Emperor’s Cup: a century of history (Part 1)

Disclaimer: This week would’ve seen the first round of the 100th edition of the Emperor’s Cup. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, all competitions in Japan are on halt until further notice. On the first draft by JFA, instead of the regular tournament, we would witness this year only 47 prefectural winners, J. League gatekeeper Honda FC and – for international purposes – the two top teams of the 2020 J1 League season. This plan has to be confirmed, but for this historical retrospective you may still enjoy 99 years of Japanese football history without any disturbances.

Please enjoy this first contribute by Tobias Dreimann, who’s gonna follow the steps throughout history of one of the oldest football competition in Asia.


When you think about Japanese football, your first thought may be about the Japanese national team, called “Samurai Blue”, or the J. League, Japan’s pro-football competition. The first being the world-known display of Japanese football with competitive players, the latter today’s prime competition this blog’s common reader learned or learns to love for its passion, entertainment value or colorful variation of mascots.

While the question about the inception in Japanese football is quite an interesting topic to look into, the development of Japanese football in the early 20th century has always been defined by one competition that is still one of the oldest worldwide – or is it? For the 100th anniversary of the Emperor’s Cup, I wanted to take a look at the birth of the competition and analyze how it mirrored the development of Japanese football up to this day.

With basic research possibilities due to a lack of language barrier, I want to provide some basic knowledge about this traditional cup competition that I grew so familiar with by simply entering the history into the Transfermarkt data base. Follow me on my journey for the 100th year of the Emperor’s Cup.

The last winners.

Part I – The birth of a cup

If you want to talk about the Emperor’s Cup, you have to start from the year of its inception, 1921. Japan opened its borders around 50 years before and, with open borders, Western influence found its way into the “Land of the Rising Sun”. In November of that year, two major events occurred right before the beginning of the first edition: Prime Minister Takashi Hara of the Rikken Seiyūkai party had been assassinated and Emperor Yoshihito (later known as Taishō Emperor) – suffering from long-term illness – was then succeeded by his son Hirohito on November as a prince regent.

Just the day after his inauguration – on November 26th, 1921 –, a small football competition was born. Not yet known as the Emperor’s Cup. First, the Emperor’s Cup isn’t bound to a single football tournament but consists of a variety of competitions under the patronage by the Japanese Tennō. While retroactively being labeled Emperor’s Cup, the patronage for this football tournament in 1921 had not been in place yet.

As the Japanese Football Associaton (JFA) was founded just in September of 1921, the idea of a national competition has been self-evident for the newly governing football body. On that Saturday afternoon of November 1921, three football teams met in Hibiya Park to face each other in the first national football championship ever held in Japan.

All three teams qualified in their respective local competitions in the cities of Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Hiroshima, while the latter representative team of the Yamaguchi High School, could not make it to Hibiya Park on that day. A trip to the capital had been quite a task for a High School back then.

The first semi-final between Nagoya Shukyu-dan (Shukyu-dan is the traditional Japanese name for a “football club”) and Mikage Shukyu-dan hailing from Kobe was won by the latter, while Tokyo Shukyu-dan automatically qualified for the final match due to Yamaguchi High School’s absence. The first JFA organized national football final started on November 27th, 1921, with Tokyo and Mikage Shukyu-dan playing for the title.

The first half remained goalless, but 27 years old Goro Yamada headed the win home for the Tokyo side, that even today (rumored to be the oldest football club in the country) plays in the lower tiers of Japanese football. Yamada became the national team manager in years to come and was enshrined into the Japanese Football Hall of Fame in 2005 for his achievements for the world game.

Captain Goro Yamada accepts the FA Silver Cup (© JFA).

The trophy that was given to Tokyo Shukyu-dan indeed had been donated by the British Football Association and was handed to the team captain by the British ambassador to Japan, Sir Charles Norton Edgecumbe Eliot.

