaign.

In Australia, a nation renowned as being slightly obsessed with the Games, you'd struggle to find one dedicated to the entire event.

On the one hand, Japan is a nation that seriously gets women's football yet on the other, there's still a long way to go.

A week earlier, the JFA had shown that the chasm between male and female football in Japan is as wide as ever.

For reasons yet to be fully explained, aside from mumblings about relative size, it announced that the male side (an U-23 selection, remember) would be flying business class to London whilst the women (the senior women's world champion) will be 'offered an upgrade' to premium economy.

Just to repeat, the reigning FIFA World Cup champion – which by most measures is vastly more popular in Japan than its male equivalent – will fly a different class to the men on the same plane.

A baffling decision that has upset many in a nation where female football is booming after the emotional 2011 World Cup campaign that came just three months after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated much of the country.

The rise of the women's game

The L-League, a 22-team competition across two divisions, has long been one of the key developmental tools for the game in Japan but has historically struggled to attract sponsors and crowds.

How different things have been in the past 12 months: at one point immediately after the FIFA 2011 Women's World Cup average crowds were almost topping 20,000 and this season there has also been many headlining-grabbing turnouts.

The star-studded runaway league leader INAC Kobe is averaging almost 8,000 and the final match before the mid-season break between NTV Verdy and Kobe drew almost 17,000.

Sponsorship and TV coverage are now widespread: the big-names from the national team can be seen all over the country spruiking a range of products from biscuits to cup noodles to chewing gum.

Okayama Yunogo Belle, currently third in the league, has 34 sponsors listed on its official homepage.

All the L.League games are available on subscription television and many are shown live on local regional stations; the Nadeshiko league is now a seriously popular – and big – business.

Yet despite this – and to the surprise of many – the league is not fully professional.

Lack of full-time professionals

Ticket prices are either very low or free and there are less than 10 genuinely professional players in the league. All of those play for INAC Kobe while a handful of other players at different clubs have 'part-time' jobs with company sponsors that allow them to focus to a larger degree on football.

The rest are forced to, as are most female players throughout the world, work to supplement their football earnings.

Even at the World Cup last year there were almost half-a-dozen players with full-time jobs, including Mizuho Sakaguchi who worked at a chemical factory, Megumi Kaminobe who was a public gym instructor and Miho Fukumoto who was a receptionist.

Imagine Xavi having to man the phones or Iniesta mixing chemicals in between training!

In an interview with the Asahi Newspaper last year the JFA's head of female football, Eiji Ueda, argued that this was justifiable as female players make up less than 5 per cent of the registered footballers in Japan.

The same article looked at the funding disparity between the two national sides with the men's national U-22 team being allocated $10.5 million yen last year, compared to $1.7 million for the female side – the world champion.

All this at a time when the Nadeshiko are playing some of the finest football seen in the history of the women's game, as the Matildas found out last Wednesday evening in Tokyo.

In the first match of a double-header with the men's U-23 side, Japan totally outplayed Australia; dominant in possession, patient in its build-up play and with crisp passing and movement it was on a totally different level to the Matildas.

Australia national women's coach Tom Sermanni described the side as being like the 'female version of Barcelona and Spain' – sentiments echoed by several of the players I spoke with afterwards.

Yet barely half a decade ago the two nations were not that far apart in terms of both results and performance, so what happened?

Development of women's football

The genesis of the revitalization of the Japanese side can be traced to both the establishment and improvements in the L.League and the 2002 'Captain's Mission' issued by JFA Chairman Saburo Kawabuchi, which placed a significant emphasis on the development of female football.

Increased funding was allocated and national training centres were established to develop elite female talent.

There was an increased focus on technical development at all levels and the JFA ensured that the national team would have regular, competitive internationals.

The development model though is still a fractured one with four main pillars: the high school and university systems, local football clubs, the L.League and the JFA Elite Academies – formerly in Fukushima but now based in Shimizu and Osaka.

JFA constantly monitors players emerging from these four streams and periodically call the best to a series of training camps, which form the NTCs. It is from these camps that the bulk of the national team players have emerged.

Additionally, the establishment of the L.League in 1989 meant that there was a competitive domestic tournament from which young players could develop and be scouted.

Thankfully, there's no longer the somewhat sexist names that began in those founding years – the likes of Shimizu FC Lovely Ladies, Nikko Securities Dream Ladies and the Asahi Bunny Ladies.

There's also now a second division with promotion and relegation and with a particular emphasis on sports schools and universities including a high school side in Sendai.

Of the current Olympic squad all bar four play domestically in Japan and virtually all of the side have progressed from the L.League.

With the four female national teams – U-13, U-17, U-20 and the Nadeshiko all doing well in recent years the future looks bright for the game in Japan; in fact it may dominate female football for a long time.

Yet despite all the positive steps there still remains a huge disparity between men and women in terms of salary, funding and, arguably, respect.

One side at the pointy end of the plane and the other behind it, says it all.