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.
|I|| J1 League |
(Meiji Yasuda J1 League)
↓ 4 relegation spots (2021 season)
|II|| J2 League |
(Meiji Yasuda J2 League)
↑ 2 promotion spots
|III|| J3 League |
(Meiji Yasuda J3 League)
15 teams (2021 season)
↑ 2 promotion spots
|IV|| Japan Football League |
17 clubs (2021 season)
↑ from 0 to 2 promotion spots
↓ from 0 to 3 relegation spots
|V/VI||9 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)
|VII+||46 Prefectural Leagues & 5 Block Leagues of Hokkaido|
↑ 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
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.
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-23team 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. 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.
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.
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).
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.
|Professional leagues (J. League)|
|Year||Tier 1||Tier 2||Tier 3||Tier 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|
|I|| WE League |
11 clubs(2021–22 season)
no relegation(2021–22 season)
|II|| Nadeshiko League Division 1|
( Plenus Nadeshiko League Division 1)
↓ 1 relegation spot + 1 promotion/relegation series spot
|III|| Nadeshiko League Division 2|
( Plenus Nadeshiko League Division 2)
↑ 1 promotion spot + 1 promotion/relegation series spot
↓ 1 relegation spot + 1 promotion/relegation series spot
|V||9 Regional Leagues |
↑ 2 promotion/relegation series spots
↓ ?? relegation spot
|VI||46 Prefectural Leagues & 2 Block Leagues of Hokkaido|
↑ ?? 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.
Kawasaki Frontale is a Japanese professional football club based in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo. The club plays in the J1 League, which is the top tier of football in the country. Their home stadium is Kawasaki Todoroki Stadium, in Nakahara Ward, in the central area of Kawasaki.
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Japanese Regional Leagues are a group of parallel association football leagues in Japan that are organized on the regional basis. They form the fifth tier of the Japanese association football league system below the nationwide Japan Football League.
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Japanese football in 2012
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Japanese football in 2013.
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League tables for teams participating in the Japanese Regional Leagues, the fifth tier of the Japanese association football league system, in 2020. A total of 134 teams compete, split into 9 groups.