Justin McCurry on Japan's continuing love affair with English football, despite the Premier League shifting its focus to other Asian markets
When Harry Redknapp brought Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi to Portsmouth for £1.8 million in 2001, detractors spied a case of commercial considerations taking precedence over footballing ability. Sure enough, the Japanese goalkeeper departed under a cloud less than two years later after a series of hapless performances that saw him lose his place to the 42-year-old Dave Beasant.
Whether or not Redknapp's sole motivation was the prospect of hordes of Japanese supporters descending on Fratton Park is open to question. What is indisputable is that English clubs have long viewed Japan as a rich seam of revenue. In recent years, signing players from the Far East was the best means of mining it. A decade on from "Yoshi", English football is home to just one Japanese player, while Premier League clubs appear to have averted their gaze from Japan towards the huge, and relatively untapped, markets of China, Hong Kong and South-east Asia.
The failure of Japanese players to succeed in England has not helped the clubs' cause. Junichi Inamoto was never more than a novelty at Arsenal, to be paraded in low-risk cup and reserve fixtures. The peripatetic career of Hidetoshi Nakata, arguably the best player Japan has ever produced, floundered at Bolton, where he scored a single goal in 21 league appearances during the 2005-06 season.
The apparent waning of interest in Japanese signings among Premier League clubs is matched by a reluctance to reward Japanese fans for their long-distance loyalty. For now, summer jaunts to Japan – often organised in the face of opposition from travel-weary players – are off the itinerary.
Arsenal's expected trip to Japan this summer was cancelled after Arsène Wenger conceded it would be impossible to play in a country still reeling from the effects of the March earthquake – never mind that a visit from a Premier League club would have at least lifted the spirits of fans from the tsunami-hit region. Arsenal did make it to Malaysia and China. It was a telling choice of destinations for the club's pre-season tour. As they confront falling revenues at home, English clubs are looking to the Far East for fresh injections of cash.
Manchester United have announced an initial public offering in Singapore that they hope will raise $1 billion (£637m) from some of their estimated 190 million fans in Asia. Turmoil in the global markets momentarily forced a postponement, but the consensus is that the club will be listed on the Singapore stock exchange by the end of the year.
The biggest showcase for English football in Asia has bypassed Japan. The Asia Trophy, which involves three Premier League clubs and a local team, has been held five times since 2003, in China, Hong Kong (twice), Thailand and Malaysia. It would be wrong, though, to suggest that the Premier League is losing its cachet among ordinary Japanese fans. Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United are perennial favourites whose support base is unlikely to recede, especially now that the yen's stunning gains against the pound have made football tourism to England more affordable.
On any given weekend it is possible to watch several live and recorded Premier League matches on Japanese satellite TV, as well as highlights and preview programmes, each broadcast five times over the course of a week. Ever eager to embrace shifts in the game's power balance, Japanese fans have been quick to recognise the rise of new challengers for the Premier League title, and the arrival of lesser-known teams (in Japan) such as Wigan, Stoke and Wolves.
Japan's Manchester City supporters' club counts among its members Katsushi Oikawa, a 20-year-old student from Tokyo who was quickly drawn to the team after catching a televised Manchester derby at Eastlands five years ago."I'd never seen a Premier League match before then," he says. "I didn't even like football much. It wasn't so much the players or the match itself, but the atmosphere inside the stadium that impressed me most. Afterwards I did some research into both clubs and was struck by City's strong local fanbase and its links to Manchester. I immediately wanted to be part of that enthusiasm."
The Premier League's multinational playing staff shielded it from any lasting fallout from England's poor performance at the World Cup in South Africa. "I don't think Japanese fans make a connection between the England team and the Premier League," says Alan Gibson, who runs the jsoccer.com blog. "They'll support Manchester United, Chelsea and other big clubs come what may. In any case, is the Premier League really an English league these days?"
At the same time, the league is competing for attention from other European clubs, particularly those with Japanese players on their books: Takayuki Morimoto at Novara, Yuto Nagatomo at Inter, Makoto Hasebe at VfL Wolfsburg, Atsuto Uchida at Schalke 04 and Shinji Kagawa at Borussia Dortmund. There are even the first stirrings of interest in Russian football, thanks to Keisuke Honda's presence at CSKA Moscow.
The conduit for a reconnection between the Premier League and its Japanese fans could come in the youthful form of Ryo Miyaichi, a high school graduate when he was signed by Arsenal in January before spending the rest of the season on loan at Feyenoord, where he earned the nickname "Ryodinho". Yet Miyaichi is relatively unknown, even at home. "A bit more patience will be required because he was still only 18 when he went to Arsenal," says Oliver Butler, former editor of Soccer Investor who now works on the Times sports desk. "His impact is unlikely to be immediate, and there is concern that he'll remain on the backburner until he becomes a regular in the first team."
Butler believes Japan will remain in the Premier League's sights, despite the challenge from other parts of Asia. "There is still a lot of potential in Japan, because of the size of the market and its honesty – there is far less counterfeit merchandise there than elsewhere in Asia, and, unlike China, greater per capita wealth. Japan will keep its place in the top five foreign markets."
For many Japanese fans, an English approach for, say, Honda during the January transfer window would be fair, albeit overdue, recompense for their satellite subscriptions and merchandise outlays. He may even bring something more than extra revenue to his new employers.
From WSC 297 November 2011