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Japanese football league system

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Title: Japanese football league system  
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Subject: Association football in Japan, List of association football competitions, Kusatsu, Gunma, Reserve team, Japan Soccer League, Japan Football League (1992–98), List of Japanese football champions
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Japanese football league system

The Japanese association football league system is organized in a pyramidal shape similar to football league systems in many other countries around the world. The leagues are bound by the principle of promotion and relegation; however, there are stringent criteria for promotion from the JFL to J2, which demands a club being backed by the town itself including the local government, a community of fans, corporate sponsors rather than a parent company or a corporation.


The top two levels of the Japanese football league system are operated by the J. League, which consists of J. League Division 1 (J1) and J. League Division 2. All of the clubs in the J. League are fully professional.

The third level, the Japan Football League (JFL) is a semi-professional league consisting of amateur, professional, and company clubs from all over Japan.

At the fourth and fifth levels, nine parallel regional leagues are operated by nine different regional football associations, some of which have multiple divisions. The regional associations are divided by political or geographical boundaries.

At the sixth level and below, parallel prefectural leagues are hosted by each of the 46 different prefectural football associations, again divided by political or geographical boundaries. Some have multiple divisions.

Level Leagues/Divisions
I J. League Division 1 (J1)
18 clubs
II J. League Division 2 (J2)
22 clubs
III Japan Football League
18 clubs
IV/V 9 Regional Leagues
134 clubs (2013 season)

Hokkaido (8 clubs)
Tohoku 1st (10 clubs) | Tohoku 2nd north (10 clubs) | Tohoku 2nd south (10 clubs)
Kanto 1st (10 clubs) | Kanto 2nd (10 clubs)
Tokai 1st (8 clubs) | Tokai 2nd (8 clubs)
Hokushin'etsu 1st (8 clubs) | Hokushin'etsu 2nd (8 clubs)
Kansai 1st (8 clubs) | Kansai 2nd (8 clubs)
Chugoku (10 clubs)
Shikoku (8 clubs)
Kyushu (10 clubs)

V+/VI+ 46 Prefectural Leagues & 5 Block Leagues of Hokkaido
many clubs

Sapporo Block | Dōhoku (North) Block | Dōtō (East) Block | Dōō (Central) Block | Dōnan (South) Block
Aomori | Iwate | Miyagi | Akita | Yamagata | Fukushima
Ibaraki | Tochigi | Gunma | Saitama | Chiba | Tokyo | Kanagawa
Gifu | Shizuoka | Aichi | Mie
Niigata | Toyama | Ishikawa | Fukui | Yamanashi | Nagano
Shiga | Kyoto | Osaka | Hyogo | Nara | Wakayama
Tottori | Shimane | Okayama | Hiroshima | Yamaguchi
Tokushima | Kagawa | Ehime | Kochi
Fukuoka | Saga | Nagasaki | Kumamoto | Ōita | Miyazaki | Kagoshima | Okinawa


Level I & II: J. League

J. League governs the top two levels of the Japanese football pyramid and comprises a total of 40 clubs, all of which are fully professional and are divided into two divisions, J. League Division 1 (J1) and J. League Division 2 (J2). Eighteen (18) clubs make up the top flight and have access to the Asian premier football competition, AFC Champions League. Division 2 now has 22 clubs, after 2 new clubs were promoted into the system in 2012.

All J. League clubs enter the Emperor's Cup directly and receive a bye in the 1st round, but only the Division 1 clubs qualify for the J. League Cup. In the past, Division 1 teams started from the fourth round and Division 2 teams started from the third round. Nowadays, they all start from the second round due to the expansion of Division 2, this results in some eliminations of professional teams by regional teams in the early stages.

J. League Division 1 (18 Clubs)

Asian Qualification
Currently, through the league games, the J. League champions, runners-up, and third-placed teams qualify for the AFC Champions League. The other means of qualification is the Emperor's Cup; however this also gives clubs below level I the possibility of qualification (if they hold a J1 club license). If one of the top three finishers also wins the Emperor's Cup title, the 4th-placed club receives the final qualification spot.
Relegation (to J2)
Currently, the bottom three clubs (16th, 17th and 18th places) are automatically relegated to J.League Division 2.

