Kanto-ku-rama

Urgency, right? After 18 months living with COVID-19, you feel like it’s never gonna go away. And if the outbreak might be harder to scrap in Japan (some problems in vaccinations were solved only ahead of the Olympic Games), at the same time business have to find solutions to move forward with their (corporate) lives.

Same goes for clubs: 2020 crystalized the situation. Remember? No relegations, no risks at all, just promotions and everybody trying to keep it together, to make it through the stormy night. Well, now… it’s a little bit different: four relegations from J1, four drops from J2 and even talks of introducing it also in J3 (a move that this project would approve right away, once the conditions to do so are stable enough).

Of course, this fear brings frenzy around the clubs, who are trying to guess it right. Losing J1 or J2 status could deeply hurt some realities more than others, but it meant there was a lot of movement in switching personnel. There’s a perfect expression used in Italian sports journalism: “Valzer delle panchine” (literally “Waltzing through dugouts / of the benches”. And it works for politics or administrators as well, but with the term “poltrone”, which is “armchairs” in Italian).

In English, the concept of “musical chairs” is probably more fitting, but the bare sense is the same. Many clubs are getting cold feet from possible bad results and they’re trying to save the savable. That’s why we’ve already witnessed: it’s only early September and there have been already 19 (!) changes within clubs all over the professional Japanese football ladder.

Candidate for no. 20? Zweigen Kanazawa are in a bad run of form and Masaaki Yanagishita can’t afford other slips in the relegation race. Yesterday Zweigen lost 4-0 at home with Machida without even fighting.

Even in the relaxed Japan Football League – the fourth tier of Japanese football, the first non-pro league –, four clubs have already changed their manager. To make a comparison, these were the changes of coaches in the last three seasons:

  • 2020 – 6
  • 2019 – 16
  • 2018 – 17

This is unprecedented, just like the odds of getting relegated this year or in general failing to achieve the seasonal goal every team has. And that’s why we decided to go through this “Kanto-ku-rama” crazy festival of revolutions in the dugout.

J1 League

Actually, when we came up with the idea for this piece, only five changes were made in J1. Shonan Bellmare didn’t want to miss this party and they recently let go Bin Ukishima, who was at the helm of the club since late 2019. And to do what? Promoting Satoshi Yamaguchi, former Gamba legend and now head coach of Bellmare. Given they were always going to be risking relegation, we’re befuddled. We don’t understand this change.

There were other changes who left us perplexed. For example, Kashima Antlers are now reinvigorated by Naoki Soma, but it seemed early to cut short Antônio Carlos Zago’s second season in charge. Same happened with Yokohama FC: Takahiro Shimotaira wasn’t covering himself in glory, but the two years before deserved more time. Especially when things hadn’t changed that much in the hindsight.

We’re not surprised by Lévir Culpi’s departure: we wrote a first piece in the pre-season, nurturing our doubts about this change of direction within Cerezo Osaka. Yes, they might be more fun to watch now, but they’re lying around mid-table, with a lot of talent and no direction for the future (what about the marvelous idea of fielding Dankler and Tiago instead of Seko and Nishio, blocking their development?).

We wouldn’t be surprised to see the talented kids – like Tatsuhiro Sakamoto – leaving the ship for a change in Europe.

Different tale instead for Yokohama F. Marinos and Gamba Osaka. In both cases, there was nothing to do about it. Postecoglou got the chance of a lifetime, proving his value in Europe… and we’re pretty sure he’ll be able to succeed (despite the incomprehensible lack of trust about his resume before being hired). Kevin Muscat, who took his place, is doing a decent job in keeping the flow running.

Instead, Tsuneyatsu Miyamoto’s reign hit a roadblock and – like for Cerezo – it’s unacceptable how Gamba are winning no trophies at all with the pool of talent they developed in these last 3-4 years. Piece of advice? With relegation on the horizon, Tomohiro Katanosaka has reached the peak of his project in Oita: give him the squad, and he’ll built a fun dynasty or at least a structure capable of standing the test of time.

J2 League

Things were messier in J2, where the four relegations are an absolute news and an unprecedented risk to face. No one wanted to take the gamble this time. In fact, April already saw a change and the last came just a few days ago, where accusations of harassing were impossible to overcome for Hideki Nagai, who resigned from Tokyo Verdy and left his post to… Takafumi Hori (yeah, the former winner of AFC Manager of the Year).

