BERLIN // With Shinji Okazaki as the Bundesliga’s top scorer at Mainz 05 and Shinji Kagawa back at Borussia Dortmund, Japanese stars are enjoying a boom in Germany’s top flight.
There are now 13 players from Japan in the Bundesliga, more than ever before, and eye-catching performances have helped boost the profile of football in the Far Eastern country.
With five goals in five games, Okazaki is the league’s top scorer after six matches, while Dortmund have sold 15,000 shirts, worth over a million euros, since Kagawa’s return from Manchester United.
Due to demand, Borussia held a special autograph session just for the Japan midfielder and fans quickly snapped up special Kagawa T-shirts before he scored against Freiburg in his first game back.
Dortmund’s neighbours and arch-rivals Schalke 04 are also experiencing plenty of interest from Asia with right back Atsuto Uchida receiving a daily basket of post from Japan.
Along with plenty of love letters, he has also received such unusual items as bags of tea and bath salts from adoring Japanese fans.
“The fans send everything which I could possibly miss from Japan,” he explained to German magazine Sport Bild.
More importantly for Schalke, Uchida made his comeback after a long injury break in their 3-0 win at Bremen last month and played in the 2-1 win at home to Borussia Dortmund last Saturday.
Okazaki is nursing a calf injury but hopes to play against second-placed Borussia Moenchengladbach on Sunday, having helped steer Mainz to joint fourth in the table.
His prowess has opened up plenty of marketing potential in Japan with the club even offering guided tours of their Coface Arena in Japanese on the back of his performances.
“We are considering flying to Asia at the end of the season,” said Mainz’s manager Christian Heidel.
“There is contact with firms who are interested in presenting us in Asia and that we play a game or two there.”
Thomas Kroth, who used to play alongside Yasuhiko Okudera, the Bundesliga’s first Japanese import, at Cologne in the 1970s, now works as an agent for Asian players looking to play in Germany’s top flight.
“They don’t see Germany as a stop-off point, as so many Brazilians did in the 1990s, who actually wanted to play in Spain or Italy,” said Kroth.
“They live for their job, feel at home in Germany and concentrate on the task in hand.”
Eintracht Frankfurt’s Makoto Hasebe joins Kagawa and Okazaki as the third of the top three Japanese players in the Bundesliga.
The 30-year-old captain of Japan’s national side has played in the Bundesliga since 2007 and was part of the VfL Wolfsburg side which won the German title in 2009.
Former Germany midfielder Pierre Littbarski is chief scout at Wolfsburg and played in Japan’s J-League from 1993 to 1997.
He described one incident which highlights Hasebe’s status in Japan.
“I was a bit shocked when I went to meet Makoto in a rehabilitation centre,” said the 54-year-old.
“I needed an hour to get in and the whole area was completely sealed off.
“I needed a special visitors pass for it.”
Okazaki has a good explanation of why both Hasebe and Uchida enjoy cult status in Japan.
“They are both single and look pretty good, so they are both very popular,” he quipped.
“If I had the same face as Uchida, I would definitely get a few more headlines in the newspapers.”
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