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As Japan's professional league enters its third decade, here's all you need to know about the upcoming season of football in the Land of the Rising Sun

ANALYSIS
By Dan Orlowitz

THE 2013 J-LEAGUE
The J-League, Japan's top footballing competition, consists of two divisions totalling 40 clubs. The league first launched in 1993 with 10 founding members, expanding to its current size of 18 clubs in 2005. The top flight will celebrate its 20th birthday (the age of adulthood in Japan) on May 15th, an auspicious occasion. The second division began in 1999 and has expanded to a current line-up of 22 clubs.

J1, the top flight, has recently become known for its wide-open competition with four different clubs having won the last four seasons. While Japan regularly sends four clubs to compete in the Asian Champions League, the country has experienced a continental title drought since since Gamba Osaka won in 2008.

In addition to the league, first-division teams will contest the J-League Cup from March through early November. The Emperor's Cup, open to all of Japan's professional, amateur, and scholastic clubs, takes place in the latter half of the year and concludes on New Year's Day.

TEAMS TO WATCH
Defending champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima seized their first J1 title last season after a full year of running neck-and-neck with eventual runners-up Vegalta Sendai, and aside from the departure of defender Ryota Moriwaki have seen few changes to their roster. Led by league MVP and Golden Boot winner Sato Hisato, they are as famous for their sometimes-elaborate post-goal celebrations as they are for their attractive brand of attacking football.

2006 league champions Urawa Reds, who also won the 2007 ACL, were perhaps the most ambitious club in terms of off-season acquisitions. In addition to Moriwaki, the Reds picked up Vegalta midfielder Kunimitsu Sekiguchi and Kashima Antlers striker Shinzo Kuroki.

Antlers, who won three straight league titles between 2007 and 2009, will themselves be looking to improve on their recent league form despite having won the last two J-League Cups. They'll be manager this year by Toninho Cerezo, who in his first stint at the Ibaraki outfit claimed a rare treble.

One team that casual observers will be surprised to see missing from the table are Gamba Osaka, who made their splash on the global stage in 2008 by placing third in the Fifa Club World Cup. The Yasuhito Endo-led outfit were relegated after ending last season in 17th place, and are heavy favourites to capture the J2 and make a swift return to J1. Visitors to the western city will still have a chance to catch a top-flight team as rivals Cerezo managed to avoid the drop.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

With a departure for Europe becoming all but expected for Japan's Under-23 players, this year the focus could be on players born in 1990 and 1991. Antlers' Yuya Osako, Cerezo's Yochiro Kakitani and Takahiro Ogihara, FC Tokyo's Keigo Higashi, and  are among the potential Samurai who could travel west during the summer break.

English fans will surely keep a close eye on Hideki Ishige, the 2011 Asian Young Player of the Year who this winter trained with Manchester City and was rumoured to be undergoing a trial. The 18-year-old midfielder did not score in 12 appearances last year, but the club has expressed its confidence in the starlet by awarding him the  No. 8 shirt.

This year's J-League will offer a distinctly Korean flavour as well, with 53 South Korean players participating in the competition. With nearly half of South Korea’s bronze-winning Olympic team having played in Japan, the league can be said to be producing young Korean talent as readily as it prepares the next generation of Japanese stars.

MATCHES TO WATCH
Though the loss of Gamba Osaka and Vissel Kobe to the second division means that only Cerezo remain in the Kansai region, there are plenty of exciting rivalries to look out for in 2013. Oita Trinita and Sagan Tosu will contest the J1's first Kyushu Derby in seven years, while Shonan Bellmare’s promotion has created a three-way Kanagawa Derby between themselves, Marinos, and Kawasaki Frontale. Football fans visiting Japan should look out for any matches between two of the J-League founding clubs (Marinos, Cerezo, Reds, Antlers, Grampus, Sanfecce, and S-Pulse) as there will undoubtedly be plenty of special events in celebration of J’s ‘coming of age’ year.

The summer break will provide plenty of fireworks as well. After several years of being shunned in favour of other Asian countries, Japan will again host some big summer friendlies as Shinji Kagawa's Manchester United come to play against his former club Cerezo as well as Yokohama F. Marinos. With clubs such as Arsenal and Inter reportedly considering their own Japan tour, fans may have plenty of chances to see how the J-League stacks up against the world's best.

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