This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of CONNECT.
Andy Hanson (Nara)
Before coming to Japan I knew that Japan liked baseball . . . and that was about it. I didn’t really associate Japan with much sporting prowess in the games that I was familiar with: American football, rugby, football (soccer, but I’m English so it’s football), and others. Sure, I’d seen the Japanese national teams make some unexpected noise in both football and rugby world cups these last few years, but how much of that was a Cinderella story and how much of it was genuine success?
One of the best things about living in Japan and working writing about the sports scene here has been discovering the teams and the dedicated fan bases behind them. Seeing the amount of kids kicking footballs around during the World Cup and how into it they got because of the exposure to the sport they were getting because of their national team’s success showed how international recognition was impacting Japan.
So it got me thinking: what kind of impact is Japanese talent having on the sports world outside of Japan? Are there players out there changing the way that their sports are played? Or do the best players choose to stay at home because it’s difficult to make the leap into the international leagues? I took four examples of players doing big things outside of Japan to try and illustrate the sporting talent that Japan is exporting to the rest of the world.
Name: Hachimura Rui
Hachimura Rui is a Japanese professional basketball player who plays power forward (a position for tall, powerful players who have the versatility to play both an offensive and defensive role) for the Los Angeles Lakers. Hachimura was born in Toyama Prefecture and had success in the sport at a young age, winning the All Japan High School Tournament three years in a row playing for Meisei High School. He’s been playing for the Japanese national team from the under-17 team all the way to today.
The Washington Wizards drafted him 9th in the 2019 National Basketball Association (NBA) Draft following a successful college career with the Gonzaga Bulldogs at Gonzaga University in Washington, making him the second Japanese-born player to ever be drafted in the NBA. In his first season, he made the all-rookie national team and has had an impressive career to date in the NBA.
This culminated early this year; after playing for the Wizards for three seasons, he was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers part way through the current season as part of a trade deal in January 2023. This means he’ll get to take the court every game with basketball legend LeBron James, which must be a dream come true for anyone who aspires to play in the NBA.
Hachimura will be a key piece of the Japanese national team when they head to the FIBA Basketball World Cup this year, which Japan will host in partnership with Indonesia and the Philippines. Before that though, he’ll be helping the Lakers push for a playoff place, and performances like his debut for the team where he contributed 19 points in a crucial win over the New York Knicks should help make him a key piece of the team.
It’ll be exciting to see what Hachimura can achieve playing in LA. The only thing that has somewhat held him back so far has been injury, missing 95 games over his first three seasons. If he can stay healthy and stay on the court, who knows, he may be the star of the next Space Jam remake.
Name: Maruo Resuri
Sport: American Football
Maruo Resuri (Les Maruo as he’s known) is a Japanese professional gridiron football linebacker for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League (CFL). The CFL plays second fiddle quite often to the National Football League (NFL) in its cousin to the south, the United States. But the quality of competition there is still higher than most other countries in the world, and once you’re outside of the NFL, it’s probably the next biggest league out there.
Maruo got his opportunity to play at the U.S. collegiate level, having lived in the U.S. from the age of nine. He played for Hutchinson Community College before transferring to the University of Texas at San Antonio. After failing to be drafted by either the NFL or CFL after graduating, Les returned to Japan and played for two years with the X-League side Asahi Soft Drink Challengers before being drafted by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2021 during the CFL’s Global Draft.
After playing a season rotating between the full roster and the practice squad in 2021, Les saw more of a full-time role in 2022, including recording his first career sack (tackling the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage whilst he’s still holding the ball—a massive deal in the sport) in the CFL against the Edmonton Elks.
Maruo plays one of the most underappreciated positions in the game, which requires a level of physical strength and agility to not only come down the field and make big tackles but also run with the fastest players on the field to block passing attempts. There’s a level of football knowledge and intelligence required at the position to try to guess what the opposition is about to do and to organise the rest of the players around you in less than a few seconds.
Japan and the CFL have been collaborating closely the past four years, as the CFL has been expanding their international recruitment, holding combines in Japan as a stage for Japanese players to showcase their talent.
As a fan of American football, I’ve been really impressed during my time in Japan by the play I’ve seen when I’ve been to watch the X-League. The mixture of home-grown talent and American players who have been brought into the teams makes for an interesting level of competition, and it’s encouraging to see players find a way onto a larger stage.
Several Japanese players have come close to playing in the NFL, making their way onto preseason rosters and practice squads where players compete to make the final full-season rosters (teams typically start off the preseason with over 80 players and whittle all the way down to 53 before the season starts), but none have made it to the regular season. If the Japanese players get the kind of exposure that they got this year with the Japan Dream Bowl against the American Ivy League All-Star team, it could open up doors for more players to make their way across the Pacific to the college leagues and beyond.
Name: Furuhashi Kyogo
Sport: Soccer / Football
Celtic Football Club is a soccer team (here on out referred to as football) of the Scottish Premier League, which could almost have an entire article about themselves. That article could be written just about the Celtic manager, Ange Postecoglou, who came to the Scottish team from managing J1 League side Yokohama F. Marinos for three years, winning the J1 League in 2019. The team currently has five Japanese national players on their squad: Maeda Daizen, Hatate Reo, Furuhashi Kyogo, Iwata Tomoki, Ideguchi Yosuke (currently on loan back to Avispa Fukuoka), and Kobayashi Yuki.