J. League Division 2 (22 Clubs)

Promotion (to J1)
There are three promotion spots available to clubs in J2. The champions and runners-up receive automatic promotion, and the clubs finishing 3rd to 6th participate in playoffs for the remaining promotion spot. To be promoted, a club is obliged to meet all the criteria required for membership of Division 1, although no club in the past has been denied promotion for failing to meet the requirements.
Relegation (to JFL)
Up to two of the top JFL clubs may be promoted to J2 if they have a J. League Associate Membership. Subsequently, up to two of the bottom J2 clubs might be relegated to JFL.[1]

Level III: Japan Football League (18 Clubs)

The Japan Football League (JFL) is the third level in the Japanese football pyramid, and is known as the highest level for amateur club football. Prior to 2010, the JFL was governed by Japan Football Association (JFA); since 2010, the JFL became independent from the Japan FA with its own status and governing body, and consists mainly of amateur football clubs and company teams, though some fully professional clubs (J. League associate members) also exist. Due to presence of these professional clubs, the league has de-facto semi-professional status.

Clubs at this level and below enter the Emperor's Cup indirectly; most clubs qualify through cup tournaments contested in individual prefectures; the top JFL club(s) at the halfway point of the season may qualify directly. However, if they have also won their respective prefectural cup, the prefectural cup runners-up takes their place in the indirect round.

Promotion (to J2)
Clubs in the JFL must meet following criteria to receive promotion to the professional league.
  • Have J. League Associate Membership
  • Finish in the top two in JFL
  • Have an average attendance of more than 3,000
  • Pass a final inspection by the J. League professional committee
Relegation (to Regional Leagues)
The number of relegated clubs varies from 0 to 3 depending on the number of clubs promoted to the J. League Division 2 and/or the number of clubs disbanded. Depending on the number, the teams ranked 17th and 18th at the end of the season are automatically relegated to their respective Regional Leagues. The team ranked 16th may have to contest a promotion/relegation series to survive relegation. Clubs will be relegated to their designated Regional League (i.e. a club from Tokyo will be relegated to the Kanto League, even if the promoted club is not from the Kanto League).

Level IV/V: 9 Japanese Regional Leagues

In modern Japan, the country is divided into 9 different regions. From North to South they are Hokkaido, Touhoku, Kantou, Tokai, Hokushin-etsu (Hokuriku+Shin-etsu), Kansai, Shikoku, Chugoku, and Kyushu. Each region has its own football league, and they make up 9 parallel football leagues governed by designated regional FAs. The Hokkaido, Chugoku, Shikoku, and Kyushu Regional Leagues have only one division, whereas others have two divisions. On top of that, Touhoku Division 2 is divided into Division 2 North and Division 2 South. Because of differences in structure, each region has its own promotion and relegation regulations between the divisions.

Aside from the Emperor's Cup, clubs at this level and the levels immediately below play in the All Japan Senior Football Championship (Shakaijin Cup), qualifying through prefectural cups. Some Regional Leagues may have their own League Cups as well (Kanto, Kansai).

Promotion (to JFL)
At the end of the season, the champions and certain runners-up from the 9 Regional Leagues qualify to the All Japan Regional Football Promotion League Series. The winners and runners-up of the tournament receive promotion to the JFL. The 3rd-placed club contests a promotion/relegation series match against the JFL club ranked 16th, or may receive direct promotion depending on the number of clubs promoted to J2 and whether any clubs have been disbanded.
Relegation (to Prefectural Leagues)
Different regulations for each Regional League.

Level V+/VI+: 46 Prefectural Leagues & Hokkaido Blocks

Under the 9 regions, there are 47 prefectures. Hokkaido is by itself as a prefecture, thus the leagues in Hokkaido do not have a prefectural league and are rather divided into 5 blocks (North, Central, East, Sapporo, and South); however, all other 46 prefectures have Prefectural leagues. Most if not all, of these leagues have multiple divisions.

Promotion (to Regional League)
Different regulations for each Regional League.
Relegation (to Municipal Leagues)
Different regulations for each Regional League.


External links

  • Japan Football League page
  • Structure (in English)
  • Japanese Non-League news (in English)
  • 2008 Japan Regional Promotion Playoff Series
  • Regional Leagues (all in Japanese):
    • Tohoku Football League
    • Kanto Football League
    • Hokushin'etsu Football League
    • Kansai Football League
    • Chugoku Football League
    • Kyushu Football League
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