Emperor’s Cup: a century of history (Part 2)

Emperor’s Cup is ready to see its First Round going on. Following a first part in-depth piece we had on May, please enjoy this first contribute by Tobias Dreimann (you can follow him on Twitter @ConDrei), 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 first 10 years of the JFA national football final saw the tournament abolished once in 1926 while regularly merged with the Meiji Shrine Games, a sport championship that became the most important of its time. Up to now in our trip down memory lane, the JFA national final is not known as the Emperor’s Cup.

Last year, Vissel Kobe celebrated their first trophy ever.

Part 2 | The dominance of universities

While the first winners of the JFA national final found their roots in high schools all around the country, starting from 1928 soccer clubs affiliated to universities around the country began their rise within Japanese football. Those teams, founded by alumni of their respective university, could have been confused with the official university program, but they were likely only associated.

As there has hardly been any structure back in these days, Keio BRB currently features the titles of Keio Club, the university itself or the selection team on their homepage. As today, clubs associated with the Keio University have won nine Emperor’s Cup titles, but BRB in fact only has 6. That’s one less title than Gamba Osaka and Kashima Antlers (or their past corporate versions) won combined.

The Meiji Shrine Games returned in 1931. Seven teams featured this time, with Sendai’s second high school having already booked a spot for the semi-finals. Another alumni club entered the tournament by the name of “Tokyo Light Blue” (Tokyo LB), founded by former students of the Imperial University of Tokyo.

From Kure City, Hiroshima Prefecture was represented by the hailed Kobun Junior High School, formed by a mix of Japanese students from Kure and Korean students, who had been scouted by the high school’s head teacher (who was back then working in the occupied territories). With strong players of both Japanese and Korean descendent and against all odds, Kobun Junior High School was strong enough to qualify for the national finals

Out of the blue, they even advanced to the championship match against Tokyo LB. The story of Kobun Junior High School has no happy ending though, as they lost 1-5 the last match. Occupied by Japan in 1910, Korea had its own short success story within the national football finals, but yet had to wait for glory.

The 1932 finals where again held in Nishinomiya in the Spring of the following year. Only three squads made it to these finals, so the biggest story was to be found in the Kanto qualification round. Keio and Waseda University are rivals, with Waseda’s WMW met Keio Club, a mixed team of former and current students of the Keio University. The game was scheduled at 2 p.m. in Tokyo. While Keio Club had been ready to play the game, WMW did not arrive on the spot before 2:07 p.m.

© NHK.

Because of the delay, the referee already decided that Keio Club to be the winner. WMW implored the referee to change his mind, but it didn’t happen. Then Keio Club advanced to the final, where they had to square off against Yoshino Club, a hardly documented team (whose writing differs between 芳野クラブ and 茅野クラブ), but had been part of the 1927 finals. The mixed team from Keio University was successful, crushing their opponents 5-1.

For the 1933 edition, the JFA national finals were an integral part of the Meiji Shrine Games for a last time, since future installments of the Games would organize their own football competition. With eight participants, Kwansei Gakuin University had its first appearance in the tournament, while teachers’ clubs became a constant presence in the tournament.

The club that raised some eyebrows, though, was the so-called “Tokyo Old Boys Club”, an alumni club from some unknown school in the nation’s capital. While crushing the Hakodate Shukyu-dan 6-1, they also won the semi-final against Kwangaku Gakusei University (2-0) to access the final match against Sendai Soccer Club. The apparently non education-related club from Sendai had its first appearance in 1927, but Tokyo OB dominated by winning 4-1.

The national finals were not held in 1934 due to the Far Eastern Championship Games held in the Philippines, but 1935 would have seen the next merger between the Meiji Shrine Games and the national finals, since the JFA wanted to give players more chances to practice before the 1936 Olympic Games. That’s why more competitions were encouraged, to raise their level before going to Berlin.

