The success of Japanese talents Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa in Europe has meant more attention from the richest continent in football is being focused on Japan’s J.League, a competition which until recently had been treated as nothing more than an oriental curiosity.
Since the inception of the J.League in 1992, a raft of promising players have burst forward to take the relay torch and make progress towards turning the country into a force to be reckoned with in world football. And the greats of Kunishige Kamamoto, Kazu Miura, Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura are suddenly being forgotten in the Land of the Rising Sun as a new wave of a mentally strong and technically adept stars come to the fore.
Japan can now call upon perhaps the country’s strongest ever national team; so much so that it comes as little surprise to see Blue Samurai fans rubbing their hands together in anticipation over the next gem the Japanese Football Association’s 100-year plan developmental system will produce. We look at the top five up and coming Japanese talents:
Takashi Usami – Gamba Osaka – Attacking Midfielder/Forward – 19 years old
The young winger has been a revelation for Gamba Osaka since his emergence last season. With maturity that belies his tender years, Usami has the ability to pick a pass from 30 yards with either foot, and is equally adept at shooting and dribbling. It was then no surprise to hear that Bavarian giants Bayern Munich were lining up a move for the yet to be capped Kyoto native.
With the success of Kagawa at Borussia Dortmund, the J.League may well prove to be an area of interest for more Bundesliga clubs and there are already half a dozen or so Japanese internationals plying their trade in Germany. The J.League’s Best Young Player of 2010 may yet have some developing to do to succeed overseas, but he has the talent to well and truly make his mark. With London 2012 looming however, Usami’s price could grow even higher should he put on a performance at the Olympics.
Mu Kanazaki – Nagoya Grampus Eight – Attacking Midfielder – 22 years old
With champions Grampus looking more like a lumbering manatee than a killer orca this season, it would surprise few to know that this slump strangely coincided with an untimely injury to Mu Kanazaki.
The zippy attacking midfielder from Tsu in Mie prefecture found himself to be an integral part of Dragan Stojkovic’s title winning side. After playing the majority of his Oita Trinita career in the centre of the park, the Serbian coach played Kanazaki on the wing in support of J.League top scorer Joshua Kennedy and Japan international Keiji Tamada. Kanazaki has excelled in his new role, providing an abundance of assists and chipping in with well timed goals.
His superb form led to four appearances for his country in 2010 and yet another handy wing option for Alberto Zaccheroni to deploy for a national side that has traditionally suffered from a dearth of wide options.
Shuichi Gonda – FC Tokyo – Goalkeeper – 22 years old
Japan has never traditionally boasted real strength in the goalkeeping department, but with Seigo Narazaki and Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi finally reaching the end of the tunnel, having experienced some high profile blunders throughout their respective careers, the Blue Samurai have experienced the emergence of Eiji Kawashima, Shusaku Ishikawa and 22-year-old Shuichi Gonda.
Gonda was third-choice goalkeeper in the 2010 Asian Cup victory in Qatar this year, proving to be a pick that perplexed fans, particularly with the omission of Nagoya’s seasoned Nazazaki, a shot-stopper who went on to be voted J1’s top goalkeeper. However, the youngster seems to have proven his worth to the Japan coaching staff at senior and Under-23 level.
Since taking the gloves from FC Tokyo custodian Hitoshi Shiota – the 29-year-old came down with appendicitis in the 2009 season – the new "Gas" vice captain has gone on to become one of the most consistent shot-stoppers in the J.League. Now with Olympic qualifiers on the horizon, the Tokyo native has the opportunity to showcase his talent in London next year.
Takashi Inui – Cerezo Osaka – Attacking Midfielder – 22 years old
Much fuss was made over Shinji Kagawa’s haul of goals in the 2009 J2 edition as the reason for Cerezo Osaka’s rise to the J1, but the Borussia Dortmund man needed the support play of his comrade Takashi Inui.
Another attack-minded midfielder, Inui scored 20 goals in Cerezo’s promotion to add to Kagawa’s 27, making up a whopping 50% of the total number of goals scored in their 2009 success. Although not as prolific in the J1, Inui was a big reason behind Cerezo’s rise to third place last season and has found his shooting boots in the Asian Champions League, propelling his team to the quarter-finals.
A player of typically impeccable technique, Inui could be the next Japanese talent to make the move overseas. The 22-year-old is the latest in a long line of Japanese, versatile, attacking midfielders.
Kazuya Yamamura – Ryutsu Keizai University – Centre Back/Defensive Midfielder – 21 years old
In 2010, for a friendly with Yemen, Yamamura became the first Japanese player in 18 years to be called up to the daihyo from a university team. Then-coach Takeshi Okada spotted something early in the defender, and the Nagasaki-born Yamamura has since gone from strength to strength.
After at first doubting his own ability to cut it at J.League level upon finishing high school, the now sought-after 21-year-old moved to university football to improve himself little by little and eventually follow his dream. Much in the mould of current international defender Tulio Tanaka, Yamamura has developed all the attributes needed to fill the big Nagoya Grampus defender’s boots at the next World Cup.
Although only playing university level football, it will not be long before either a J.League club or a European team come calling. Currently involved in the Under-23 Olympic squad, Yamamura is considered an important part of the side’s bid to qualify for the London games. Playing almost as a libero, Yamamura captained the team and put in an impressive performance in the 3-1 friendly victory over Australia to further underline his credentials.