The Voice

There’s always a big debate when you’re playing dumb games with your friends. One of those casual, random questions that might pop into a conversation is: “Which sense is the most important to you?”. Most of the people will tend to say: “Sight”, without any hesitation. I think I might be on the minority here. Don’t get me wrong, sight is indeed important to embrace life.

But to that question, I’d answer “hearing”. I would do that because, in my life, the biggest memories I have are inevitably tied to sounds, mostly connected to peaceful and light-hearted memories. The sound of rain when I’m going to sleep. The sound of my wife’s voice when she laughs. The roar of a stadium during a match or even a concert. Wonderful songs I’ve heard throughout my life.

Among those sounds and feelings, there’s another one which populated my childhood and adolescence. And I think I’m not only one. It’s the sound of a commentator, telling me how one virtual game is unfolding in front of my eyes. And I can see it: I’m 13 again, playing Winning Eleven 6 in my old room before my PS1. Little detail: no Italian or English there, but Japanese. That voice comes from Jon Kabira.

I really believe I wasn’t the only one growing out like this in Europe throughout 90s and 2000s, because the compilation of his voice narrating Winning Eleven and Pro Evolution Soccer’s heroics are many. And it’s not my intention to narrow his experience just to his voice, because Jon Kabira has been much more than that: TV personality, radio moderator, presenter and journalist.

Through all of these activities, he followed the development of Japanese football in the last 30 years, from non-pro sport in a country mostly interested in baseball and sumo to a rising interest among the population. We had the chance of interviewing him through an email exchange and talk about how his career in football and Japan’s growth in the sport are intertwined, also considering J. League’s changes in the last three decades.

Copyright of L2M Ltd Agency.

Mr. Kabira, you lived throughout the whole development of Japanese football, from a non-pro world to one of the most beloved sports in the country right now: where does your passion for football come from? 

My love of football began when I started to watch “Mitsubishi Diamond Soccer” on Tokyo 12 Channel. The show televised an edited version of European club soccer matches weekly. At that time, I did not wonder why we had to wait for a week to watch the second half. Yes, the announcer would sign off saying “next week we will bring you the second half of Manchester United versus Liverpool”.

Of course, Yasuhito Okudera’s unprecedented challenge in the Bundesliga propelled my interest. My love of football was elevated to a new and higher level when NHK (public broadcaster) televised the 1978 FIFA World Cup live. I fondly remember the night/early morning viewing of the final.

My younger brother and my friend thought the confetti in the stadium was snow, thinking ‘Yeah, right, Argentina is in the southern hemisphere, of course it can snow’. We corrected ourselves immediately, but the level of naivete was charming back then. We have come a long way. 

It’s incredible how important that World Cup was for Japan. Yoichi Takahashi as well, creator of “Captain Tsubasa”, said that the 1978 WC was a mark on his decision of creating the series.

What’s his first memory regarding football that made him fall in love with the game?

Oddly enough, my first contact with football was a summer ‘soccer’ camp in Hesston, Kansas, in the USA, where my mother was from. Hesston College (Jr. College) had a pretty good men’s soccer team (the Larks) and the coach wanted to promote the sport to the community – hence the summer camp.

My two younger brothers and I had a wonderful time. I was 13 and felt instantly drawn to the simplicity and complexity of the game. I never became a worthy player but enjoyed the beautiful game at the intermural level in high school and college. I owe a lot to Mr. Gerry Sieber.

The first thing that comes to my mind when we’re talking about you is your coverage of the first historical qualification of Samurai Blue to the World Cup. From a European point of view, we’re used to seeing emotions flowing for sports events, while it might be harder to show them for Japanese because of cultural settings.

Instead, when I saw the coverage of 1997, you can see the intensity and the emotional tie of your figure to that night in Kuala Lumpur, playing Iran for the qualification. Looking back to that moment, how much it influenced who you’re today, both as a professional and as a man?

Thank you for finding the YouTube link. I was at the same sports-bar with my brother, Jay – who is featured in the same clip. The footage is from the late-night news show. featuring a football segment emceed by my brother. I was the emcee for “Serie A Digest” telecasted by Fuji TV (’94-’03). The whole nation was electrified by the events leading up to the playoffs as we had experienced a devastating defeat at Doha for the previous World Cup.

WE HAD TO GO to France and the team made it in dramatic form. I remember telling Jay, while looking out the window in the cab on our way to the sports-bar, “LOOK, Jay! What the hell is that lady doing? Walking a poodle – when THE MATCH is about to begin?! What is going on?!” Again, we’ve come a long way.

