Dec 13

Yokohama 1874: how Japan discovered football

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Followers of the UFWC will know that the lineage of the unofficial competition goes back to 1872, when the first official international football match was played between Scotland and England. Current UFWC champions Japan didn’t play their first international football match until 1917 (against China), and didn’t play a UFWC title match until 1998 (against Argentina). But, as the above image shows, football was played in Japan much earlier than that, around the time that international football was first established.

The engraving dates from 1874, and was published in the Graphic newspaper in London. It shows a match involving Yokohama FC, a team founded by British expatriates, who, the accompanying text suggests, were the first to introduce the organised game to Japan. (The club in the image has no connection with the current Yokohama FC, which was formed a full 125 years later.) The engraving was made from a sketch by AH Abell, who worked as a merchant banker in Yokohama.

The image clearly depicts a more rough-and-tumble version of football than we are now accustomed to, with association rules yet to be properly implemented, and football existing in many places as a hybrid of what we now know as the separate games of rugby and ‘soccer’. It’s interesting to note that, while the players all appear to be foreigners, the enthusiastic spectators seem to be Japanese.

The accompanying text, from the 18 April 1874 edition of the Graphic, reads:

‘Wherever they go the English cling to their national peculiarities with a remarkable tenacity, and whether John Bull settles in the polar regions of thick-ribbed ice or under the blazing sun of the tropics, or in the more temperate regions which by comparison resemble his own misty island, he carries with him a passion for plum pudding, pale ale, cold baths, horse-racing, cricket, croquet and newspapers. There is a British colony at Yokohama, Japan, and they have introduced the mysteries of football into the Far East… The Japanese are a very go-ahead race, the Government has introduced all sorts of innovations… but we are not yet aware that they have issued an edict compelling every male over sixteen to join an athletic club, and exhibit his prowess at least twice a year at the local Lillie Bridge, under the shadow of the lovely snow-mountain Fusiyama.’

Lillie Bridge was an athletics ground in West London, near to the present Stamford Bridge. Fusiyama is an alternative spelling of Fujiyama, or Mount Fuji.

137 years later, the Japanese national team is enjoying perhaps its most successful period. The fast-approaching match against Tajikistan on 11 November provides the opportunity for the Blue Samurai to move closer towards World Cup qualification, and extend their run as Unofficial Football World Champions.

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