Six Japanese stars could herald a new era for Japanese players on the continent.It’s hard to imagine the likes of Shinji Kagawa, Makoto Hasebe or Atsuto Uchida ever having the impact on Japanese football that Yasuhiko Okudera did over three decades ago.
The first player from his country to ever play top-flight football in Europe, the first Asian to ever score in the European Cup and a key figure in the professionalization of football upon his return home.
Hidetoshi Nakata might be able to boast being a fashion icon, having a website that can draw 15 million hits in a single day and playing a key part in Roma’s scudetto win in the 2000/01 season but the fact remains that Okudera is the pioneer when it comes to Japanese players abroad.
He also managed to bag himself a Bundesliga title for good measure.
Yet the combined legacy of Okudera and Nakata is being carried out by the aforementioned trio plying their trade in the Bundesliga, along with a number of other rising stars and fellow countrymen who are flying the Hinomaru in what is a remarkably successful time for Japanese players in Europe.
Keisuke Honda, Takayuki Morimoto and Yuto Nagatomo of CSKA Moscow, Catania and Cesena respectively can genuinely call themselves key figures at their clubs and in their leagues.
These six individuals are enjoying combined success that has been unmatched in recent history by Japanese players.
Italy is a notoriously unforgiving place for foreigners unable to adapt to its unique environment both on and off the pitch but Yuto Nagatomo has won plaudits already this season after turning in some outstanding performances for Serie A upstarts Cesena.
It’s been the perfect match for the on-loan FC Tokyo man, who has replicated his characteristic lung-bursting performances at full back for the Japanese national team on the domestic stage. His speed, energy and ability to balance defensive and attacking responsibilities have endeared him to fans and the Italian media already, with a move to a big-name club on the cards even at such an early stage.
When a striker is compared to former Brazil international Ronaldo – we’ll assume it’s a pre-overweight version of the World Cup-winner – it’s certainly a wonderful compliment and it’s a comparison that’s been made by Alexandre Pato, regarding young striker Takayuki Morimoto.
Whilst such claims instantly seem a little exaggerated, they are still reflective of the impact the 22 year-old has already had in four years in Italy, where a breakthrough 2008/09 season confirmed his talents.
Nailing down a first-team place has been difficult for the former Tokyo Verdy man, who was unfortunate to lose his spot to the in-form Maxi Lopez during the second half of last season but he is still rated highly in Italy and appears to have a bright future ahead of him.
Taking Europe By Storm
|5||The number of goals scored by Japanese players in Europe thus far this season.
|27||The number of starts made by Japanese players.
|16||The number of starts made by Keisuke Honda this Russian Premier League campaign.
|3||The number of Bundesliga goals scored by Kagawa in four games.
|8||The number of Japan's World Cup squad playing in Europe.
|23||The average age of the six Japanese players in this article.
|0||The number of professional Japanese players in Europe before Yasuhiko Okudera.|
Effectively in his debut season for CSKA Moscow, Keisuke Honda similarly seems to have the world at his feet, particularly after catching the attention of the watching world in South Africa.
His performances at the World Cup confirmed that he is indeed a player suited to the big stage, having starred for his new club in the UEFA Champions League, a stunning free kick away against Sevilla in last season’s installment of the competition the stuff of folk-lore.
Nick-named the ‘Asian sensation’ in his new home after impressing hugely since his arrival, Honda has been forced into a deeper lying role this season than the one he took up so naturally with Japan, though that hasn’t seen his considerable influence at the club wane.
Despite his relative youth he is already acting as a role model for younger players such as Pavel Mamayev, while on the pitch he scored crucial goals at the beginning of the season, including a stoppage-time winner on his debut.
Undoubtedly, though, the Japanese player who has made the most noticeable impact in Europe during the embryonic stages of the season has been Shinji Kagawa.
"I'm just really having fun right now," Kagawa said. "I don't think we could have asked for a better result."
Such a comment underlines the vibrancy of the 21 year-old who has had an immediate impact for Borussia Dortmund, netting a double in the 3-1 derby victory over Schalke, as he told media he was aiming to do before the match.
Praise has understandably been lavished on Kagawa after that performance and whilst he will face a fight to retain his starting spot during the season due to the sheer fact that he was one of the least hyped summer signings at the club, there is no doubt he has the mental fortitude and raw ability to have a big impact in the Bundesliga this season.
His fellow countryman Atsuto Uchida has had a rather more difficult introduction to German football with troubled Schalke, having picked up an injury on international duty that could see him sidelined for some time.
Uchida is another like Nagatomo before him who boasts energy and attacking endeavour, while Wolfsburg midfielder Makoto Hasebe appears to have won back his starting place under Steve McClaren, though it’s difficult to see him hitting the same heights that he did when he played a key role in the club lifting the league title in 2009.
Whilst it’s a little premature to be making predictions about the success of Japanese players on the continent this season, there certainly exists the talent and temperament for an unprecedented era of success abroad to begin.
Counting discipline, mobility, skill and work-rate amongst their inherent strengths, it’s easy to see why Japanese players are suddenly proving a hit with big European suitors, often representing bargain buys at cut prices.
And if Nagatomo and co. can keep up their promising early-season form then you can be sure they won’t be the last to honour the legacy of Yasuhiko Okudera, with a steady stream of talent in the J-League awaiting the next eager buyer.