A tradition was born

Throughout the country, different local tournaments were played out before the JFA as the governing body invited the winners to the national championship tournament. Like in the first edition ever, four champions from different parts of Japan were allowed to feature in Hibiya Park for the successive tournament. Apart from national football glory, the winning team of 1922 edition was also awarded a chance to represent Japan for the East Asian Games that were going to be held in Osaka the following year.

While Nagoya Shukyu-dan won the national championship and therefore participated in the East Asian Games qualification match, that match in January 1923 was lost against the host team from Osaka. For reasons unknown to me, that team had been supported by players from both Tokyo and Hiroshima when facing other nations in the East Asian Games, but lost the final match anyway to the Chinese team.

In 1923, Tokyo suffered from the big Kanto earthquake which hit the city in September, shortly before preparations for the national finals had begun. With this human tragedy in mind, it is without saying that a football competition in Hibiya Park turned out to be impossible to host. Likewise, the regular schedule in November wasn’t an option, so the tournament’s ground was moved to the Northern area of the Emperor’s Palace, precisely to a repaired school ground and held in February 1924.

While Nagoya Shukyu-dan had participated since the inaugural season of the tournament, two time qualificant Astra Club from Tokyo, a still active albumni team of the Catholic Gyosei Junior/Senior High School, lifted the trophy in the third edition of the Japanese championship.

The 1924 edition of the national championship was moved to Shinjuku to the so-called Meiji Jingu Gaien Park. Political pressure forced the JFA to merge their competition with the annually held Meiji Shrine Games, a multi-sport competition that was held on that spot until the end of WW2. All over Japan 43 teams participated in the local qualification rounds, four of those were allowed to travel to Tokyo.

Nagoya Shukyu-dan won their respective qualification missed the final though  which left a teacher’s club from the city of Mikage and an alumni high school team from Hiroshima, named after the famous Hiroshima Castle that has its roof blessed by golden carps, Rijo Shukyu-dan (Carp Castle FC). Rijo Shukyu-dan on board with former 1923 East Asian Games players on their roster won by 3-0 and were crowned as the fourth champion within the first four years. Rijo Shukyu-dan were about to change that.

Via Before the “D”.

To please the growing interest and demand of participating teams in the qualification rounds, the regions changed to East, Central, Kinki and West. Additionaly the Tokyo area and Kyushu grew the finals to six clubs.

The first university team that qualified for the finals was the Imperial University of Tokyo. Their return made everlasting Nagoya Shukyu-dan hailing from the Central area and Rijo Shukyu-dan having the chance to defend their national title. Scheduled for three consecutive day the tournament oddly lasted from October 29th to November 2nd, 1925.

Until today, the semi-final match between Rijo Shukyu-dan and Mikage Shukyu-dan will be remembered as one of the quaintest matches in Japanese football history. Originally played on October 30th, the match ended with a 1-1 draw. The rules demanded extra time, but as it had become late the expansion time started on the next day with Mikage Shukyu-dan eventually winning the match.

After losing, Rijo Shukyu-dan filed a protest against the result, as Mikage Shukyo-dan allegedly had to start a new field player to cope with an injury the day before. After having debated for six hours about the measures to be taken, the result was a retake expansion time on, November 1st.

The game ended on its third day with a 3-2 Rijo Shukyu-dan against the Imperial University of Tokyo, that brough the Hiroshima side to its second consecutive final. By triumphing 3-0, Rijo Shukyu-dan became the first Japanese team defending its title. The national championship hardly was the event it became over the years and even though we expect the 100th anniversary in 2020, turbulent times prevented the sixth edition in 1926.

I have to assume that the war efforts of Japan played a role but the Ministry of the Interior became involved in a patronage to the JFA national finals, yet didn’t want students to participate. As students were the driving force behind the development of Japanese football, with the Imperial University of Tokyo being the first university team to participate just the year before, this ruling was not within the interest of the JFA.

The Ministry of Education intervened and was successful in their attempt, allowing university teams to participate on the rescheduled JFA final. Yet, totally unrelated former Emperor Yoshihito died that year after being ill-struck since before the competition’s inception, which left the national finals cancelled.  The Meiji Shrine Games that were held separated from the JFA finals was played out between Osaka Shukyu-dan and Sendai Shukyu-dan, leaving the Osaka side victorious.

