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Feature / From behind the scene of Echigo-Tsumari

Five years on since establishment - FC Echigo-Tsumari starts its new chapter with newly appointed Senior Director and GM/Director!

FC Echigo-Tsumari

On 24 April, we held a kickoff meeting of FC Echigo-Tsumari, a female football team engaging with farming which was born from ETAT. It has been five years since it was launched and the team won the championship on Niigata League in 2020. The team welcomed new Senior Director, GM & Director and six new players this spring. As we launch the new chapter of the club, we spoke with Sakaguchi Senior Director, Motoi GM & Director and two players, Ishiwatari and Mori.

Interview and edit by Art Front Gallery Co., Ltd

27 April 2021

Building the future together by bringing experiences of the players and my own (Motoi, GM & Director)

――Congratulation on taking up positions of GM & Director, Mr Motoi. Please tell us how you have become part of FC Echigo-Tsumari.

MOTOI: I knew about FC Echigo-Tsumari from the person who engaged with its establishment. I was approached if I would be interested in taking up the Director position at the end of last month and I just visited Echigo-Tsumari for the first time last week. While there are still challenges to make the environment better, I was attracted to local pepole and others who are working in this place and made up my mind after consulting with my family.

――How you became involved with female football in the first place?

MOTOI: I began playing football when I was at the third year in the primary school. Since then, I have been devote myself to football – largely under the influence of my father who also played football. When I was a coaching staff at Omiya Ardija, they entered into business tie-up agreement with a female football team called AS Elfen Sayama FC (currently known as Chifre AS Elfen Sayama FC). It was the time when Nadeshiko Japan won the World Cup and I was appointed as GM for AS Elfen Sayama FC in order to make the team stronger. This was the first time I became involved with female football.

The kick-off meeting held at KINARE (designed by Ryohin Kikaku Co., Ltd) on 24 April 2021. Lots of local people attended the meeting.


MOTOI Atsushi, GM and Director

Chiba Prefecture

After graduating from Juntendo University, he worked as a director at prefectural high schools, a coaching staff at Omiya Ardija from 2005, and GM at AS Elfen Sayama in 2012. He returned to Omiya Ardija in 2013 as a coaching staff of U-12 team and was appointed as a director of Chifre AS Elfen Sayama in 2016. He contributed to the team to be promoted to the division one of Nadeshiko League and became GM in 2018. He took up a director position at Bunnys Kyoto SC in 2019 before being appointed as GM and director of FC Echigo-Tsumari in 2021.

――The victory by Nadeshiko Japan was so moving especially just after the 311. 

MOTOI: I learnt a lot from the Director of Nadeshiko Japan, Mr SASAKI Norio when he was also at Omiya Ardija. As I started to work for the female football, I discovered they were in much harder environment than male football teams – ranging from the conditions of the ground to job opportunities. I found it rewarding to think about how I could be helpful for the players and to face with these challenges. How can a football club contribute to a respective local community and gain local support constitutes a part of the J-league 100-year agenda. Also as I worked on the community building program through entering into comprehensive co-operation agreement with Sayama-city, Hanno-city and Hidaka-city during the time I worked at Elfen, I was quite attracted to activities of Echigo-Tsumari.

Football workshop with local people and artists.

――We were aware of a question of how to make the players’ life sustainable as we set up FC Echigo-Tsumari

MOTOI: Soccer player’s career is not that long. Female players in particular tend to suffer from knee problems. As they are employed by a club as players, most of them becomes not eligible to continue working once they retire as a player.It is not an easy option for them to stay in the community once they retire. This is a common challenge that many of different sports face, in addition to the second career opportunities for players.

――Is there any discovery you have made through your engagement with female football?

MOTOI: I would say everything is a new discovery to me. I may appear to be teaching them but I actually learn a lot. I have no interest in top-town approach and I would like to build the future together through  joining players experiences and my own.

A group photo taken at the kick-off meeting on 24 April 2021

I have been through countless number of challenges but I feel content - almost as much as I would forget those hardship. (Ms ISHIWATA)

―― Let’s talk with two players. Ms ISHIWATA is one of the starting members of FC Echigo-Tsumari. Tell us about how you joined the club? 

