Cologne - The Far East’s export boom has been well documented in the Bundesliga. The 12 Japanese players currently plying their trade in Germany's top-flight represent the fourth-biggest group of foreign players in the league after the Swiss, the Austrians and the Brazilians. Once upon a time, however, they weren't quite such a common sight.
From laughing-stock to double-winner
bundesliga.com's latest series breaks down the role the 'The Bundesliga's Japanese stars' have played over the years.
In Cologne, in the summer of 1977, the bewilderment was palpable when the city's ambitious football club, 1. FC Köln presented Yasuhiko Okudera as their new signing on the banks of the River Rhine. The amateur, from the factory team Furukawa Electric, didn't know it at the time, but had just become a trend-setter that would change the course of Bundesliga history.
Okudera fought his way from the fringes of the squad and past the surprise at his signing to become one of the club’s key players. "He’s got real perseverance," praised club coach Hennes Weisweiler. Indeed, in his debut season with the Billy-Goats, Okudera won the Bundesliga and DFB Cup double. For Köln, and then SV Werder Bremen in the early 1980s, the left-footer racked up a total of 234 Bundesliga appearances and 26 goals.
Impressed by Okudera’s success, Arminia Bielefeld looked to the Land of the Rising Sun in 1983 for a new signing, making Kazuo Ozaki the second Japanese player to feature in the German top-flight. The striker netted nine goals in 62 Bundesliga games, but would prove to be the last representative from his country for 20 years.
Takahara the trailblazer
Naohiro Takahara kicked off another Japanese influx to the Bundesliga in 2003, the same year he became Japanese Player of the Year thanks to his astounding domestic goalscoring exploits. Hamburger SV swooped, simultaneously hoping to tap into the growing Asian football market. Indeed, Takahara's first training session was covered by 50 Japanese journalists and countless camera crews. He couldn’t match his sensational goal record in Japan’s top-flight, the J-League, but had the decent enough record for Hamburg and Eintracht Frankfurt of 135 games and 25 goals.
His biggest influence, however, was raising the interest at home in Japanese players abroad, thus paving the way for more. The first wave of Japanese transfers to the Bundesliga duly followed: Junichi Inamoto joined Eintracht Frankfurt, Shinji Ono signed ofr VfL Bochum 1848 and Makoto Hasebe (now of Frankfurt) was snapped up by VfL Wolfsburg. All three were (or would become) key figures for the Blue Samurai: the Japanese national side.
It wasn’t until 2010, however, until the first Japanese superstar truly arrived. Borussia Dortmund and their coach Jürgen Klopp gambled on a relative unknown by the name of Shinji Kagawa, signing him from Japanese second division side Cerezo Osaka. Not in Klopp’s wildest dreams could he have imagined how well his diminutive new midfielder would fare, helping BVB to two Bundesliga titles and one DFB Cup triumph. In his two seasons at the club, Kagawa scored 21 goals, and laid on a further 13.
He may have been the only world superstar to emerge, but Bundesliga clubs had been successfully dipping into the Japanese market throughout the 2000s. VfB Stuttgart had signed Gotoku Sakai and Shinji Okazaki (now of 1. FSV Mainz 05), Hannover 96 snapped up Hiroki Sakai, FC Schalke 04 contracted Atsuto Uchida, while Hiroshi Kiyotake (now of Hannover 96) moved to 1. FC Nürnberg and Hajime Hosogai (now of Hertha Berlin) went to Bayer 04 Leverkusen.
’They want everything to be perfect’
"Japanese players are very mobile," says Japanese football expert Pierre Liitbarski. "They make things happen in the smallest spaces and possess the excellent technique required in modern football. They’re also very committed and have a tendency to want everything to be perfect. They work really hard in training and are very disciplined."
Off-field scandals are unheard of, and they usually adapt to Bundesliga life swiftly, becoming regulars and, in many cases, key members of the starting eleven. FC Bayern München’s signing Takashi Usami struggled to adapt to life in Germany and returned home after a short loan to TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, but he is the exception which proves the rule.
The Bundesliga 2 has also proved a good springboard for Japanese players to launch their careers in Germany. Takashi Inui (now of Eintracht Frankfurt) cut his teeth with Bochum while Yuya Osako (now of Köln) impressed last season in the colours of TSV 1860 München.
Within the Bundesliga itself, Osako's partner up front for the Japanese national side, Okazaki, has revived his career after a move to Mainz from Stuttgart. His 15 goals in 2013/14 made him the top Japanese goalscorer in a single season, and after scoring a brace on Matchday 3, he moved ahead of Okudera as the Bundesliga's top-scoring Japanese representative on 28 goals. He’ll face competition to hold onto his new title, however, with the return of the superstar, Shinji Kagawa, amidst great fanfare, to Borussia Dortmund.
Karol Herrmann/Daniel Thacker
Check out Kagawa's top five goals here in the Bundesliga here, courtesy of the official Bundesliga YouTube channel: