The Bundesliga has been a home away from home for some of Japan's most talented footballers. - © /
The Bundesliga has been a home away from home for some of Japan's most talented footballers. - © /

Why Japan and the Bundesliga are a perfect match


From original trailblazer Yasuhiko Okudera in the 1970s to Shinji Kagawa and Makoto Hasebe in more recent times, Japanese players have repeatedly excelled in Germany. With the likes of Masaya Okugawa and Daichi Kamada starring, examines the impact that some high-class imports are making.

Matchday 20 of the 2021/22 Bundesliga campaign will go down as a significant one for fans of Japanese football.

The meeting of Eintracht Frankfurt and Arminia Bielefeld was always going to be pivotal, with the Eagles pushing for a top-four finish and the visitors scrapping to survive in the top flight for another year.

Bundesliga followers in Japan, however, will remember it as another notable landmark in their football journey. That's because three players from those two clubs - Hasebe and Kamada of Eintracht as well as Okugawa of Bielefeld - have all been playing leading roles.

Veteran Japanese star Makoto Hasebe (r.) has shown compatriot Daichi Kamada (l.) what it takes to make it at Eintracht Frankfurt and in the Bundesliga. - Norbert SCHMIDT via images/Norbert Schmidt

The master and his apprentices

Hasebe is the wily defensive stalwart, with the Bielefeld game falling in the week of his 38th birthday.

Attacking midfielder Kamada, meanwhile, has been smartly playing between the lines for three seasons in Germany now, getting his second league goal of 2021/22 in the 1-1 draw at Augsburg on Matchday 19. The 25-year-old's three strikes in Europe also helped his side advance to the last 16 of the UEFA Europa League as group winners.

And in his first full year in the Bundesliga, Okugawa has been a revelation. The 25-year-old scored in the league for the fourth match running - and seventh time overall in 2021/22 - in Bielefeld's 2-2 draw against Greuther Fürth on Matchday 19.

"He's always good for goals," Bielefeld coach Frank Kramer said of the former Holstein Kiel and Salzburg attacker. "He always has clever ways to get to the opposing goal."

Bundesliga most popular in Europe

The aforementioned trio were among eight Japanese players registered to play in the Bundesliga for the current campaign - more than the combined total in the continent's other top five leagues - with a further three on the books of second-tier clubs.

In 2019/20 holding midfielder Wataru Endo helped Stuttgart return to the Bundesliga, and he has been a mainstay for them ever since. After finishing fourth at the Tokyo Olympics with Japan, he arrived back in Germany to take the captain's armband and find compatriot Hiroki Ito already settling in at the club.

Ito swiftly became a first-team regular too. The 22-year-old centre-back scored his first goal for the Swabians in their 2-1 win over Mainz on Matchday 13 - on his way to claiming the Bundesliga Rookie of the Month award for November 2021.

Up-and-coming stars 

For his part, attacking midfielder Genki Haraguchi got a first taste of German football with Hertha Berlin in 2014. After spells with Fortuna Düsseldorf and Hannover, he returned to the capital in the summer of 2021 to become a key player in another strong season for Union Berlin.

Fellow Japan international Keita Endo hasn't featured as much as he would have liked at Union since switching from Yokohama F. Marinos in July 2020, but - at 24 - the winger still has time on his side.

Former Arsenal, Hannover and Stuttgart wide man Takuma Asano, meanwhile, has played an important role for promoted Bochum on their successful return to the elite.

Watch: Ito named November's Rookie of the Month

Three other Japanese players will hope to join him in the top flight soon. Centre-back Ko Itakura and midfielder Ao Tanaka linked up with Bundesliga 2 sides Schalke and Düsseldorf after gaining valuable experience at the Tokyo Olympics. They have both been regulars at club level since then, which is something right-back Sei Muroya also achieved after moving to Hannover in August 2020.

It's clear, then, that German clubs are increasingly looking to the home of the four-time Asian champions for decisive and dependable performers. Japan, after all, is now one of the top 10 countries in the Bundesliga in terms of player representation.

Kagawa and the legends of Japan

Two Japanese players - Okudera and Hasebe - are already in the Bundesliga Legends Network. Okudera was the first from the country to feature at the top level in Germany, lining up for Cologne, Hertha and Werder Bremen in the 1970s and 1980s.

Another of the most successful Japanese players to grace the German top flight was the country's record goalscorer Shinji Kagawa, who got 60 goals in 216 games for Borussia Dortmund over two separate stints at the club. In the first of them - between 2010 and 2012 - he won two league titles and the DFB Cup in a spectacular young side coached by Jürgen Klopp.

Hasebe, meanwhile, is the longest serving of the lot. He arrived in Germany in January 2008, anchoring the midfield as Wolfsburg won the Bundesliga for the first time in 2008/09. A year at Nuremberg later followed before he moved on to Eintracht in 2014.

Capped 114 times and a former captain of his country, Hasebe has in recent years extended his career and enhanced Eintracht's team by dropping into a back three. His anticipation and reading of the game have been matched only by his bravery, and the Eagles beat Bayern Munich to win the 2017/18 DFB Cup before reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA Europa League a year later.

Hasebe the evergreen record breaker

In June 2020 the veteran made his 309th Bundesliga appearance, setting the record for most games by an Asian player in the German top flight. He has since passed the 350 mark, and the oldest active outfield player in the division is still hugely important to his team.

"He works very hard on his body and puts professional football before everything," then-Eintracht sporting director Fredi Bobic said when Hasebe penned a fresh one-year deal in March 2021. "The fact that - at his age - he's still a key player and still indispensable to the team is down to his highly professional attitude more than anything."

Watch: Hasebe on his new record

"Makoto is always top in terms of attitude and training," Eintracht head coach Oliver Glasner said in January 2022.

The 2018 Asian International Player of the Year is, according to Glasner, a real professional "through and through", as well as a "fantastic player and person."

Most, if not all, of the Japanese players to pass through German football seem to possess similar attributes. Backed by the talent to go with their attitude, they are leaving lasting legacies and becoming more numerous.