ISHIWATA: I belonged to a research group studying about regional clubs when I was at a university and the professor was working in the football industry. I heard from the prof about FC Echigo-Tsumari was going to set up so I visited ETAT2015. I met a local lady who was so kind to me and treated me like a family member even through we just met for the first time. I thought “I would like to become like her when I grew older”. It occurred to me I would be able to play football as well as to become decent person as I encounter these generous local people if I moved here.

――When did you start playing football?

ISHIWATA: I began when I was the third year at primary school but I didn’t play at all during the three years in junior high school. I went to see a game my brother played by chance when I was first year student at high school – which happned to be a legenday game even to the present. It was prefectural elimination tournaments to national tournament. As I watched my brother’s team fighting in spirit against the strong team, I remembered my passion for the football and I joined a club at the second year at high school.

A game played during the Niigata League (Photo by Miho Hoshino)




・Uniform number: 9
・Position: FW
・Year joined: 2016

――What is your view as you look back those five years since you joined the club?

ISHIWATA: It was hard at the beginning as I couldn’t play football as I wished. There were only two of us, I and Ms Ohira, and the project was just launched. However, local people invited us to dinner, brought us vegetables and supported us throughout. I have been through countless number of challenges but I feel content – almost as much as I would forget those hardship. Now we have more team members which enables us to try lots of different trainings. Even the farming which I found it hard at the beginning has become something I would like to take responsibility to maintain rice field that have been looked after by local people with pride. It is hard as the busiest time of football training and farming coincides, I consider such situation from a positive perspective as I can build up my body core in the muddy rice field. I find it wonderful when I see local people who look like in their 60s working on farming even in their 80s.

Ms ISHIWATA (left) and OHIRA (right) who have been with the club since its establishment. They had spent days and weeks as the only two members for a while when they practiced football and worked on farming.

――You got married two years ago. We heard you were proposed in public in the Murono village community centre.

ISHIWATA: He moved to Echigo-Tsumari as a staff member of the community building project as the same time as I moved here. I was introduced to him as a person of the same age and we got along well.

Rice planting event organised for “Matsudai Tanada Bank” (photo by Yoneyama Noriko)

※ OHIRA Rie, Captain of FC Echigo-Tsumari is one of the starting members of FC Echigo-Tsumari who supported the team with ISHIWATA. She is currently undergoing treatment of an injury.

One can play football while also engaging with social issues - I decided to join the club as I was attracted to this unique opportunity presented. (Ms MORI)

――It is your second year now. Tell us what brought you join FC Echigo-Tsumari?

MORI: The coach of the club team I belonged during primary and junior high school time knew the first GM of FC Echigo-Tsumari. I visited Echigo-Tsumari when I was the final year at high school and even before the club was established and I was invited to build the team together. I was torn but decided to go to a university. Echigo-Tsumari had always been in my mind when I was studying sports phychology at university. I decided to join the club as I can play football while also engaging with social issues under the theme “farming and football”. I was attracted to this unique opportunity presented

――Is there anything you found it hard to continue playing football?

MORI: While I was practicing amongst boys during primary and junior high school days, I was fortunate to be surrounded by people who were supportive and encouraging me to do so and I had never had felt let down. If I have to look for a challenge I faced, I would say that the option was limited, in comparison to boys, when I searched for a high school with female football teams.

ISHIWATA: I can’t think about any difficulties neither but I can say that there are more female players than male players who give up playing because of the limited opportunities available. It is also difficult to continue to be football player without understandings and supports by family and team members when you have got important things in your life after marriage.

A game played during the Niigata League (Photo by Miho Hoshino)

――MORI-san had an outstanding year last year soon after you joined the club. The team won the victory in Niigata League by winning all games.

MORI: While it may appear to be a glorious year as we were featured in news papers, it was an outcome of the past five years of continuous hard work by ISHIWATA and OHIRA – who worked on farming everyday and never gave up even they spent periods when they couldn’t play football.  It was not something easily achieved. I felt privileged to be part of the moment – a very moving moment.

