By Kohei Usuda
In recent months, football has become an intense battleground for gender equality. In Japan, examples are numerous, too. But female players, such as Ami Otaki, don’t hesitate anymore to raise their voice.
Earlier this month, Australia’s women’s national team clinched what the BBC heralded as a “historic deal.” Football Federation Australia agreed to a commercial revenue sharing arrangement between men’s and women’s teams, effectively guaranteeing equal pay across the board.
Despite positive stories like these, deep-seated institutionalized sexism pervades over the world’s most popular sport.
At this summer’s Women’s World Cup in France, for example, players of chronically underfunded sides like Argentina characterized their participation in the tournament as a “feminist act” in the face of sexist hostility from their own football federation, who failed to provide them with even the bare basics like adequate support staff and access to training facilities, let alone their wage bills.
During that same tournament in France, the openly gay United States captain Megan Rapinoe made headlines, not so much for her Golden Boot performance as top scorer, but for engaging in a war of words with President Donald Trump over her boycott of a White House visit. That prompted The New York Times to hail Rapinoe an “an activist-athlete icon.”
“It is about the day-to-day”
Football is fast becoming an intense battleground for gender equality the world over. At the time of this writing, for instance, nearly 200 Spanish footballers in the women’s top division are currently on an indefinite strike, refusing to take part in competitive matches following a protracted, yearlong negotiations broke down over the players’ demand for a better minimum wage (which is set at paltry 16,000 euros) as well as other rights including maternity leave.
“Previously female footballers were sort of willing to shut up, to be grateful for the right to play,” wrote Suzanne Wrack, who covers women’s football for The Guardian. Wrack pointed out that the Spaniards’ strike is “significant” because this collective action “is about the day-to-day, the right to a decent standard of living and an unwillingness to go on accepting that professional standards be demanded of players without the contracts and pay to reflect it.”
Similar narratives of gender disparity play out the world over – not least in Japan.
In the summer of 2012, for example, the women’s national team, known as Nadeshiko Japan, were crammed into economy class en route to the London Olympics, while the men’s squad were given the privilege of flying business class on the same Japan Airlines flight.
That “lower class” treatment didn’t deter the Nadeshiko players from eventually reaching the final at Wembley and claiming the silver medal, losing out only to the all-star United States team. Nevertheless, it was a humiliating experience for Japan’s reputed female footballers, given that the same women’s squad had captivated the nation’s attention only a year ago by punching above its weight to lift the Women’s World Cup trophy in Germany.
Though the Japan Football Association pledged last week to go ahead with its long-mooted move to fully professionalize the women’s league by 2021, currently only about 10 percent of players in the Nadeshiko League, Japan’s domestic top-flight, are full-time professionals. The vast majority are amateurs who must hold down day jobs just to earn the right to express themselves on the football field.
Ami Otaki, more than a footballer
It is hard to think of anyone else in Japan who is as cognizant of these issues surrounding women’s game than Ami Otaki: a 30-year-old striker for JEF United Chiba Ladies, a Nadeshiko League side based in the city of Chiba, southeast of Tokyo. Otaki, in fact, is a rare prominent figure in the insular world of Japanese sports who does not shy away from using her platform to vocally advocate against gender inequality.
“Women’s soccer lacks adequate infrastructure and lags behind men’s game in terms of cultural recognition,” Otaki told Aera magazine in an interview last year. “Most Nadeshiko League players make their living by working for corporations that sponsor [their teams]. We may call ourselves ‘footballers,’ but in reality we don’t get paid a cent even if we try hard to improve our games.”
Beginning in 2012, the Japanese forward forged a successful career in France, plying her trade for a string of clubs including Olympique Lyonnais, amassing two league titles and one Champions League in the process.
Though she was seen at the time as one of the future star prospects, the Yokohama-native caught many by surprise when she abruptly hung up her boots at the age of 25, in order to further her education by enrolling in the prestigious FIFA Master program in management, law and humanities of sport.
Since coming out of her self-imposed retirement in 2017, the thrice-capped player has been putting her academic studies into good use by advocating for better working conditions on behalf of female footballers. In July, Otaki established “Nadeshiko Care,” a players-led nonprofit which aims to promote women’s football, in conjunction with Japan captain Saki Kumagai and veteran defender Yukari Kinga.
In addition to visiting children’s hospitals, coaching girls’ youth teams, and providing moral support for ex-players, one of the first initiatives Otaki undertook after founding the nonprofit was to organize a workshop in August, which attracted the participation of 16 current and former Nadeshiko League players. The topic under discussion that day was “How to prevent sexual harassment from happening in the sporting community.”
One of the stated goals of Otaki’s activism is to effect change in people’s perception of football – a discipline still often viewed, particularly in Japan, as the sole preserve of men – by tackling that very misconception through the promotion of women’s game. As one line in Nadeshiko Care’s mission statement reads, “We all continue to play the sport by confronting societal prejudices.”