Alex Norwood –
Have you ever thought about the fact that German football clubs have the most Japanese players? Currently, there are more than 23 officially registered Japanese nationals that play for the most influential clubs in Germany. And they don’t just play – they perform brilliantly. To compare, in 2015, Italian Serie A only had two Japanese players in their clubs, while Premier League had just one. The secret, according to the Japanese players themselves, lies in the similarities between the German and the Japanese mentalities regarding teamwork and game philosophy.
Japanese Players in the Bundesliga
The Japanese players have participated in the German football on the professional level since 1977. Yasuhiko Okudera became the first Japanese player in the Bundesliga after 1.FC Köln signed him from Furukawa Electric in 1977. Since then, many of his compatriots have walked in his path to join German football clubs.
Shinji Kagawa is one of the prominent examples. He joined Borussia Dortmund seven years ago as a midfielder and has ever since grown considerably both in his stats and playing style. He has been a valuable part of the team during the best days of his club. A short stint at Manchester United between 2012 and 2014 ended in disappointment, so his favourite Borussia gladly welcomed him back.
Shinji Okazaki is another Japanese player, who made his first steps in Europe in Germany. The now -years-old first joined VfB Stuttgart in 2011 and then moved to 1.FSV Mainz in 2013. At the end of the season, he had scored 15 goals, which is a single-season goal record for any Japanese player in Germany. It was at Mainz that Okazaki became the most prolific Japanese scorer in the Bundesliga when he scored his 27th and 28th league goals in Mainz’s 3-1 victory over Hertha Berlin in September 2014.
Following the 2014-15 season, Okazaki moved to England where he joined Leicester and became only the second Japanese to win a Premier League title after Shinji Kagawa won it with Manchester United in 2013.
There are other examples Gotoku Sakai, for example, who is currently playing for Hamburger SV, after joining the club from VfB Stuttgart. He is also not the only Japanese player at Hamburger SV. Dynamic winger Tatsuya Ito has recently emerged from Hamburg’s youth academy, and the 20-year-old is benefiting greatly from being Sakai’s understudy. But what makes Sakai, and now Ito, such good fits in Hamburg? In many interviews, he has admitted enjoying being part of German teams. So, what exactly makes German national character so apt for the Japanese players?
Why Japanese Players Fit in So Well
Several factors contribute to the kinship in the game philosophy of these two nations. The main priority for both the Japanese and the German players is, of course, team play. The Japanese are very good at following orders and maintaining the hierarchy inside the team, which is what helps them act as one. The secret of their success is that they often can sacrifice the individual for the sake of the collective. The German mentality regarding team play is similar because they also regard teamwork as their crucial factor of success. Even though they are more individualistic and ambitious as individual players, they never underestimate the importance of common action.
Gotoku Sakai once said in an interview that German national team is capable of showing the same effective teamwork as the Japanese teams do. And this is what makes the Japanese integrate so well into the German system.
Another common trait between the two nationalities is discipline. Indeed, they are much more prone to following rules, because order is part of their mentality. Atsuto Uchida, a Union Berlin player, said that “the Japanese do not follow the rules blindly, without any consideration, but discipline is an integral part of their game. And the Germans tend to appreciate it as well”. No player ever stays out of the game, and everybody seems equally involved. Their common love for discipline helps the two nations efficiently play together.
His colleague, ex-Hertha midfielder, Hajime Hosogai, mentioned that, in his opinion, he lacks the level of physical fitness and strength that German footballers typically possess. Instead, he compensates with speed and manoeuvrability, as well as creative solutions. He is perfectly capable of using his strong sides in the team because it is not about competition between individuals, something Italian and English players sometimes excel at this as well. He also admits that he would not have been able to survive in the Bundesliga without the agility of his actions. Apparently, teams demand individual contribution just as much as good team play.
Okazaki has also underlined the importance of individual play. He said that Japan and Germany are not entirely the same regarding team play mentality. The Japanese teams back in his homeland try to act as one, passing the ball consistently to each other and never letting a single player stand out. For the Germans, however, standing out is key. The faster and stronger you are, the better are your chances to shoot, and you need to shoot whenever you have a chance. Sometimes, forgetting about the team for the sake of a good goal is necessary and rewarded. This is something that the Japanese newcomers need to learn to perform at their best in the Bundesliga.
In any case, German team play and management help the Japanese players to grow and show their best sides. It is one of the best places for talented Japanese players to be since they have so much in common.
Alex Norwood is a 26-year-old football writer from Lancashire. Of Irish blood with an English heart, he is interested in all that is connected with Premier League and Bundesliga football. Especially when it comes to Jürgen Klopp.