The star of the group, though, is Furuhashi Kyogo, and not just because he’s from my home prefecture of Nara. Kyogo, as he’s known, started his professional career at J2 League Club FC Gifu for a year as a forward (the sexy player on the team who gets to score all the goals) before moving on to the J1 League Vissel Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture, where he played for three years, scoring 42 goals in 95 appearances.
In 2021, Kyogo signed a four-year deal to join the Scottish Premiership club, Celtic FC, and this is where he truly broke out. He made his debut in August 2021 in an Europa Cup qualifying game and scored on his first outing. Only a few days later, he made his Scottish League debut and instantly became a fan favourite, netting a hat-trick (three goals) in his first game in Celtic Park. As of the time of writing, Kyogo is the league’s leading scorer for the current Scottish Premier League year.
If you go onto Twitter and search #Kyogoal, you’ll quickly find yourself on the Celtic or Celtic Japan Twitter pages and get treated to highlights of what Kyogo has been doing this season. From the activity on the Celtic Japan Twitter page, it seems that Japan has embraced Celtic in the way Celtic has embraced its Japanese star player.
To date, Kyogo has scored 32 goals in 45 Scottish League games and another 13 in other competitions for the club. Many were shocked when he was left out of the Japanese national team for the Qatar World Cup in 2022. When asked about the decision to exclude Kyoyo and fellow Celtic player Hatate Reo, the Japan national team coach Moriyasu Hajime didn’t really clear anything up:
“We selected players who will be on the same wavelength as a team, who will be able to move and link up together, who through their organisation will be able to make use of their individual strengths.”
The reason, though, is likely to do with the fact that Kyogo’s club performance hasn’t always translated on the national stage. He’s scored only three goals in 16 appearances for his country, and two of those came in a 14-goal rout of Mongolia in their World Cup qualifier game.
Celtic’s embrace of football talent coming out of Japan is in no small part due to the Japan national team’s success, and other players such Minamino Takumi have found success further south in the United Kingdom in the English Premier League and in European football. Celtic’s particular situation owes a lot to Ange’s time in Japan and his unique window into the football talent there. Asked about his signings when several players were signed in early 2022, Ange responded:
“The reason I went down that road is, one, I have great knowledge of that market in that part of the world because that is where I have worked, and two, it is ideal for the January market because their season finishes in December. If we wanted to get players in early in the January window, that is a good part of the world to do business. Don’t just assume we’ve brought in four Japanese players, we have brought in four quality players, all very different, who can all contribute.”
If Japan’s success on the national stage continues, and the moves that Ange and other managers have made in bringing talented Japanese players onto the biggest stages of the football scene, it could see more players be given the same opportunity.
Name: Otani Shohei
It’s hard to write about sports in Japan without mentioning baseball. Outside of the United States, Japan has one of the biggest baseball followings in the world with an estimated 20% of the population following the sport.
There are eight Japanese-born players active in Major League Baseball (MLB), the U.S. premier baseball league, and likely the most well known to fans of the sport is Otani Shohei of the Los Angeles Angels. His nickname “Shotime” should tell you everything you need to know about how he’s viewed in the game. Prior to joining the Angels, Otani played for the Nippon-Ham Fighters in Hokkaido aged just 18 all the way back in 2013.
Otani is a pitcher (the one who throws the ball), which is solidly the most important position on a baseball team; it’s not quite as imbalanced as the importance of the quarterback in American football, but the importance of having a talented pitcher still shouldn’t be understated. On top of that, he is also a talented batsman, being used throughout his career as a serious threat in both phases of the game.
He made his debut with the Angels in December of 2017 and started his first game for the team on March 29, 2018. By April 3, he’d made his pitching debut and hit his first home run in the MLB. That wouldn’t have been a shock for anyone who’d followed his career in Japan where he was dominant at the club and national levels both on the mound (the little hill of dirt where pitches are thrown from) and at bat. By the end of his first season, he’d been named the American League Rookie of the Year.
It shouldn’t be underplayed what a rare player Otani really is. In 2021, he started a game at pitcher whilst also being the league leader in home runs, something which hadn’t happened in over 100 years since baseball legend Babe Ruth last did so. Otani kept breaking records through 2021, which led to him being named the obvious winner of the American League Most Valuable Player award.
His 2021 season was so iconic it made two separate entries into the Guinness Book of Records, which was celebrated in his home country with the lighting of Tokyo Tower.
Otani will likely go on to break many more records and set the standard for the sport for quite some time. The MLB actually changed a rule in 2022 (now named the Otani Rule), essentially allowing him to bat after pitching without needing to spend time in the outfield. Taking full advantage of this, he set the standard for several records again in the season.
The mark that he has made on MLB will ensure that when people around the world think of baseball, they will think about Japan in one way or another. The popularity of the sport in Japan, though, will mean that although some players will be tempted away to join the lights of the MLB, there is a place for home-grown talent at home as well.
Author Bio: Andy spends most of his time worried about the future of the New Jets football team. He has a family around here somewhere and can often be found hunched over painting small plastic figures. Iced coffee is his favourite thing about Japan.