From my point of view, I know your voice tied mostly to the international stage, but you had the chance of witnessing the growth of J. League as well. You were indeed the moderator for the J. League Awards when the attention around the league was less than now, but when many talents were flourishing and then moving to Europe.

What’s the biggest memory he has regarding this growth and the first years of J. League in the country?

I had worked for a record company prior to joining the inaugurating team at J-WAVE, an FM radio station serving Tokyo and the nearby prefectures. As you know, the move to launch a new professional league taking after the Bundesliga format started in 1988, when J-WAVE was established. I took it for granted that I HAD to promote the idea and took every opportunity to mention and follow the going-pro development on my weekday morning show.

A Fuji TV Sports producer, who had heard about this ‘football crazy guy’ on the air, apparently thought I could be the narrator for the to-be-launched late night soccer show called “DataCalcio”. The show, with typical Japanese TV visual packaging, provided information ranging from player stats, turf depth, climate odds and so forth – arguably appropriate for TOTO players’ data sheet.

At that time, I had a kind of hesitance to physically appear on TV as I had thought my main playground was radio. When Kazu Miura announced to join Genoa, Fuji TV bought the rights to air Serie A in Japan leading to the birth of “Serie A Digest”. I will never forget the producer’s pitch; ‘Kabira-san, Kazu is marking his biggest challenge of his life in Italy, why not give your best in the TV arena? You need to challenge’!

Here’s a confession: the author of this piece lived throughout his childhood and part of his adolescence with Japanese versions of Winning Eleven. Basically, Konami shaped me as a child, given all the hours I’ve played at WE in its several editions, with Mr. Kabira’s voice featuring in the game.

How did the relationship between Mr. Kabira and Konami started? And did he realize back then the kind of impact his voice would have left on many fans of the game? I think about this commercial and he’s one of the pillars of the narration for the product. 

J-League was such a success and the fans’ desire for media content was so great that the League released digest video packages, ranging from monthly content to team specific videos in VHS. I was lucky enough to be the designated narrator and hence my name was recognized in the football community and the industry.

There was no reason for me to decline the generous offer by Konami to record the play-by-play narration for their new PlayStation football game. At the time, I had no idea that this endeavor would ever culminate to a quarter-century voyage and the product being cherished by football lovers throughout the world.

The technological advances of the gaming experience have been simply phenomenal. Just check the old gaming videos on the internet. I cannot thank the Konami PES team enough. The dedication, creativity and tenacity has been rewarded by the committed and continued support by the global PES fan community. They all are the BEST.

From the origins of J. League to the Tokyo 2021 Olympics, you’ve been an influential voice in shaping the history of Japanese football. Looking back at those years and thinking where Japanese football is now after 30 years, what are your emotions compared to this journey?

You are flattering me in a serious way. I am at awe when thinking back of the years of Japanese football… we have indeed come a long way. In the same vein mentioned above, who would have thought that multiple Japanese footballers would play in the BIG THREE leagues in Europe. We are so proud to see our boys doing wonders all over the world.

However, as seen at the last World Cup match, we are still behind in tactical, mental and maybe spiritual preparation. No need to be malicious on the pitch, but we need to be tougher and more cunning in the way of football. I believe that technique and suave will only take you up a few notches. 

Football is the greatest sport and the number of fans and players are growing steadily… but the popularity and proliferation are not represented in equitable result. Aside from the anomaly of having South Korea reaching fourth place in 2002, the only non-Europe and non-South American team reaching the Best 8 is Mexico (in 1970 and 1986, both on home turf). The voyage to reach a higher level at the World Cup for the non-European and non-South American teams will be a long and tough one.

I am a bit concerned in seeing the way FIFA is trying to ‘expand’ football even further. Will indeed Qatar 2022 be seen as an appropriate venue, while abusing foreign laborers during the stadium construction? Will the expanded competition for the 2026 edition render quality matches? 

That all said. We will still love the Beautiful Game. I sincerely hope it will be kept beautiful. And again, who would have thought I would ever be contacted by an Italian J. League aficionado! VIVA IL CALCIO!

In realizing this interview, we have to make one further comment and thank some people. First of all, we have to thank Mr. Jon Kabira: having this chat was a massive achievement for our project and a dream realized on the personal side. Secondly, but as importantly as on the first case, our thanks reach L2M Ltd Agency and Mrs. Chikako Hoshi, who were instrumental in making this happen.

For us, the passion and the professionalism of Jon Kabira is an example in witnessing closely the development of this crazy, passionate, young world called Japanese football. The same example we’re trying to follow in this project. Stay tuned for the upcoming pieces: an important event is getting closer and closer, we’ll follow it closely.

All the rights on the image in this piece belong to L2M Ltd Agency.

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