The seventh national final took place between October 28-30 1927. Rijo Shukyu-dan retained their title a second time, while even Nagoya Shukyu-dan missed out for the first time. Otherwise debuting Universities of Hokkaido, Kansai and Hosei underlined the growing importance of football among students. In the end, a team from a middle school in Kobe won the championship game against two-time defender Rijo Shukyu-dan.

The Rijo Shukyu-dan squad (via Before the “D”).

The rise of universities

After four consecutive years, the Meiji Shrine Games were cancelled in 1928. Since the Ministry of Interior was ousted as an organizer before the 1926 edition the Games were hosted by the Shrine administration. Due to unknown circumstances the Games were held every two years with the JFA contributing the football competition with their national finals. For the 8th national final one qualified team could not make it to Tokyo in time, which leaped the Imperial University of Tohoku football team straight to the semi-finals.

Two teams that were going to shape the development of the competition for decades to come debuted this season: while neither the Waseda University nor the Keio University – two of the most prestigious private universities in Japan – have yet been part of the national finals, former students of both universities founded their own clubs, sharing names with each respective university.

To be clear, though, both teams should not be mixed with the official university football programs. Naming those after the colors schemes its respective universities represented appeared not to be very creative: Yet Waseda Maroon White (WMW) and Keio Blue Red Blue (Keio BRB) were teams that defined Japanese football and the JFA national finals. Both clubs met in the 1928 semi-finals, which WMW won easily by 5-1. The championship game WMW also crushed the football program of the Imperial University of Tokyo by 6-1.

In 1929 the Keio University football program featured in the national finals, joined by many other alumni or university clubs Hiroshima’s Kyosei Bunri University apparently did not show up in Tokyo that day, which resulted in a straight progress for a club that seems to be a mystery until today. The club called 蜂章クラブwhich might be translated into “Bee Crest Club” – met alumni Kwangaku Club in the semi-finals but did not stand a chance.

Hosei University on the other bracket was lucky winning twice by a coin toss, probably introduced to prevent situations like the 1925 semi-final match between Rijo and Mikage. Kwangaku Club, won the national final by 3-0 against Hosei University.

The trophy in modern times.

The 10th edition started late in early 1931. For reasons unknown, the rescheduling resulted in the tournament not being held on the Meiji Jingu Gaien ground and, secondly, the JFA opted to move the tournament to Nishinomiya, home to the last year’s winners, Kwangaku Club. Only four clubs participated in early 1931 including Keio BRB, returnee Nagoya Shukyu-dan and defending champions Kwangaku Club.

The fourth team has been an alumni team of the Ryoyo High School in Kyoto, probably being just sparring partners in that edition. 22 goals were scored in those two semi-finals setting up a final between Kwangaku Club (winning 8-5) and Keio BRB (winning 6-3). Having home field advantage in Nishinomiya, the hosts left no questions unanswered in this final, with a 3-0 victory over Keio BRB.

The first decade of Japanese association football under the governing body JFA saw a steady growth of teams applying for the qualification rounds. Most teams were or had connection to educational football programs, either as Teacher’s clubs, alumni from High or Middle Schools or Universities. In the next issue we will see a bigger diversity and rise of university football programs throughout Japan.

As you noticed the Emperor didn’t take a big role in the competition up to now. In fact the Name Emperor’s Cup will be established only after World War II.


I hope you enjoyed this first of many trips into the history of the Emperor’s Cup. Most information was gathered via Japanese/English Wikipedia and the (unfortunately) recently removed archive from NHK. Information on the Meiji Shrine Games were taken from French Wikipedia.

The main goal of this research was the proper display of the history of the Emperor’s Cup on Transfermarkt. Please feel free to browse around.

Webmaster’s note: remember you can follow Tobias and his precious work at @ConDrei on Twitter. See you soon for episode 2!

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