• Joe Donnohue

The Young Samurai: A Japanese Youth Revolution in Europe

At 8:33pm on January 23, 2020, Liverpool’s Takumi Minamino became only the ninth Japanese player to make a Premier League appearance. The former FC Red Bull Salzburg attacker became one of two current Premier League players hailing from Japan – the other being Yoshinori Mutō of Newcastle United. For a country of roughly 125 million people, their representation in the widely-heralded ‘global’ Premier League is decidedly minuscule.

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It is a trend seen across Europe’s elite leagues. There are two current Japanese players in Serie A, two in Ligue 1, and, you guessed it, two in La Liga. Only in Germany has the trend been somewhat bucked over the past decade, but, even still, the Bundesliga only lays claim to four at present.

That can be partly attributed to the greater sense of community involved in the running of German clubs – something Asian football expert Tomas Danicek says is important to Japanese players. “It’s not hard to understand Takashi Usami choosing to go twice to [Fortuna] Düsseldorf, home to the third-biggest Japanese diaspora in Europe. Or Makoto Hasebe choosing to settle at the famously metropolitan, culturally-diverse and open Frankfurt, where Takashi Inui also made his name”

In contrast to Europe’s top five leagues, there were – before Minamino’s transfer – three Japanese players active in the 12-team Austrian Bundesliga, five in Portugal’s Primeira Liga, six in the Dutch Eredivisie, and 12 in the Belgian Pro League this season. Why then are there so few Japanese players in top level football? Well, the answer may be quite simple: are they just not good enough? That is one school of thought, but it does not tally with the performance of the national team; three Round of 16 finishes at the FIFA World Cup since the turn of the millennium, having featured at all six.

It is instead perhaps that the opinion of Japanese players among Europe’s elite is that they are the willing understudies to the typically European and South American protagonists. Danicek calls it an “empty stereotype” but there does appear to be at least some credence behind the assumption that Japanese players are a side’s water-carrier. Even with Salzburg this season, Minamino played second fiddle to the Norwegian Erling Braut Haaland; physically imposing, outrageously talented and perceived as a cheeky, outspoken character. Shinji Okazaki – widely regarded as a pivotal part of Leicester City’s title-winning campaign – was seen exclusively by English pundits as a cog in Claudio Ranieri’s machine. N’Golo Kanté, arguably the most cog-like player in that squad and the wind-me-up-and-watch-me-go Jamie Vardy, were glorified for their individuality, rather than their disciplined machination.

Japanese players’ humility has long since been something they have been applauded for, none less so than Minamino. Lee Wingate – a British journalist based in Austria – described 25-year-old Minamino as a player with a “good mentality, hard-working spirit, with no complaints”. Wingate labelled Minamino as the perfect player for Red Bull Salzburg, where he played under six coaches in five years, because of his mental resilience to mould himself to the whims of each. This is a sentiment echoed by Danicek, as well as a number of Japanese players themselves. Former Schalke 04 defender, Atsuto Uchida, described his countrymen as setting themselves apart by having a strong sense of discipline and self-restraint. While Minamino may, according to Wingate, be a “credit to his personal attributes due to his humility and hard-working attitude,” it is his on-pitch talent which has ultimately earned him his big move – he stresses this should not be lost in the discourse.

Minamino is a player with dynamism in abundance, industrious at linking midfield and attack, and the ability to turn a game in his favour. The same can be said of Take Kubo and Ritsu Dōan – the former on loan at Real Mallorca from Real Madrid, the latter with PSV Eindhoven after establishing himself at FC Groningen. Minamino, Kubo and Doan are all under-25 and somewhat working to dispel the presumptions surrounding Japanese players.

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At Kubo’s former club, FC Tokyo, the 18-year-old – who recently became the youngest Japanese player to score in Europe’s top-five leagues – attracted a full house at the club’s stadium to bid him farewell. This is something which Danicek stresses is an integral part of Japanese footballing culture. “Football is a family sport entrenched in the community” he says, adding “J-League law-makers even went as far as making it a club’s obligation to support the local community and organise activities in the area”. The fandom surrounding domestic Japanese football is evident.

