- Hasebe breaks Bundesliga record for a Japanese player.
- Japanese stars playing a big role at several top-flight clubs.
- Okudera led the way in the 1970s.
The Japanese love affair with the Bundesliga began back in the 1970s, when Yasuhiko Okudera caught the eye of legendary Cologne manager Hennes Weisweiler. The young midfielder was offered a contract and made his debut for the Billy Goats in October 1977, becoming Japan's first professional player in Europe. He went on to help Cologne land a Bundesliga and DFB Cup double in his very first season – and the rest is history...
Okudera blazed a trail for future generations of Japanese footballers in Europe, and his legacy stretches right through to the present day – his compatriot Shinji Kagawa is a fan favourite at giants Borussia Dortmund, while Eintracht Frankfurt's Makoto Hasebe has just broken Okudera's record for Bundesliga appearances made by a Japanese player.
In honour of that achievement, bundesliga.com runs the rule over the other Japanese players currently lighting up the German top flight...
Watch: Hasebe puts the team first after breaking Okudera's record for Bundesliga appearances by a Japanese player:
The captain of the Japan national side has started all but three of the Eagles' games this season, either as a defensive midfielder or a central defender, and has helped them to stay remarkably solid at the back. Frankfurt have conceded just 24 goals in 23 Bundesliga games, a tally bettered only by champions and league leaders Bayern Munich (13).
As well as winning over half of his tackles and challenges, Hasebe boasts an 83 per cent pass completion rate, and his calming influence has been invaluable as the Eagles have soared to sixth place in the table. A natural leader, he has also won over 100 caps for Japan, who currently sit joint-top of their 2018 FIFA World Cup group with Saudi Arabia. Hasebe broke the record for a Japanese player of 234 Bundesliga appearances set by Okudera on Saturday, earning his 235th in Sunday's 2-1 loss to Freiburg.
Hertha are also enjoying a superb campaign, and Haraguchi has been a regular fixture on the wing, starting 18 of their 23 encounters so far. That is even more impressive given the number of air miles he has clocked up on international duty for the Samurai Blue. Since September, Haraguchi has travelled over 70,000 kilometres – twice around the world – scoring in each of Japan's last four World Cup qualifiers.
Nevertheless, he is always one of the first names on Pal Dardai's teamsheet. In the Bundesliga, only five outfield players have played more minutes for Hertha than Haraguchi, whose pace is one of the Old Lady's most dangerous assets. Having missed only one Bundesliga game in 2016/17, he will now be looking to keep his side in the hunt for a place in Europe next season.
Watch: Check out Osako's equaliser against RB Leipzig on Matchday 5:
Following in the footsteps of Okudera, Osako has been a key figure for Cologne this season, as the Billy Goats have also mounted an assault on the European places. The 26-year-old has formed an eye-catching partnership with Anthony Modeste, who is keeping Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Robert Lewandowski on their toes at the top of the Bundesliga scoring charts.
Osako scored in successive games against FC Schalke 04 and RB Leipzig, as well as setting up both of Modeste's goals in the recent 2-1 win over Ingolstadt. He has also created no fewer than 63 scoring chances, an average of around three per game.
Sakai's importance to Hamburg was underlined in mid-November, when coach Markus Gisdol promoted him to club captain. It coincided with a remarkable upturn in HSV's fortunes – they played out encouraging draws with TSG 1899 Hoffenheim and Nordderby rivals SV Werder Bremen, before claiming their first wins of the campaign against SV Darmstadt 98 and FC Augsburg.
The 25-year-old has also been repositioned, moving from right-back to the right side of defensive midfield in Hamburg's 4-2-3-1 formation. In this more central role, the former VfB Stuttgart man is able to exert greater influence on the game, and HSV will be hoping to reap the benefits. While they are still very much in the thick of the relegation battle, down in 16th, recent performances suggest that the club still have what it takes to turn their season around.
Kagawa – like his compatriots Yoshinori Muto (1. FSV Mainz 05), Takashi Usami (FC Augsburg) and Atsuto Uchida (FC Schalke 04) – has been hampered by injury this season, but he remains one of the most iconic players in the Bundesliga. Arguably the most gifted Japanese player of his generation, Kagawa has notched up 35 goals and 29 assists in 117 Bundesliga appearances for Die Schwarzgelben, and played a starring role as they won back-to-back league titles in 2011 and 2012.
The 2016 Bundesliga Idol finalist will now be determined to recover his former consistency and lend greater strength to Dortmund's already formidable attack. And he and his fellow compatriots will no doubt continue to light up the Bundesliga for generations to come.