Ben Mabley | English Football Expert, Goal Japan
Even after five years of studying this country as a full-time occupation, and nigh on nine years of actually living here, few things have given me a closer and more intriguing insight into the Japanese national psyche than the way in which Shinji Kagawa’s transfer to and nascent career at Manchester United have been followed.
With the possible exception of a certain former England captain currently warming the bench at Stamford Bridge, the United number 26 is easily the most frequent topic of questions and comments I receive. In the early hours of Sunday morning in Japan, as three expertly-taken finishes against Norwich City made Kagawa the first Asian ever to score a hat-trick in the Premier League, my timeline was awash with delirious celebration and congratulations for the hero of the hour. It was, in the words of several tweeters, "like a dream."
Most notably, these messages came not only from Manchester United supporters or neutral fans of Japanese football in general, but also from those who professed to follow rival clubs – including the suffocated Canaries, Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, and Gamba Osaka (neighbours of Kagawa’s first professional side, Cerezo Osaka).
Although the Team GB athletes and the stories behind their exploits captured the public imagination at last year’s Olympics, it is hard to imagine a similar reaction in my own country, where we tend to be much more stubbornly tribal about the teams we support yet cynical about our individual footballers. As the comedian Bill Bailey once said, "I’m English, and as such I crave disappointment." This mantra resonates much more easily with a nation that finds comfort in self-deprecating irony and nostalgically reminiscences about those glorious nights on which we got beaten on penalties.
|Far beyond the universal joy at treasured Kagawa headlines, the overwhelmingly dominant and most fascinating element of everything I read and hear about the United midfielder is the sheer negativity|
But in terms of our inherently low initial expectations, the island nations of England and Japan may well have another thing in common. For far beyond the universal joy at treasured Kagawa headlines, the overwhelmingly dominant and most fascinating element of everything I read and hear about the United midfielder is the sheer negativity. Everyone seems to genuinely support the 23-year-old, but nobody actually seems to believe he can possibly succeed. Where the British sceptic may
embrace the opportunity to poke fun at one’s own expense, in Japan this appears superimposed with panic; cradling a desire to lament at one’s own folly in daring to dream.
The word yappari doesn’t translate well into English (dictionaries often render it as ‘after all’) but its ability to convey a disappointment we had all secretly expected is surely unsurpassed. Spoken with a sigh and a slouch of the shoulders, it is the starting point for the key questions asked universally, from that timeline on my phone to the offices of the Japanese sports broadcaster at which I work, whenever poor old Shinji gets a 6 out of 10 or fails to make the line-up for a routine away trip to Queens Park Rangers:
"Yappari, is Kagawa just not up to it?"
"Yappari, is it all over for Kagawa?"
From an outsider’s perspective, the baffling part is that all this comes despite nobody outside of Japan – or outside of Asia, at least – is saying the same thing. The worst fears of the most paranoid Japanese followers have simply not been realised.
|Kagawa has yet to become the explosive influence he was at Borussia Dortmund, but England is a harsher environment and United a club at which he must share a wider range of duties|
Yes, barring the Norwich game Kagawa has yet to become the explosive influence he was at Borussia Dortmund, but England is a harsher environment and United a club at which he must share a wider range of duties with a greater number of quality team-mates. Yes, the 23-year-old’s progress was frustratingly halted by that two-month knee injury lay-off in autumn, but his performances have earned the confidence of his most critical observer – Sir Alex Ferguson – to the point that, when fit, he starts the biggest matches. And yes, he gets benched occasionally, but so does Wayne Rooney; while their attacking colleague Javier Hernandez, for example, is slightly older than the Japanese and into his third season with the club yet has started five fewer league games so far this term despite always being fit.
Sorry to disappoint, but Kagawa has not been a disappointment.
The fact is that this player’s elevation to the highest global stages is the natural product of the astonishing, unprecedented development of Japanese football in the two decades since its professional rebirth. The J-League did not just settle for glitzy mascots and glamorous pixies; it realised the fundamental importance of grass roots and successfully implanted football as an omnipresence within a popular culture and wider society where, by European standards, it may as well not have existed before 1993. Though the rate of progression has been remarkable, it is no coincidence that Kagawa – and his various national team peers in the Bundesliga and elsewhere – represent the first generation to have grown up with football as part of everyday Japanese life since before they started primary school.
United signing Kagawa was undeniably a huge milestone for Japanese football, but from an English perspective, it was a logical next step for a much-coveted player who had proven his potential in Germany. He may or may not grow into a true global star. But in either eventuality, there will be others. Japanese football fans now have the right to expect their heroes to do well.
Ben Mabley contributes to Goal Japan and is seen regularly on Japan's JSports where he analyses the Premier League. He can be found on Twitter at @BenMabley