――How did you find the farming in the past year?

MORI: I spent five hours on weeding after the football practice. I also had to be pulled out as I couldn’t get out of the mud. I was totally dependent upon older members and I learned what is it to eat and to live. While I would say it was like walking in the dark tunnel, I think it was well worth an experience.

Rice planting

――There is also “art” in Echigo-Tsumari. 

MORI: I have been involved with PR work since the harvest season was over which have given me opportunity to be a tour guide and learn about various artworks. Through these experiences I started to think that there are something profound about art, which is similar to what football has. I thought I wouldn’t be able to comprehend art as I have been in the sports throughout my life so far but I do find art rather interesting recently.

ISHIWATA: Although I never got good mark on art and thus I thought I was not good at art, I have discovered different attraction to art from football as I sat at the receptions of artworks or helped artists create works. I learn from artists, for example, about how they present their works and how they are so pricise about details.

Farming at “The Rice Field” by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov




・Uniform number:11
・Position: FW
・Year joined: 2020

Women Empowerment――the concept of "WE" League already exists in Echigo-Tsumari (Mr MOTOI, GM & Director)

――Can you tell us about what you are aspire to achieve in future?

MOTOI: First of all, I would like to support each player to advance their career as they wish through building trusted relationship. I would like to win games and I want to withdraw strengths and potentials of players so that we could achieve better outcomes.

ISHIWATA: I would like to win a victory at Hokushinetsu Division 2 League. I want to deliver positive outcome for those who can’t join games due to their injuries including OHIRA who had been leading the team to date.

MORI: I would of course aim to win through games and join the upper level tire in the league. At the same time I would like to find the value and reason for doing something here other than just playing football. If you have your unique character and strength, the team will become more interesting and something that have never existed before.

――We have learnt that the new league starting this year, “WE”, stands for Women Empowerment. We find its concept “through female football, WE will contribute to realise and develop a society which encourages diverse dreams and lives and help each member of society shines. 

MOTOI: Various teams are working towards the above mentioned concept. However, I believe it already exists here. While I thought I shouldn’t meet any players before I took up the director position, I was moved by these two players when I met them during my fist visit to Echigo-Tsumari.

FC Echigo-Tsumari brings an innovation to the community. (SAKAGUCHI Senior Director)

――Mr SAKAGUCHI – you join FC Echigo-Tsumari by taking up a newly created position called “Senior Director”. Tell us about how this opportunity came up to you?

SAKAGUCHI: HARA Mitsu, the director of NPO Echigo-Tsumari Satoyama Collaborative Organisation approached me if I could help him find the director. We went to the same junor and senior high schools and I heard about the FC Echigo-Tsumari from him when it was launched. I was always telling him that it sounded very interesting and he should pursue the project. I was also offering I would be happy to help any time if needed.

――How have you engaged with sports as a lawyer?

SAKAGUCHI: I started playing baseball when I was primary school student but gave up at grade 2 of junior high schoool. Since then I had played Karate. After becoming a lawyer, I was searching for a theme for myself and considering what field would grow in future in Japan as well as which of the areas where I could use my expertise. It was then I focused my attention to farming, sports and on mid to small sized companies in the community.  While these may appear to be not outstanding, I thought I could contribute to build foundations in regional cities across Japan for people to live happiliy if I diligently worked on these fields. I had established a corporate which business was farming. It was around that time I was asked to he president of Tokushima Indigo Socks of the Shikoku Island League plus, an independent professional baseball league.

――It must be rather unusual to have such interest in regions amongst your peers.

SAKAGUCHI: I was born and raised in Kanagawa. I never had “countryside” in my life as my mother is from Yokosuka-city and my father is from the central Tokyo. I was always envious about diary of friends who kept journals of their grand parents in regional country side in summer holiday. Countryside was therefore something I dreamt of and always looked great to my eyes. However, I realised that everything was focused in Tokyo and thus regions were becoming valueless when I engaged with corporate laws and business as a lawyer. I realised that it had become a significant issue and there would be no future for Japan unless we engage with these issues.


