Japanese association football league system

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The Japanese association football league system is organized in a pyramidal shape similar to football league systems in many other countries around the world. The leagues are bound by the principle of promotion and relegation; however, there are stringent criteria for promotion from the JFL to J3, which demands a club being backed by the town itself including the local government, a community of fans and corporate sponsors rather than a parent company or a corporation.



The top three levels of the Japanese football league system are operated by the J. League, which consists of J1 League (J1), J2 League, and J3 League. All of the clubs in the J. League are fully professional.

The fourth level, the Japan Football League (JFL) is a semi-professional league consisting of amateur, professional, and company clubs from all over Japan.

At the fifth and sixth levels, nine parallel regional leagues are operated by nine different regional football associations, some of which have multiple divisions. The regional associations are divided by political or geographical boundaries.

At the seventh level and below, parallel prefectural leagues are hosted by each of the 46 different prefectural football associations, again divided by political or geographical boundaries. Some have multiple divisions.

Men's system

I J1 League

(Meiji Yasuda J1 League)
20 clubs

↓ 4 relegation spots (2021 season)

II J2 League

(Meiji Yasuda J2 League)

22 clubs

↑ 2 promotion spots
↓ 4 relegation spots (2021 season)

III J3 League

(Meiji Yasuda J3 League)

15 teams (2021 season)

↑ 2 promotion spots

no relegation

IV Japan Football League


17 clubs (2021 season)

↑ from 0 to 2 promotion spots

↓ from 0 to 3 relegation spots

V/VI9 Regional Leagues
134 clubs (2020 season)
↑ from 0 to 3 promotion spots

↓ 1 relegation spot + 1 relegation playoff spot from Regional League each

Hokkaido (8 clubs)
Tohoku 1st (10 clubs) | Tohoku 2nd north (10 clubs) | Tohoku 2nd south (10 clubs)
Kanto 1st (10 clubs) | Kanto 2nd (10 clubs)
Tokai 1st (8 clubs) | Tokai 2nd (8 clubs)
Hokushin'etsu 1st (8 clubs) | Hokushin'etsu 2nd (8 clubs)
Kansai 1st (8 clubs) | Kansai 2nd (8 clubs)
Chugoku (10 clubs)
Shikoku (8 clubs)
Kyushu (10 clubs)

VII+46 Prefectural Leagues  [ ja ] & 5 Block Leagues of Hokkaido
many clubs
↑ 1 promotion spot + 1 promotion playoff spot from Prefectural League each

Sapporo Block | Dōhoku (North) Block | Dōtō (East) Block | Dōō (Central) Block | Dōnan (South) Block
Aomori | Iwate | Miyagi | Akita | Yamagata | Fukushima
Ibaraki | Tochigi | Gunma | Saitama | Chiba | Tokyo | Kanagawa | Yamanashi
Gifu | Shizuoka | Aichi | Mie
Niigata | Toyama | Ishikawa | Fukui | Nagano
Shiga | Kyoto | Osaka | Hyogo | Nara | Wakayama
Tottori | Shimane | Okayama | Hiroshima | Yamaguchi
Tokushima | Kagawa | Ehime | Kochi
Fukuoka | Saga | Nagasaki | Kumamoto | Ōita | Miyazaki | Kagoshima | Okinawa


Level I , II & III: J. League

J. League governs the top three levels of the Japanese football pyramid and comprises a total of 55 clubs, all of which are fully professional and are divided into three divisions, J1 League (J1), J2 League (J2) and J3 League (J3). Eighteen (18) clubs make up the top flight and have access to the Asian premier football competition, AFC Champions League. Division 2 now has 22 clubs, after 2 new clubs were promoted into the system in 2012.

All J. League clubs enter the Emperor's Cup directly and receive a bye in the 1st round, but only the Division 1 clubs qualify for the J. League Cup. In the past, Division 1 teams started from the fourth round and Division 2 teams started from the third round. Nowadays, they all start from the second round due to the expansion of Division 2, this results in some eliminations of professional teams by regional teams in the early stages.

Level I : J1 League (18 Clubs)

Asian Qualification
Currently, through the league games, the J. League champions, runners-up, and third-placed teams qualify for the AFC Champions League. The other means of qualification is the Emperor's Cup; however this also gives clubs below level I the possibility of qualification (if they hold a J1 club license). If one of the top three finishers also wins the Emperor's Cup title, the 4th-placed club receives the final qualification spot.
Relegation (to J2)
Until 2017 season, the bottom three clubs (16th, 17th and 18th) were automatically relegated to J2 League. Currently, the 17th and 18th positions will be automatically demoted, and the 16th position will be relegated when losing to the J2 team winner of the J1 Promotion Playoffs.

Level II : J2 League (22 Clubs)

Promotion (to J1)
There are three promotion spots available to clubs in J2. The champions and runners-up receive automatic promotion, and the clubs finishing 3rd to 6th participate in playoffs for the remaining promotion spot. To be promoted, a club is obliged to meet all the criteria required for membership of Division 1, although no club in the past has been denied promotion for failing to meet the requirements.
Relegation (to J3)
Up to two of the top J3 clubs may be promoted to J2 if they have a J. League Associate Membership. Subsequently, up to two of the bottom J2 clubs might be relegated to J3. [1]

Level III: J3 League (16 Clubs)

Rules for promotion to J2 will be largely similar to those of Japan Football League in the recent seasons: to be promoted, a club must hold a J2 license and finish in top 2 of the league. The J-League U-23 [lower-alpha 1] team is not eligible for promotion regardless of their final position. Until 2016 season, the champions were promoted directly, in exchange to 22nd-placed J2 club; and the runners-up was participate in the playoffs with 21st J2 club. Currently, the champions and runners-up receive automatic promoted. If either or both top 2 finishers are ineligible for promotion, the playoffs and/or direct exchange will not be held in accordance to the exact positions of promotion-eligible clubs. [2] As of 2021, there is no relegation system from J3 League in the J3 League other than withdrawal from the J. League due to non-issuance of a license.

