Each Premier League season provides a stark reminder of the global reach of the English game and its continual ability to extend into previously untapped areas of the plane, in search of new fan bases and revenue. Whilst the insatiable desire of Premier League clubs to generate greater financial revenue comes as little surprise to anyone involved in top-flight football, the nations that contain fanatical fans of Premier League can often cause an eyebrow to be upturned.
Lucrative pre-season friendlies or tournaments in far-flung and often changing locations are commonplace during the summer months of preparation. These sojourns into new markets have allowed established clubs such as Manchester United to make strides in south-east Asia and Liverpool maintaining strong links with Australia. But they have also allowed Everton to gain a cult following in the US and Leicester City to continue developing their relationship with Thai football fans.
However, despite the interest within nations thousands of miles away from the UK, the fanaticism and interest displayed by many of these fans is startling. This, in turn, has led to the sustained growth of domestic leagues within areas such as central and eastern Asia, with the Chinese Super League currently the best example of the development.
If you travel to the east across the East China Sea to neighbouring Japan, the establishment of association football and the J League – founded in 1993 – demonstrates a more integrated role of football in the country. Despite the infrastructure of a professional league and a youth football structure in place in Japan, however, their brightest stars have rarely reached the highest levels in Europe.
This is particularly the case with Japanese players coming to the Premier League, which despite its renowned reputation for teams built on multi-nationalism, has rarely been a happy hunting ground for Japanese footballers.
The first Japanese footballer to play in the Premier League was Junichi Inamoto for Arsenal, signing on loan from Gamba Osaka in in the summer of 2001. Inamoto lasted just one season in north London, with just two League Cup appearances and two Champions League substitute appearances to show for his efforts. Despite his paltry return for his time at Arsenal, he is remembered fondly by Gunners fans, who appreciated his energetic approach in midfield.
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Amongst his eagerness to perform for Arsenal, there were a number of variables which made Inamoto’s Arsenal career inevitably short-lived – the primary reason being that 2001-02 season was a double-winning one for Arsenal, with Inamoto finding himself behind Ray Parlour, Edu and Freddie Ljungberg as Patrick Vieira’s midfield partner.
Manager Arsène Wenger, who was head coach of J League side Nagoya Grampus Eight in the mid-1990s, regularly praised Inamoto, but this never transferred into a Premier League start.
Alongside his struggles to get into the first team, Inamoto was also under wider pressure from back in Japan to make his move work. His move, despite only being a loan, was seen as the move which would see a Japanese international make a splash in England. Japanese fans at Highbury during 2001-02 were a regular sight, however Inamoto was also often in the stands in a club tracksuit. Neatly fitting the profile of a Japanese footballer – physically fit, with good stamina and a strong technique – it was seen as a mystery within Japanese media and marketing circles as to why he was not playing.
Arsenal were happy to use Inamoto as a vehicle to develop off the pitch in Japan, and they are still the best supported Premier League club in the country.
After a frustrating season he moved on, and an excellent showing at the 2002 World Cup in his home land meant that Inamoto was back on the Premier League radar, signing another season-long loan, this time at Fulham.
Inamoto had been given a second chance to impress with Jean Tigana’s side, and he played a support role with 15 appearances all season, and notching the winning goal in the Intertoto Cup final. Free from the pressure of Highbury, Inamoto was able to develop and prove his worth as a Premier League level player. Fulham renewed his loan deal for a further season in 2003-04 and he continued to prove his worth in the Cottagers’ midfield.
With his contract at Osaka nearing its end, Fulham looked set to sign him on a permanent basis, but a freak injury in summer 2004 delayed the deal and he signed for West Brom instead.
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His time at West Brom was frustrating as he again struggled for first team action; he was loaned to Cardiff City before returning to the Midlands at the start of the 2005-06 season. This was to be an improved campaign for Inamoto under Bryan Robson, but West Brom were relegated at the end of the season and Inamoto was on the move again.
He eventually signed for Galatasaray in 2006 before a nomadic end to his career with Eintracht Frankfurt and Rennes, before spells at two J League clubs.
Whilst he was never in a position to reach the highest heights in England, it was clear that unshackled from the pressure of being the Japanese golden boy at Arsenal, he had real promise.
Inamoto’s time in the Premier League did not lead to an influx of Japanese talent into England. In fact, prior to 2011 only two other Japanese nationals played in the English top-flight: Kazuyuki Toda, who had a brief and unsuccessful stint at Tottenham in 2002-03 and Hidetoshi Nakata at Bolton Wanderers in 2005-06. While Nakata was undoubtedly a talented individual, his time at Bolton was as a bit-part player in Sam Allardyce’s Lancashire Galácticos.
It has been in recent seasons that a new wave of Japanese internationals have joined the Premier League, and they’ve made much more of a lasting impression, although the success rate remains erratic.
Ryo Miyaichi arrived at Arsenal as a raw talent, however injuries and four loan spells, including at Bolton and Wigan Athletic, prevented any chance of consistency at his parent club and he moved on to St. Pauli in 2015.
Shinji Kagawa is probably the best example of a Japanese player being stifled by the Premier League following his move to Manchester United in 2012. Kagawa had played a starring role in Borussia Dortmund’s Bundesliga triumphs prior to the move, but in England he found life difficult.
The 2012-13 season saw Kagawa play an effectual role in United’s league title win – during Sir Alex Ferguson’s last season – but 2013-14 didn’t follow suit. Under the defensive tactics of David Moyes, Kagawa failed to score all season, and after an injury-disrupted campaign he chose to return to Dortmund.
Kagawa’s ability was clear to see, comfortably the best Japanese international to play in England, but pressure and a lack of faith in him from the manager undermined his time in the Premier League.
Interestingly, if you compare the experience of Kagawa to that of other Japanese playmakers such as Shunsuke Nakamura at Celtic and Keisuke Honda at AC Milan, the contrast is stark. Both players have achieved cult status at those clubs, adored by fans for their passion as much as their match-winning ability. However, only at Dortmund has Kagawa been given the platform to perform to his potential.
Currently in the Premier League, there is Maya Yoshida at Southampton, who has carved out a real niche for himself on the south coast and is a valuable asset to the club. Shinji Okazaki’s goals for Mainz in Germany earned him a move to Leicester City in 2015, and the likeable forward was a key man in their Premier League title win last season. The similarities between Okazaki and the other success stories are also apparent; he is loved by Foxes fans, respected and trusted by his manager, and his strengths fit with those of his team.
Japan has clearly not had the same impact within the Premier League as other nations, however these things take time and talent in order to come to fruition. The continued consistency of the Japanese national team demonstrates the ability and structure that is available, but a greater influx appears set to take a more natural course.
By Feargal Brennan. Follow @FeargalBren