East Asian football has come in leaps and bounds in the past decade, as exemplified by the appearances in the past four Football World Cups in which both Japan and South Korea have both featured. Initially, both countries were easy beats, but now have credibility on the international stage, both sides having made the knockout phase in two of the past three World Cups competing against European and South American nations which have a much superior pedigree in football. Key to this has been the establishment of professional football leagues in both countries, which allows for development and exposure for domestic players. Although South Korea's K-League was up and running first (1983), Japan's J-League (formed in 1993) is the more highly regarded of the two professional leagues.
Jonathan Birchall, an English journalist formerly based in Japan, has written a passionate account of his year following the J-League. Amidst the rigid and formal structure of Japanese society, there is a niche culture that surrounds the clubs that play in the J-League. Birchall does a fine job in immersing himself and exploring that culture in "Ultra Nippon: How Japan Reinvented Football". In preparing this book, Birchall has not only talked to the fans, but also to the players and managers. In this way, the reader gains a perspective of the life of a journeyman football player, those who leave their own shores to seek a better life offshore, as well as the personalities of the fans and supporters. Like most professional leagues, the J-League has its fair share of Brazilian players, three of which feature in the team Birchall follows, the Shimizu S-Pulse. The team is managed by former Tottenham player Steve Perryman, who adds some insight on the Japanese game from the point of view of an English former professional player. Although serving partially as a very informal history of the J-League, including a commentary on some of the more famous players and managers that have graced the J-League, as well as the bizarre club names and past controversies, "Ultra Nippon" is really an engaging tale of the travels and troubles of Shimizu S-Pulse during the 1999 J-League season, and the club's supporters, with a bit of insight on Japanese culture meshing with professional football thrown in for good measure.
Relatively dated now as it was published in 2000, prior to Japan co-hosting with South Korea the 2002 World Cup, "Ultra Nippon: How Japan Reinvented Football" is still an interesting insight into an ex-pat's experience of a foreign football league. I didn't quite get the sense that Japan "reinvented" football as per the subtitle of this book, but more reinvigorated it. Still, "Ultra Nippon" is well worth a space on the bookshelf, especially if you have an interest in East Asian football.