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I’m Becoming Increasingly Obsessed With Fake Japanese Football Shirts

Is it even a fake anymore if it's not copying the real thing?

Some personal news: in my spare time, away from the keyboard, I collect football shirts. (You might also know them as "soccer jerseys".) I've been doing it since the 90s, and by now have what I think is a pretty nice collection! I've got shirts from England, Italy, France, Spain, The Netherlands, Australia, the works–but recently I've started seeing kits appear online that are unlike anything I've ever seen before.

As a collector who buys most of my shirts online, I've sadly had to become something of an expert in spotting fakes, especially when shopping on places like eBay, Facebook and Depop. And when I say expert I mean it; where fake football shirts used to be sold at shifty markets and looked nothing like the actual thing, in 2024 Chinese factories have become so good at replicating Nike and Adidas' shirts that in some cases you have to get real close to tell an official $150 shirt from a bootleg $20 one.

My favourite pick-up this season by FAR is Roma's 23-24 third shirt, which instead of featuring a sponsor (they didn't have one at the time) had SPQR (Senatus PopulusQue Romanus), essentially the forum sig of the Roman Empire, emblazoned across the front instead.

On one hand, this sucks. These shirts are counterfeits, and despite looking like the real thing don't feel or fit like the real thing, and often have nowhere near the durability of an official shirt either (though that's not always the case). So if I'm out here trying to find bargains to add to my actual collection, it's tough! On the other hand, football shirts are being released at increasingly extortionate pricepoints, especially when you consider they're replaced every 12 (for club sides) or 24 (for international sides) months by new designs. So you can't blame people, especially parents, for opting for the cheaper fakes, regardless of their legality. If I wasn't a collector I'd probably get the $20 shirt too!

For as long as I've been researching them, the entire point of fake football shirts was that they were trying to look as close to the real thing as possible. But over the last few years I've seen a new trend emerge, where the factories releasing these kits have become slightly less interested in recreating official matchday apparel, and have started dabbling in more original designs. And nearly all that dabbling revolves around a single team: Japan.

I use the word "original" loosely, of course. Nearly everything I'm going to talk about here involves stealing multiple types of intellectual property, or lifting designs made by fans online without accreditation or compensation. But the fact remains that, if you were looking to buy a fake football shirt for, say, England or Italy, you'd be presented with a limited selection of counterfeits copying those teams’ actual kits. And if you went looking for a Japanese shirt, you'd be shown dozens of designs, most of them not even remotely close to what the Blue Samurai wear when they take the field.

Another recent highlight: this Hayley Raso shirt from the 2023 World Cup, which I managed to get match-printed to commemorate the longest penalty shootout in tournament history.

Why Japan and Japan only? I don't know! I have theories, though. People who design football shirts on the internet are weirdos, and I imagine that there's a lot of anime and manga overlap there (this isn't me being judgmental, you'll see what I mean when you start seeing some of these designs). And these shirts are made in China where, like many places in the West, Japanese fashion has a certain cache, especially among football fans; wearing a Japanese football shirt is just cooler than wearing a Chinese one, especially since the former are really good right now, and the latter are absolute dogshit.

Whatever the reason, the sheer scale of designs and options being produced right now blows my mind. I'm fascinated. Every time I check in on one of these shady sites there are new Japan jerseys in stock, all of them completely fictional, to the point where I wonder how much of the lucrative bootleg shirt industry is now being devoted to kits that aren't even proper bootlegs anymore.

Loads of them are trashy, some of them are so generic they border on racism, but among them are also some very cool designs that I wouldn't blame anyone for buying and wearing just because they looked so good. I've seen some of these in the flesh, in Australia, so there's definitely a market for these outside of China!

Before I start showing off some of the best and worst examples of what I'm talking about, here are what Adidas' actual, official men's shirts look like (these are about to be replaced in the next month or two with new designs):

Note the "templates" used--which means stuff like the cut and collar, items which are shared with other Adidas kits around the world--because some of these bootleg shirts will use them, in the interests of maintaining some semblance of authenticity, while others just will not give a fuck and toss an Adidas and JFA logo on any old shirt.

Like these. I am going to lead with the worst, because we need to eat our vegetables before we get to dessert. These shirts represent a vision of Japan as seen through the lens of 1980's action movies and European kids who import Mitsubishis and cover them with decals using Kanji that doesn't even spell anything:

The next ones are also bad, but for a different reason. They're not as lazily offensive as the examples above, but they're still incredibly cheesy. These ones are Japan as told by the box art for an aftermarket graphics card, or the screensaver of a guy who makes a lot of videos about how to get mods working:

Now let's move onto a different type of terrible. I think these all stink visually, but if you're someone who is into Dragon Ball, Crayon Shin-Chan, Saint Saya or Doraemon, while also being into Japanese football, then boy do I have the shirts for you:

I should note before we move on that the idea of combining the Japanese men's national team with anime/manga isn't new, which perhaps explains why there's a streak of popular culture tribute running through so many of these fakes. Adidas and the JFA have done a few official Captain Tsubasa collabs before, most notably in the leadup to the last few World Cups, featuring stuff like merchandise runs and even official kits that replaced Adidas' font with a special Captain Tsubasa numbering.

Anyway, now we move onto the third and final category of bizarre fakes: the ones I do not hate, and have indeed either seen in the flesh or been told by someone that they'd bought one and loved it:

I don't know the source material here, but the way the comic is patterned across the shirt is really effective, and the Famicom-ass colour scheme is also a winner.
This one might be my favourite? The Great Wave off Kanagawa riff is maybe a bit corny, but the colouring is glorious, and I love the reimagined JFA (Japanese Football Association) badge. If the pattern was a bit more subtle--maybe reduced to more of a background feature than an all-over print--and you told me this was a limited edition third kit or training shirt I would 100% believe you.

Thank you for joining me on this tour of the depths of my wheelhouse! Don't bother asking where I got these images from; most of these kinda sites are only open for a few months before the authorities catch wind and shut them down, when whoever is running them promptly starts up a whole new site selling the exact same stuff all over again. But if you ever see any of them turn up on resale sites--and I saw the "Tokyo" shirt just last week on Depop!--you at least now know where they come from, and what the deal is.

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