Other inevitable moves, but because of results? Well, Shigenari Izumi had short life at Ehime FC and you have to give credit to the club: under Noritada Saneyoshi, they have a chance. And this is already a victory. V-Varen Nagasaki followed a similar path: once they realized they didn’t stand a chance of getting promoted under Takayuki Yoshida, they gave the keys of the squad to Hiroshi Matsuda and at least they’re alive.

Props instead to two clubs. First: Montedio Yamagata. Surely, the start of the second season under Kiyotaka Ishimaru felt disappointing but letting him go on April 22nd could have backfired. Instead, the revolution of Peter Cklamovski is working a treat and, with playoffs reinstated in 2022, they hold a solid chance of having a good run. That’s also a revenge for the Australian manager, who was let go too soon by S-Pulse.

Montedio had an incredible run of 12 positive results (10 wins and 2 draws) from mid-May to late August.

Second: Omiya Ardija. They could still get relegated, but they realized the new reign of Ken Iwase wasn’t working. They then picked Masahiro Shimoda, who is a really good coach to develop players… but now Ardija need something else. From the first weeks, it seemed to work: they just need to go through this season. With Shimoda from the beginning and a decent pool of talent, they might start fresh in 2022.

Thespakusatsu Gunma were obligated as well to change, if they wanted to have some chances to save themselves from relegation. If Kiyokazu Kudo pulls this off, he could be on the run for “Manager of the Year” in J2. Same happened at Matsumoto Yamaga, where the situation is frankly worst than we imagined when we wrote about them in the 2020 pre-season. Is Hiroshi Nanami the right man to change the situation? We doubt it, but…

Last but not least, the only move we didn’t understand. SC Sagamihara’s promotion last year seemed more a mess-up by Nagano Parceiro, although the club from Tokyo deserved that chance. Things started badly and we don’t know how letting Fumitake Miura go would change anything, especially when the successor is Takuya Takagi, who is a solid manager, but came from a terrible stint with Omiya Ardija.

J3 League (and JFL!)

J3 is probably going through its most chaotic season ever. With just 15 teams, the window to get promoted seems even bigger than before. In fact, the table is compacted, and no one has currently stand out from the “peloton”. That’s why someone thought of drastic measures to U-turn the 2021 season.

Take for example Gainare Tottori and FC Imabari. The former side had enjoyed a good spell under Riki Takagi, but he was changed mid-May for the return of a J3 classic head coach, Kim Jong-song (former Ryukyu and KUFC). It’s not working, just like the magic change isn’t working at FC Imabari: we hold high hopes for Lluis Plaganumà and his future, but Keiichiro Nuno and his staff are struggling turning this year around.

An 8-1 home defeat against Parceiro doesn’t exactly inspire trust.

Different cases for Kamatamare Sanuki and Fujieda MYFC. Sanuki opted for Nobuyuki Uenoyama, but then replaced him with Zdravko Zemunović, who at least has more experience at these levels. Same bogus choice at Fujieda MYFC, where they picked Yasuharu Kurata before the season, only to let him go at the Olympic break… to hire Daisuke Sudo. It’s been a long time from golden times under Atsuto Oishi and Nobuhiro Ishizaki.

The only understandable, but sad case happened in Kagoshima: we had a lot of curiosity for Arthur Papas’ adventure under the Sakurajima, but a family problem cut this experience short. Now Kagoshima United FC rely on Nobuhiro Ueno – the offensive wizard who guided Renofa Yamaguchi and fixed a tough 2018 for Ventforet Kofu –, who left Veertien Mie to land in Kyushu.

And what about JFL? That’s also a preoccupying pattern: four changes mid-season, while JFL saw change of head coaches just twice (!) in the previous five years. Also here: three possible relegations are in place, although Iwaki FC are clearly marching towards J3, so they should go down to two.

Nevertheless, Veertien Mie had to say goodbye to Nobuhiro Ueno, FC Kariya are in a mess and changed to avoid certain relegation with the last place. Meanwhile, FC Maruyasu Okazaki welcomed Hiroyasu Ibata, the former demiurge of Honda FC from 2014 to 2020. Last but not least, the Japanese adventure of Milagros Martínez Domínguez is over: she was relieved from here duties at Suzuka Point Getters after facing Vissel Kobe in the Emperor’s Cup, but we hope she’ll have another shot at Japanese football.


To resume it, then, it’s a crazy festival. And we can see more managers risking towards the end of the season. We feel they won’t stop letting people go and this could become a historical year for Japanese football. In the end, before you turn 30, you want to get a last crazy ride at life.

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