Monday 11 February 2013
With an all-time high of four Japanese players on the books of clubs in the Barclays Premier League, John Duerden, an Asian football writer who has been called "The Voice of Asian Football" by the BBC, reviews the influence of the "Blue Samurai" on English football.
Some say that being from island nations, the Japanese and the English share a number of traits such as politeness, courtesy and reserve. In football, it is only recently, 14 decades after the game was introduced to the Land of the Rising Sun by an officer of the Royal Navy in 1873, that the two countries are getting to know each other.
It has taken a while but as Japan continues to make its name as a major player – a recent friendly win over France in Paris deepened the feeling that the Samurai Blue will progress further at the 2014 World Cup than the last 16 spot in South Africa – it is not surprising that more of the country’s players are coming to the Barclays Premier League.
Shinji Kagawa at Manchester United, Ryo Miyaichi of Arsenal and Southampton defender Maya Yoshida are those leading the way.
There have been links for a while. Gary Lineker played in the J-League in the early 1990s, while Steve Perryman, another Tottenham Hotspur star, coached there later that decade. Arsene Wenger joined Arsenal from Nagoya Grampus Eight in 1996.
It was then no surprise that it was the Frenchman who signed the Barclays Premier League’s first Japanese star with Jun’ichi Inamoto heading to Highbury in 2000. The midfielder struggled to find much playing time in North London, both appearances for Arsenal came in the League Cup, but he quickly found his feet in England’s top tier moving across the capital in 2002 to join Jean Tigana’s Fulham.
After two seasons in West London, including the third goal in a 3-1 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford, he headed to West Bromwich Albion, staying at The Hawthorns until 2007 with a brief spell in Cardiff City along the way.
"It was no surprise that Wenger, hired from Nagoya, would be the first to bring a Japanese player to the Premier League"
The second Japanese player in the Barclays Premier League was Kazuyuki Toda, a defensive midfielder who impressed at the 2002 World Cup and was highly rated by Philippe Troussier, the Japan coach at the time. Chased by Sunderland, the Tokyo native plumped for Spurs, partly on the recommendation of Perryman, his coach for five years at Shimizu S-Pulse.
"I know very well some great names from Tottenham’s history such as Steve Perryman and Ossie Ardiles - who have been my coaches in Japan - Jurgen Klinsmann and, of course, Glenn Hoddle," Toda said at the time. "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."
The loan move did not work out. Toda only made four appearances, of which Spurs lost three, at the end of the 2002/03 season.
Perhaps the most famous Japanese player of all time arrived in England in the summer of 2005. After successful spells in Serie A, Hidetoshi Nakata joined Bolton Wanderers on a season-long loan, helping Sam Allardyce's side to eighth place. It was his last season in the professional game.
There was then quite a wait until the next Japanese appearance in the top flight and it was made by teenage winger Miyaichi. The Aichi native joined Arsenal from high school in January 2011 and was immediately loaned out to Feyenoord for the second half of the season.
An instant hit with fans of the Dutch club – he was nicknamed 'Ryodinho' by media – he soon headed back to London. Last season's loan to Bolton Wanderers was followed by another temporary deal to Wigan Athletic for the present campaign, although he has yet to start in the Barclays Premier League for Roberto Martinez's side. Still only 20, Miyaichi's stay in the top tier could be a long one.
And he is no longer the only Japanese national team player in the Barclays Premier League. Newly promoted Southampton have two on their books. Tadanari Lee, who scored a spectacular winning volley in the final of the 2011 Asian Cup, headed to the South Coast when the Saints were still marching to promotion to the top flight. The striker, who could have chosen to represent South Korea, has yet to make his bow in the Barclays Premier League but has been able to watch compatriot Maya Yoshida settle into the defence since his move from the Netherlands at the end of August.
"Kagawa's efficient use of the ball, vision and technique have helped United to the top of the table"
Just like his new club, Yoshida, a ball-playing centre-back, struggled initially to adapt to the Barclays Premier League. His debut was as a substitute in the 6-1 defeat by Arsenal in September but of late he has impressed, including in the 3-1 victory over Manchester City at the weekend.
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 favourite with 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. And Cerezo fans will have a chance to welcome back their former player when United visit Osaka as part of a two-match visit to Japan during their Far East tour.
Whatever happens this season, it cannot be too long before the photo of a Japanese player with a Barclays Premier League medal around his neck makes headline news in every corner of both island nations.
You can follow John Duerden on Twitter: @johnnyduerden.