This led to a reformation of both competitions: the FA Cup trophy – given to the JFA by the British ambassador before the first tournament – was handed to the Meiji Shrine Games, while the JFA created their own trophy for that year. The national finals were moved to June, while the Meiji Shrine Games remained to be hosted in October of 1935.

Korean teams spice things up

After annexing Korea in 1910, the JFA opened the tournament for a Korean “All-Star” team, featuring the best players from the peninsula. We can only assume the idea was to help scouts in finding players for the Olympic Games from all of Japan’s colonial territories, maybe considering the advantage Kobun Junior High School had two years prior (e.g. Japan will use that pattern with Sohn Kee-chung, then renamed Son Kitei due to the Japanization of Korea).

A truly moving story. If you get a little bit of Italian, it has been retold really well here.

The Korean team started in the semi-finals against Nagoya Commercial College and the so-called “Kyungsung FC” from Korea dominated both its tournament matches: first a solid win in the semi-finals (6-0) and then the triumph against Tsukuba University in the final (6-1). Later that year in the Meiji Shrine Games, Kyungsung FC won again, this time defeating Keio University 2-0.

The Korean team dominated both tournaments, yet, for the 1936 Olympic Games, only Yeong-sik Kim was named to represent Japan’s national football team in Berlin. While Japan shocked the world by winning their first match against Sweden (3-2), they then lost heavily against Italy (0-8). It beholds to the readers’ imaginations thinking about the possible results of that tournament if Japan had included more Korean players.

In the year of the Olympic Games, the national finals took place without the best players in the country. They travelled through Siberia to the German capital by train to represent Japan’s football to the world. Especially Waseda University lost heavily in the process, with at least nine players going to Europe and completely failed to qualify, while their rivals from Keio BRB defeated them in that round.

The matches of the 1936 tournament were played in Toyama Park, Shinjuku District of Tokyo, by chance near to the Waseda Univesity’s West campus. The outsiders of this edition, though, were Bosun College of Korea. Known today as Korea University, they buried Tohoku Gakuin University under a 10-1, then won in the semi-finals v. Kwansei Gakuin University 4-2, while Keio BRB thrashed Nagoya Pharmaceuticals College 13-0 in the second game.

The final was expected to spark fireworks, yet Keio BRB caught Bosun College off-guard in the 84th minute, when Komazaki received a throw-in ball and scored the final 3-2 score. Keio BRB did win, four years after Keio Club, their first national title: they would then become, in the upcoming years, the most successful “branch” of the Keio University clubs while the following years will underline the dominance of students in the Japanese football world.

Sports, an essential path for education

In 1937, the trophy initially gifted to the Japanese FA had seen better days. After 17 years, this year’s final would be the last year to have the original trophy sponsored by the British FA in 1921. In fact, dates tend to differ. While Japanese information gave 1937 as the last year for the original trophy, English Wikipedia states the trophy was still used until it was melted down in 1945.

© NHK.

In June, the national final was held in Meiji Jingu Gaien Park. Title holders Keio BRB lost to their rivals Tokyo LB and did not qualify. Meanwhile, the team from Keio University was allowed to participate after they won against Waseda WMW, the alumni team of Waseda University. A private institution, founded in 1882, Waseda is located near the Meiji Jingu Park in the Shinjuku District of Tokyo. Keio University, a private academic entity founded in 1958, is located in the Minato District.

Both universities maintain a sportsmanship rivalry and so their clashes may be understood as an early derby within the Japanese football-sphere. Both universities’ students and their alumni will shape the next decades of Japanese football, but rarely within the Emperor’s Cup/national finals, as often one club among the two came on top of the other in the qualifying round.

Within the national finals, the newly promoted Kyushu team – Kumamoto Club – was not able to make it to Tokyo on time. Because of this, Kobe University of Commerce (merged with Kobe University in ‘62) went through to the semi-final, scrapping the previous match completely. Both clubs won their semi-finals to meet up in the national final. Keio University won the title by 3-0, which was actually the first title for a real university program in Japanese football history.

With a new trophy at aim, there were five teams out of four regions that could qualify for the 1938 national final. To handle the growing numbers of teams in Tokyo Metropolitan area, the JFA allowed two new teams for the finals, which happened to be Keio University’s and Waseda University’s football clubs.

In the occupied Korea, two teams – an alumni teams of Bosung Collge and a possible mixed team of Yonhi College (later Yonsei University) – played out their qualification final. While Yonhi College led 4-0 in the first half, Boseung College fought back to tie the match on 4-4. After the fourth overtime (170 minutes played!), Yonhi College was able to score twice and went to Tokyo.

In the semi-finals, the Koreans had to face Waseda University, while Keio University faced Kwansei Gakuin University. Keio moved to the final with a convincing 5-2 victory, while the match between Waseda University and the mixed team from Yonhi College had no clear winner after 90 minutes. As overtime was banned from the finals, Waseda University won the lottery against the Koreans and met Keio University in the final.

© NHK.

The final between these rivals featured several players for the Berlin Olympics on Waseda’s side: Sei Fuwa, Sekiji Sasano, Kunitaka Sueoka, Shogo Kamo and Hidetoki Takahashi. On Keio’s side, there future national player Yukio Tsuda, Takashi Kasahara, Saburo Shinosaki, Hirokazu Ninomiya and Minoru Obata, who in his successive year will play for Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s predecessor, Toyo Kogyo Soccer Club.

In the end, the final between Keio’s und Waseda’s football programs had high expectations, yet Waseda scored first within the first five minutes of playing time. After 25 minutes the score line was against Keio’s favors (losing 2-1). Yet in the second half, Waseda finished Keio off winning the 18th national final by 4-1.

For the 1939 edition, the JFA tried to help the best teams of the prior edition and overhauled the qualification phase: the best three teams of the 1938 edition were granted a spot for the final qualification round. Because of Japan’s growing territories, a full cast of 13 teams were about to start the qualification process, yet there was not team to be found in Taiwan/Liaodong’s territorial qualification.

Therefore, six matches were played out the first round, while matches featured in the successive round, whose winners would face 1938’s Top 3 clubs. The idea worked well: Waseda, Keio and Kwansei Gakuin University reached the semi-finals, while all teams came either from Kanto and Kansai area or the Korean peninsula through other qualification rounds.

The Bosung College selection drew against Waseda University in the semi-finals after 90 minutes. Overtime was brought back to the competition, but the score line didn’t change and the lottery was again used, deciding Waseda’s win over the Korean outlet. On July 11, 1939, the final and the third-place match were played out. Waseda University and Keio BRB couldn’t overcome each other throughout the 90 minutes.

© NHK.

Nevertheless, in the first half of extra time Watanabe scored for Waseda University, while Obata from Keio BRB equalized minutes after. With another extra time in place, a minute before the final whistle, Ninomiya had a tremendous solo run to score for Keio BRB and crown the alumni team for its second national title.

The 20th edition of the JFA national final – played in 1940 – would be the last for a couple of years due to the start of World War II. Within those eight participating teams, there were no debutants at their maiden appearance. Waseda WMW and Keio BRB that met in the final, but the latter side had the best of WMW, winning their third national title.


Author’s note: Because of WWII the Japanese FA was thrown out of FIFA which they first joined in May 17, 1929. It would be only in 1950 when the JFA was allowed to rejoin the global governing association football body. As you, dear reader, probably noticed, up to here we are not speaking of the Emperor’s Cup but the JFA national final.

Even though the term is regularly used, I am not sure if this was the official name. The goal is, though, to distinguish between the purpose of the tournament when it was played out and what was rewritten in Japanese football history in years to come.

If you find any mistake or may correct some of my research, please feel free in doing so. For the results please have a look at the Emperor’s Cup history on Transfermarkt.com.

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