With Werder Bremen forward Yuya Osako and Hannover 96 duo Takuma Asano and Genki Haraguchi taking Japan into the final of the 2018 Asia Cup thanks to a 3-0 win over Iran, bundesliga.com hails the greatest Samurai Blue trio to ply their trade in the Bundesliga: Shinji Kagawa, Makoto Hasebe and Yasuhiko Okudera.
Okudera, a Japanese footballing pioneer
Japanese football took on a very different complexion back in the late 1970s compared to the regional behemoth it is now. A fledgling, non-professional national team was fed into by the Japan Soccer League made up entirely of amateur teams and amateur players. The entire landscape of Japanese football and its perception would change in 1977, however, when then Japan national team manager Hiroshi Ninomiya arranged for members of his touring side to train with clubs across Germany.
The slight 5’9” frame of 25-year-old Okudera rocked up in Cologne and, before long, the midfielder was offered a contract by legendary Billy Goats coach Hennes Weisweiler. With the approval of the Japan FA, his family, and employers Furukawa Electronics - not before they promised him his old job when he inevitably returned with proverbial tail between proverbial legs - Okudera signed off on the deal. It made him the first professional Japanese player in history, and the first of his countrymen to feature abroad.
Early signs suggested a return to the electrical company may manifest sooner rather than later but Okudera would ensure his future lied in football by becoming an integral part of one of Cologne’s greatest ever sides. Having eventually found his feet, Okudera helped the club to their third - and most recent - Bundesliga title in his first season and completed the double by retaining the DFB Cup. Spells at Hertha Berlin and Werder Bremen would follow, as would a total of 234 Bundesliga appearances for a man rightly regarded as a trailblazer for both his native and adopted countries that paved the way for so many players to follow in his footsteps.
Hasebe: a versatile captain
A former Japan captain, Hasebe became the next Nippon star to clinch a Bundesliga title when he helped an unfancied Wolfsburg to the title in 2009 as their first ever Japanese recruit. The defensive midfielder fit the mould their coach Felix Magath wanted in his title masterplan: a man with outstanding positional play, able to sweep up in front of the defence and distribute the balls right, left and centre. His vision and understanding of the game helped him remain a step ahead, and the Wolves had Hasebe to thank for helping feed hungry forwards Edin Dzeko and Grafite on their way to glory.
An Asian Cup winner in 2011, Hasebe would not have been out of place in their 2019 title-seeking team either, had he not already pulled the curtain on his international career after 114 caps and over a decade of service for his country. Retiring after the 2018 FIFA World Cup allowed him to focus on prolonging his professional career at Eintracht Frankfurt. "It does me good to be able to put my feet up and have time to go for walks with my family," said Hasebe after his first international break spent in his second home of Germany.
Even at the age of 34, Hasebe was earning accolades – and not just the DFB Cup he won with the Eagles in May 2018. He was also named by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) as their International Footballer of the Year in 2018. Now 35, recognition of his performances – now more often deployed further back, at the heart of a three-man defence – continues. "He just knows what he's doing," said Frankfurt goalkeeper Kevin Trapp, who feels safer in the knowledge Hasebe will clean up in front of him, as his country's culture dictates. And if Trapp were unable to play, he could rely on Hasebe to wear his gloves, as he did for Wolfsburg for 15 minutes in 2011, becoming the first Japanese 'goalkeeper' in the Bundesliga as a stand-in for the sent-off Marwin Hitz.
Kagawa, the Japanese record-breaker
Possibly one of the most famous – if not the greatest – Japanese players of his generation, Shinji Kagawa’s two stints with Borussia Dortmund have seen him register 148 appearances, 41 goals and 37 assists, as well as pick up two Bundesliga titles and a brace of DFB Cups. Few would have predicted such success when he arrived as a 21-year-old recruit – the fourth and final signing then coach Jürgen Klopp made in the 2010 close season. He was certainly anything but an afterthought though, having caught the eye with 27 goals for Cerezo Osaka in the previous J-League campaign.
He underlined his eye for goal with eight goals in 18 games before injury curtailed his first season, and he added a further 13 in his second season. Two of them came in Dortmund's DFB Cup final win over Bayern Munich to complete a domestic double, and tempted Manchester United into making an offer BVB could not refuse. His absence from the Bundesliga was not long, though, and he returned to what was a happy hunting ground just two years later. "BVB is like a family. I am proud that they did not forget me and that I can belong to it once more," he said.
In his second spell, he cemented his status as one of the finest ever Japanese imports, becoming the most prolific goalscorer from the land of the rising sun in the Bundesliga – including plenty of memorable strikes. While the sun may soon be setting on his own career, he will be remembered as "one of Dortmund's most worthy players" in the words of the Westphalian club's director of sport Michael Zorc.
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