Many Japanese players are active these days in the top football leagues of Europe. Shinji Kagawa at Manchester United and Keisuke Honda at CSKA Moscow are some of the most highly rated players in the world right now.
Japan is a rapidly rising football power and its national team is the current champion of the AFC Asian Cup. The country is improving all the time and is already preparing to host the 2019 World Cup.
The sport is slowly taking off around the continent, with South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong and Kazakhstan, currently ranked as the best of the rest. These teams have a long way to go to match Japan, though. Never mind the traditional big boys.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Things are slowly changing even in the rugby world, traditionally dominated by the United Kingdom, France and southern hemisphere powers South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Other powers – not only Asian – are slowly emerging. Italy has inched its way into the Six Nations Championship, the annual round of games in the Northern Hemisphere. Argentina has done the same in the south to make the Tri-Nations and the Four Nations rugby tournaments.
And then there is Japan. The country has the best rugby team in Asia, but that does not mean quite as much – not yet at least. But there are already visible signs of its growing prowess in the sport.
Fumiaki Tanaka of Kyot, for one, now plays for the Highlanders from Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island. The club competes in the Tri-Nations club tournament called Super Rugby, which comprises 15 professional teams from Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.
“I cried because it was my ultimate goal as a rugby player,” the 28-year-old told the New York Times. “I was very honored. I feel a bit of pressure and responsibility, because I’m the first rugby player and if I don’t play well, then not many Japanese players could be allowed to come to New Zealand again.”
He added, “There are Japanese players good enough to play Super Rugby, but I have to prove that I can play as well as New Zealand players.”
It is not only on the pitch that Japanese players can stand out. Commercially and promotionally, they can be a big deal.
Japanese television crews are already in New Zealand following the pioneer and documenting his new adventure.
This kind of interest is familiar to big clubs in Europe. For seven years, Park Ji-sung played for Manchester United and helped to elevate the club to major brand status in his native South Korea.
Of Tanaka’s success with The Highlanders, the club’s marketing manager Doug McSweeney told the Southland Times, "It's massive. It's big. There have been quite a few requests. We had the New York Times talking with him last week for their global online edition. It's out there."
He added, "Adidas might sell a few more jerseys with Tanaka on the back this season.”