The Samurai Blue are heading into the Confederations Cup with no shortage of fascinating players within their ranks, including the likes of Eiji Kawashima and Yuto Nagatomo
By Cesare Polenghi | Goal Japan Chief Editor
The Japan national team took to the global stage in 1998 for their World Cup debut. At the time, the perception of the Japanese – as people as much as as footballers – was one of homogeneity.
Over the years, it became clear that, just like everybody else, the Japanese are individuals with their own peculiar traits. Japan’s taste for the unusual emerged in one World Cup after another: in 1994 they sported a uniform decorated with blue flames; in 1998 captain Tsuneo Miyamoto was one of the first to protect his nose with a ‘Batman mask,’ and in 2002 the hairstyles of Hidetoshi Nakata, Junichi Inamoto and Kazuyuki Toda made it evident that the stereotypical image of the Japanese was an anachronistic cliche. The current squad is no exception, with a roster full of interesting characters.
To begin with, there is goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima. While he might look like a wrestler, the Saitama native is one of Asia’s most intellectual footballers. A linguist by hobby, Kawashima communicates well in English, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian. In his time with Standard Liege in Belgium he’s also studied both French and Dutch, and in 2012 he surprised Italian supporters by appearing on a popular TV show and answering questions in impeccable Italian. The response from viewers was overwhelmingly positive, with many suggesting that he spoke “better Italian than Francesco Totti”.
The Samurai Blue’s most popular defender, Yuto Nagatomo, is known for his candid personality. According to former Inter team-mate Wesley Snejider, the Japanese full-back broke the ice by telling dirty jokes in Italian. In an infamous TV appearance, he also made reference to certain physical characteristics of Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o that were clearly unrelated to his footballing skills.
But despite his reputation, Nagatomo is a very thoughtful, almost philosophical young man. His autobiography Nihon Danji (Japanese Boy) vividly describes the former FC Tokyo’s upbringing without a father and his outlook on life.
At the centre of Alberto Zaccheroni’s XI is Yasuhito Endo, a product of the respected Kagoshima Jitsugyo High School. Unlike many J-League players, the Gamba Osaka man has little interest in automobile culture and is one of the few players who refuses to discuss his driving habits in a yearly league survey.
But despite his lack of passion for four-wheelers, Endo is clearly well at home on the pitch, with 128 senior appearances and an astounding 10 consecutive selections in the J.League’s yearly Best XI. With his abilities and endurance, it’s truly a shame that he was never given the chance to prove himself overseas.
With five-and-a-half European seasons already under his belt, attacking midfielder Keisuke Honda is also expected to contribute many more years of service. The 27-year-old star has spent his time at lesser-known VVV Venlo and CSKA Moscow, but has made a name for himself through inspiring performances in the World Cup and Asian Cup.
Stylish and introverted, Honda’s frequent appearances in fashion advertising have given him a cult-like status comparable to that of the legendary Hidetoshi Nakata. Considered to be the epitome of the cool young Japanese man, the Osaka native will look to prove at the Confederations Cup that he is worthy of a move to Serie A or the Premier League next season.
Last but not least in this collection of atypical Japanese is Mike Havenaar, whose name stands out from Japan’s line-up as much as his 194-centimetre frame. Born and raised in Japan, the son of former goalkeeper Dido Havenaar speaks fluent Japanese and joined his family in naturalising 19 years ago.
Unlike his countrymen, however, Havenaar is not afraid to show confidence in the final third, with 11 goals last season at Vitesse. Strong in the air and skilled when it comes to opening spaces for his team-mates, “Maiku” (as he is known in Japan) could become the Samurai Blue’s secret weapon.
And if Zaccheroni manages to find the right formula among this mix of unique personalities, we can be sure that Japan will entertain us at the Confederations Cup and in the years to come.