Level IV: Japan Football League (16 Clubs)

The Japan Football League (JFL) is the fourth level in the Japanese football pyramid, and is known as the highest level for amateur club football. Prior to 2010, the JFL was governed by Japan Football Association (JFA); since 2010, the JFL became independent from the Japan FA with its own status and governing body, and consists mainly of amateur football clubs and company teams, though some fully professional clubs (J. League associate members) also exist. Due to presence of these professional clubs, the league has de facto semi-professional status.

Clubs at this level and below enter the Emperor's Cup indirectly; most clubs qualify through cup tournaments contested in individual prefectures; the top JFL club at the halfway point of the season may qualify directly. However, if they have also won their respective prefectural cup, the prefectural cup runners-up take their place in the indirect round.

Promotion (to J3)
Clubs in the JFL must meet following criteria to receive promotion to the professional league.
  • Have J. League Associate Membership
  • Finish in the top four in JFL and top two among promotion-eligible clubs
  • Have an average attendance of more than 2,000 with a significant effort to achieve 3,000.
  • Pass a final inspection by the J. League professional committee
Relegation (to Regional Leagues)
The number of relegated clubs varies from 0 to 3 depending on the number of clubs promoted to the J3 League and/or the number of clubs disbanded. Depending on the number, the teams ranked 15th and 16th at the end of the season are automatically relegated to their respective Regional Leagues. The team ranked 14th may have to contest a promotion/relegation series to survive relegation. Clubs will be relegated to their designated Regional League (i.e. a club from Tokyo will be relegated to the Kanto League, even if the promoted club is not from the Kanto League).

Level V/VI: 9 Japanese Regional Leagues

In modern Japan, the country is divided into 9 different regions. From North to South they are Hokkaido, Touhoku, Kantou, Tokai, Hokushin-etsu (Hokuriku+Shin-etsu), Kansai, Shikoku, Chugoku, and Kyushu. Each region has its own football league, and they make up 9 parallel football leagues governed by designated regional FAs. The Hokkaido, Chugoku, Shikoku, and Kyushu Regional Leagues have only one division, whereas others have two divisions. On top of that, Touhoku Division 2 is divided into Division 2 North and Division 2 South. Because of differences in structure, each region has its own promotion and relegation regulations between the divisions.

Aside from the Emperor's Cup, clubs at this level and the levels immediately below play in the All Japan Senior Football Championship (Shakaijin Cup), qualifying through prefectural cups. Some Regional Leagues may have their own League Cups as well (Kanto, Kansai).

Promotion (to JFL)
At the end of the season, the champions and certain runners-up from the 9 Regional Leagues qualify to the Japan Regional Football Champions League. The winners and runners-up of the tournament receive promotion to the JFL. The 3rd-placed club may either contest a promotion/relegation series match against the JFL club ranked 14th or receive direct promotion depending on the number of clubs promoted to J3 and whether any clubs have been disbanded.
Relegation (to Prefectural Leagues  [ ja ])
Different regulations for each Regional League.

Level VII+: 46 Prefectural Leagues & Hokkaido Blocks

Under the 9 regions, there are 47 prefectures. Hokkaido is by itself as a prefecture, thus the leagues in Hokkaido do not have a prefectural league and are rather divided into 5 blocks (North, Central, East, Sapporo, and South); however, all other 46 prefectures have Prefectural leagues. Most if not all, of these leagues have multiple divisions.

Promotion (to Regional League)
Different regulations for each Regional League.
Relegation (to Municipal Leagues)
Different regulations for each Regional League.

History of the Japanese league system's national tiers

Professional leagues (J. League)
Amateur/Semi-professional leagues
YearTier 1Tier 2Tier 3Tier 4
1965–1971 Japan Soccer League
1972–1991 JSL Division 1 JSL Division 2
1992–1993 J. League JFL Division 1 JFL Division 2
1994–1998 J. League Japan Football League
1999–2013 J1 League J2 League Japan Football League
2014–present J1 League J2 League J3 League Japan Football League

Women's system

I WE League

11 clubs(2021–22 season)

no relegation(2021–22 season)

II Nadeshiko League Division 1

( Plenus Nadeshiko League Division 1)

12 clubs

↓ 1 relegation spot + 1 promotion/relegation series spot

III Nadeshiko League Division 2

( Plenus Nadeshiko League Division 2)

8 clubs

↑ 1 promotion spot + 1 promotion/relegation series spot

↓ 1 relegation spot + 1 promotion/relegation series spot

V9 Regional Leagues

?? clubs

↑ 2 promotion/relegation series spots

 ?? relegation spot

VI46 Prefectural Leagues & 2 Block Leagues of Hokkaido

many clubs

 ?? promotion spot

As of 2018 season, all clubs in the top two tiers enter the Empress's Cup directly, with the clubs below having to qualify through regional tournaments. The top two tier clubs also qualify to the Nadeshiko League Cup.

See also


  1. A special team, composed of best J1 and J2 youngsters to prepare them for the 2016 Olympics

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  2. 2014J3リーグ 大会方式および試合方式について [Playing system and rules of 2014 J3 League](PDF) (in Japanese), J. League, 17 December 2013, archived from the original (PDF) on 28 December 2013, retrieved 30 December 2013