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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 Ritsu Doan and akuma Asano currently leading the way in the Bundesliga, bundesliga.com examines the impact that some high-class imports have made.

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 his former teammate at Eintracht, Daichi Kamada, as well as Masaya Okugawa - now at Augsburg - all played leading roles.

Veteran Japanese star Makoto Hasebe (r.) and compatriot Daichi Kamada (l.) were teammates at Eintracht Frankfurt. - Norbert SCHMIDT via www.imago-images.de/imago images/Norbert Schmidt

The master and his apprentices

Hasebe is the wily defensive stalwart, and that Bielefeld game fell in the week of his 38th birthday.

Attacking midfielder Kamada, meanwhile, had been smartly playing between the lines at Eintracht and in the end, would feature for four full seasons with Die Adler - plus four games in 2017/18. The current Lazio player's efforts and crucial goals even helped Frankfurt to lift the 2022 UEFA Europa League. 

Okugawa's second season in the Bundesliga with Bielefeld saw the versatile player take off. The 27-year-old scored eight times, even netting in four games in a row. His overall tally for the The Blues before sealing a 2023/24 move to Augsburg was 16 goals and 13 assists in 80 appearances. 

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

Bundesliga most popular in Europe

Currently, there are seven Japanese players lighting up the Bundesliga, while the playing links between the nations have been strong.  

In 2019/20, for example, holding midfielder Wataru Endo - now at Liverpool - helped Stuttgart return to the Bundesliga. After finishing fourth at the Tokyo Olympics with Japan, Endo arrived back in Germany to take the captain's armband and found compatriot Hiroki Ito already settling in at the club.

Ito swiftly became a first-team regular too. The 24-year-old centre-back scored his first goal for the Swabians in their 2-1 win over Mainz in 2021 - on his way to claiming the Bundesliga Rookie of the Month award for November that same year. Ito has now amassed 72 games for VfB and has even weighed in with a couple of assists already this term. 

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. The 32-year-old signed for Stuttgart in January 2023. 

Fellow Japan international Keita Endo - on loan at second tier side Eintracht Braunschweig - didn't feature as much as he would have liked at Union Berlin since switching from Yokohama F. Marinos in July 2020, but - at 25 - the winger still has time to shine in Germany.

Former Arsenal, Hannover and Stuttgart wide man Takuma Asano, meanwhile, has played an important role for Bochum since the Komono native signed for the club in June 2021. Asano - a scorer of eight goals in 44 games for Japan - is a firm favourite at Bochum having featured in over 60 games for Thomas Letsch's team. The 28-year-old is also up and running this term, with two Bundesliga goals to his name. 

Watch: When Ito was named Rookie of the Month

Another of those who have hit the target in 2023/24 is Ko Itakura, who scored with a magnificent header against Bayern Munich in Borussia Mönchengladbach's recent late loss against the record champions. Midfielder Ao Tanaka (Fortuna Düsseldorf) and right-back Sei Muroya (Hannover) are gaining valuable game time in Germany's second division.

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.

Two Japanese players - Okudera and Hasebe - are 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 winning the Europa League in 2022 with the Japanese on board.

Hasebe the evergreen record breaker

Still going at Eintracht at 39, the veteran has made his 377 Bundesliga appearance, setting the record for most games by an Asian player in the German top flight. As the oldest active outfield player in the division, Hasebe is still an important element in Eintracht's set-up.

"He works very hard on his body and puts professional football before everything," then-Eintracht sporting director Fredi Bobic said os Hasebe back 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," former 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, just like Freiburg's Ritsu Doan. A scorer of crucial goals in Japan's victories against Germany and Spain at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Doan has also been a fan favourite at Freiburg since signing for the Black Forest side the previous July. A scorer of seven goals and provider of seven assists for Christian Streich's side, Doan is now just one game shy of his half century for Freiburg.  

Backed by the talent to go with their attitude, Japanese players are leaving lasting legacies in German football.