Commentary | John Duerden
Some say that being island nations, the Japanese and the English share a number of traits such as politeness, courtesy and reserve. That may or may not be the case but in football it has been 14 decades since the beautiful game was introduced to the Land of the Rising Sun by an officer of the Royal Navy and it is only now that the two countries are getting to know each other.
With a recent friendly win over France in Paris it is not surprising that more Japanese players are moving to the English Premier League. Shinji Kagawa at Manchester United, Ryo Miyaichi of Arsenal and Southampton defender Maya Yoshida are leading the way.
There have been links for a while. Gary Lineker played in the J-League in the early 1990s while another Spurs star, Steve Perryman, coached there later that decade. Arsene Wenger famously joined Arsenal from Nagoya Grampus in 1996.
It was then no surprise when the Frenchman signed the Premier League’s first ever Japanese star, Junichi Inamoto, who headed to Highbury in 2000. But the midfielder struggled to find much playing time in North London and his two appearances were limited to the League Cup.
He stayed around long enough to become a familiar figure in England’s top tier, moving across the city in 2002 to join Jean Tigana’s Fulham. After two seasons in West London Inamoto headed to West Bromich Albion, staying at the Hawthorns until 2007 with a brief spell in Cardiff along the way.
The next was Kazuyuki Toda. Chased by Sunderland, the defensive midfielder who impressed at the 2002 World Cup was greatly appreciated by Japan national team coach Philippe Troussier.
In the end he decided to plump for Tottenham Hotspur, helped by the recommendation of Perryman, his coach for five years at Shimizu S-Pulse.
“Steve Perryman was my coach at Shimizu S-Pulse for five years, he told me about the history and tradition of Tottenham and told me the experience of playing for the club will be fantastic but also I know it will be a big challenge,” Toda said.
The move, a loan deal, did not work out and Toda, famous for his red hair, only made four appearances, of which the Spurs lost three, at the end of the 2002-2003 season after which he returned to Shimizu.
Perhaps the most famous Japanese player of all time arrived in the summer of 2005. After successful spells in Serie A, Hidetoshi Nakata surprised many by joining Bolton Wanderers.
Then there was quite a wait until the next Japanese appearance in the top flight and it was made by teenage winger Ryo Miyaichi.
The Aichi native joined Arsenal in January 2011 and was immediately loaned out to Feyenoord for the second half.
He was an instant star with fans of the Dutch giants, and was nicknamed ‘Ryodinho’ by media in tribute to a certain Brazilian magician of recent years.
The Gunners brought him back to England and last season’s loan at Bolton Wanderers was followed by a move to Wigan Athletic this time. Still only 20, Miyaichi’s stay in the top tier could be a long one.
But now he is no longer the only Japanese star in the Premier League. Southampton has two.
Tadanari Lee made headlines around the world in January 2011 by scoring a spectacular volley winner in the final of the 2011 Asian Cup. Later he headed to the south coast when the Saints were still marching their way onto promotion. The striker, who could have chosen to represent South Korea, hasn’t played so much but has been able to watch compatriot Maya Yoshida settle into the defense since his move from the Netherlands at the end of August.
Southampton initially found life in the top flight tough but has improved and Yoshida, a ball-playing center-back, has also started to adapt to life at this side of the North Sea.
Last but by no means least is Shinji Kagawa. Two excellent seasons with Borussia Dortmund persuaded Manchester United to bring the young playmaker to Old Trafford and the former Cerezo Osaka star quickly became a firm favorite with the followers of the Red Devils. His efficient use of the ball, vision and technique, delightfully expressed even in the closest of quarters, have helped his new team make their way to the top of the table.
Whatever happens this season, it can’t be too long before a Japanese player donning a Premier League medal appears on every newspaper in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya.