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The Japanese pioneer for women’s referees: Yamashita inspires a country and a continent at Qatar 2022

For the first time in history, six women were selected to the referee team for an edition of a FIFA World Cup, with French referee Stephanie Frappart, becoming the first woman to whistle a match in the competition, when Germany beat Costa Rica, 4-2.

Yet not only Frappart is the only one to write history, as all the other five referees selected for the tournament have their own stories and own backgrounds. And for while the FIFA World Cup is organized for the second time in Asia, Japan’s Yoshimi Yamashita became the first Asian woman to be nominated as a referee for the competition.

Born in Tokyo, Japan’s largest city, the 36-year-old Yamashita has a unique story, becoming a true trailblazer in Asian football. She first was a player, featuring in this capacity in her younger years before switching to officiating at the suggestion of veteran referee Bōzono Makoto.

“The goal is to get to the point where it’s not a big deal that a woman is refereeing a men’s match, but at this stage, I’m happy this is making a splash,” Yamashita said before travelling to Qatar to feature at the FIFA World Cup.

“For us, women, to participate in the men’s World Cup for the first time is truly sending a message that there are more possibilities for women in the future.

Her ascension has been somewhat astounding, as Japan has been making huge inroads to make football more accessible to women and more inclusive.

Yamashita was definitely the best female referee in Japan and her international rise to stardom started in 2016 when she officiated in the 2016 and 2017 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cups. Three years later, her stock rose once again, as she was a referee in the FIFA Women’s World Cup. With excellent games, her stock started to rise and was named as a referee in the home Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

But 2022 has really been the best year of her professional life, as Yamashita wrote history both in Japan and in Asia. After having previously featured in the second and third Japanese leagues, the referee had the honour to lead the game between Melbourne City and Chunnam Dragons in April, in the AFC Champions League, the first-ever woman to referee a match at this level.

Five months later, in September, she also became the first woman to whistle a game in the J1 League, the Japanese first league, taking charge of FC Tokyo’s win against Kyoto Sanga. One month later, Yamashita also had a very good performance in the game between Urawa Reds and Sagan Tosu, won by the hosts, 2-1.

“I’m really conscious of the speed, I make split-second decisions. I have to continue training that muscle as the World Cup draws closer and be prepared to adjust to speedy developments. I have been inspired by each and every referee, and they all have qualities I’d like to have,” added Yamashita.

She has already served twice at the 2022 FIFA World Cup as a reserve referee, in high-profile matches, like Belgium vs Canada and England vs Wales, and has been touted as a “pioneer” in her home country.

“I am usually in charge of officiating matches in the J.League, [and] I am the only woman to do so at the moment.  But I am approaching each match with the hope to make it a regular occurrence to have female referees officiate men’s matches at the professional level. Last year, a professional women’s football league [WE League] was established in Japan. “I would like to do my best to make football a driving force for the success of women in the world of sports,” said the 36-year-old referee.

Describing herself as 1% nervous and 99% excited for the FIFA World Cup, Yamashita truly became an inspirational force both for females in Japan and in the whole of Asia.

“There are barely any female referees in the Middle East, and it would be wonderful to see even just one more female referee after the World Cup,” she concluded.

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