――Tokushima is known for unique areas such as Kamiyama machi, a home for IT venture companies or Kamikatsu machi known for unique leaves.

SAKAGUCHI: I walked all over the place in Tokushima in order to understand Tokushima. I met Mr YOKOISHI Tomoji who started the leaf business in Kamikatsu-cho. I was impressed by the idea of transforming leaves into business but he told me that “what I did was to give the old people a role to play in the society so that they would understand how they could engaged with the community.” While it was before the word “SDGs” appeared, I was determined to run a baseball team which would contribute to create small in size but decent businesses across Japan, after hearing the story of those old people finding some purposes in their lives in sustainable ways and working together on revitalising the community. I tried to focus on activities that would bring players into the community rather than seeking attentions on their performances on the ground so that their activities outside the ground would be featured in not sports pages but rather in community or economy pages in the news paper.

Athletes are naive and sensitive people. They would not do anything unless they appreciate. Our team had 300 community activities such as harvesting rice and visiting designated facilities for disabled people while only had 90 games to play in a year. Players complained a lot at the beginning but they proactively engaged when they understood the purpose of these activities. I thought it was the responsibility of a person running the team to create such opportunities.

――We can see professional sports put too much priorities on money such as how much annual saraly would be for a player. 

SAKAGUCHI: The independent teams were aspired to form a league like the central or pacific leagues at the beginning. However, you wouldn’t be able to compete if you tried to become like them. We had to generate some profits based upon a completely different value for existence in order to continue. These independent leagues came into existence when it became difficult to sustain the existed model in which a single company sponsored a baseball team – that was only possible when the economy continued to grow. While the baseball struggled, the J-League was building the foundation of operation based upon close relations between teams and respective communities. The establishment of the independent baseball leagues were obviously influenced by the J-League.

――What is your thought on getting involved with female football?

SAKAGUCHI: I am sure I have a decent ability to sympathise with women as I grew up surrounded by female members of family and paid respect to them. However, there exist lots of challenges based upon gender divides in law or sport. I have seen many female athletes who overcame such difficulties and demonstrated their abilities better than male players. The power of female is enormous. Also football is a team sport of eleven players in comparison to baseball which is largely dependent upon ability of each player. I am curious to understand what kind of perspective that football players would have in such circumstance.

FC Echigo-Tsumari’s base at the NUNAGAWA Campus

――What was your impression of Echigo-Tsumari after exploring region? 

SAKAGUCHI: I was truly impressed. I was also made aware that there existed a solid foundation – which has been steadily built through art over twenty years with local people.I wonder how much effort has invested in in order to come this far. Artworks and architectures are more than just being beautiful – they stand there with reality.

――Tell us about your aspiration in future.

SAKAGUCHI: I believe that FC Echigo-Tsumari could bring innovation to the community. I would like to consider a new approach to engage with society through football and propose a way to create alternative set of values to the community. That eventually leads to create an environment for each player to grab happiness with local people. Players are here not just to play football but to seek for their own happiness. I would like to see the landscape beyond what the football could bring. I should probably say “I will try to build WE league” – but anyhow I would like to build the team with everyone involved.


SAKAGUCHI Hiroaki, Senior Director


Graduated from the Faculty of Law at the University of Tokyo. Lawyer (specialised in business revitalisation, M&A and other corporate laws and regulations). In February 2011, he was appointed as the representative of Tokushima Indigo Socks of the Shikoku Island League plus, an independent professional baseball league. After taking up a secretary-general position of the Shikoku Island League plus in January 2016, he continued to have worked as a chairperson of the board directors, president and chairperson. He retired from the chairperson’s position in March 2020 to take up a position of COO at GATHER inc as well as an Executive Advisor to V1 female Hisamitsu Spring. Apart from these experiences, he has also worked as a board member of the Tokushima Educational Committee (August 2013-August 2017) and currently holding a position of a visiting professor at Tokushima University Industry-University R&D Start-up Leading Institute.

Edited By
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