Kubo has become a poster boy for Japanese football; the first Japanese player to be signed by Real Madrid or Barcelona – and at the tender age of 18 no less, even if his time in La Masia was cut short some years ago by FIFA's ruling on Barcelona's illegal recruitment of teenage talent. While there have been Japanese poster boys in the past: Shinji Kagawa, Shunsuke Nakamura and Hidetoshi Nakata spring to mind, their peak years in Europe did not overlap. The current trio of Minamino, Kubo and Dōan promise a new age of great Japanese players simultaneously playing at the top level. But they are not alone – in fact, they have competition.

Shoya Nakajima, currently at Portuguese giants FC Porto, is another dismissing the notion that Japanese players can’t quite cut it at top clubs. A loan to Portimonense from FC Tokyo in 2017/18 yielded ten goals in 29 Primeira Liga appearances, earning him a permanent move, quickly followed by a somewhat suspect sale to Porto, via an odd stint at Al-Duhail in Qatar. Nakajima is another exciting playmaker with quick feet, great control and sharp penalty-box movement. Not only that, he is crucially aged just 25.

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But a team is not made up of three or four players, and that is why it is all the more encouraging that Japan have a swathe of promising under-23s spread across Europe. Yukinari Sugawara is one, having an excellent campaign with an excellent AZ Alkmaar side. An attacking full-back with bags of personality in his play, Sugawara is far from AZ’s water-carrier. Also in the Netherlands is PEC Zwolle’s Yuta Nakayama, himself only four years older than 19-year-old Sugawara.

Salzburg may be one Japanese player poorer, but they retain another in 23-year-old Masaya Okugawa. Directly involved in 13 Austrian Bundesliga goals in less than 900 minutes this season, he is another who, while flying under the radar, is posting encouraging numbers. SK Rapid Vienna’s Koya Kitagawa, described by The Other Bundesliga’s Lee Wingate as a player with “similar dynamism who can spark an attack into life," is yet another who was – prior to an ankle ligament injury – making all the right noises, particularly in big games.

Similarly, Takehiro Tomiyasu has featured in 75 percent of Bologna’s Serie A minutes at right-back and centre-back, following on from an impressive showing at the 2019 Asian Cup. With every week he appears to be growing into his role in his new side, his best to date coming just before the winter break in a 2-1 victory over high-flying Atalanta. He joined the Serie A elite from Sint-Truidense in Belgium, where there are currently 12 Japanese players playing in the league, which itself is an excellent pathway to Europe’s bigger leagues.

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Sint-Truidense hosted another Japanese national at the side’s Stayen arena throughout the 2018/19 campaign. Daichi Kamada netted 15 goals while on loan from Eintracht Frankfurt. Having returned to Germany this past summer, Kamada has embedded himself into Eintracht's first-team and become increasingly important, particularly in the Europa League. The 23-year-old scored twice in a 2-1 victory over Arsenal and, most recently, registered a hat-trick against Red Bull Salzburg in the knockouts to become only the second Japanese player to score a hat-trick in European competition. The first, you ask? A certain Takumi Minamino, playing for Red Bull Salzburg in 2018.

While Liverpool’s new number 18 will take on the role of understudy, it is perhaps time we abstain from the stereotype that Japanese players cannot be the protagonists for their respective sides. This changing of opinion may come about gradually, or be forced by the nimble trickery of Take Kubo, the final third prowess of Ritsu Dōan, or the unconventional but enthusiastic attacking gusto of AZ’s Yukinari Sugawara.

Aside from the semantics of how Japanese players are regarded in Europe, the facts are thus: they have a promising crop of young players playing regular football at a high level. It is sometimes forgotten but the domestic profile of the sport is sizeable to match. The J-League’s average attendance is just 5,000 short of Serie A as well as being greater than half of Ligue 1’s sides’ weekly turnout.

There is an appetite for a successful Japanese team and, while it is Minamino’s move that hit the headlines, it is the understudies – the next Minamino – who will come to the fore sooner rather than later.

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