Motherwell’s signing of Riku Danzaki took the number of Japanese players in Scottish football to eight, all of whom have arrived in the last two years.
It’s been a growing trend, led by Celtic and their manager, Ange Postecoglou, who accrued knowledge of the J-League while in charge of Yokohama F Marinos for three years.
Other clubs have started to follow suit as they expand the markets from which they recruit in search of hidden gems and good value. BBC Scotland takes a look at why Japan has become a key place to scout players and what benefits it could have for Scottish football.
The Postecoglou effect
The Celtic boss has been the most influential person in recruiting players from Japan given his intimate knowledge of the league.
Scotland’s reigning champions have six Japanese players on their books, with Kyogo Furuhashi, Daizen Maeda and Reo Hatate all key players in last season’s title win – and with Yuki Kobayashi and Tomoki Iwata recruited this January. Yosuke Ideguchi is the only one of the initial influx who has failed to make an impact.
Clearly the success of Kyogo, Maeda and Hatate – all bought for comparatively little money – has alerted other clubs too, with Heart of Midlothian signing forward Yutaro Oda from Vissel Kobe, Kyogo’s old club, and Motherwell bringing in Danzaki from Consadole Sapporo.
“I think it’s down to the fact that the clubs didn’t know Japanese football and perhaps the clubs were unadventurous,” says JSoccer Magazine and Website editor Alan Gibson.
“Japanese players have also had trouble securing overseas visas and work permits, but things are changing. Japan are in the top 20 in the Fifa rankings now, which will help them in Britain. Ange showed what people thought could happen and has proved it’s well worth dipping into the Japanese market.”
One of the key concerns clubs might have had previously about signing Japanese players is how they would adapt to a totally different culture. But, with dressing rooms now increasingly diverse and clubs much better informed, that barrier has reduced.
And, as Postecoglou pointed out last year, no two players are the same regardless of nationality.
“We have to be careful about just saying ‘four Japanese players’,” the Celtic manager said. “These are four individuals, they are totally different people.
“It’s a very different culture in Japan and, for a lot of Japanese players, that first move across can be pretty challenging.
“It’s not about trying to create a unique environment for them. They know they’re here to represent this football club and they know the challenges involved.”
Brexit broadens horizons
Britain’s exit from the European Union ended free movement of people across the continent, making it more difficult for Scottish clubs to get players in from European countries.
Any player signing from outside Britain needs to get 15 points on a Home Office grading system, with marks gained for things like international appearances, what club they’re coming from, and their wage.
Most players coming to Scotland don’t meet the threshold, so a case for a Governing Body Exemption has to be made.
Essentially, it’s now just as easy to sign someone from Japan as it is from France, which was not the case pre-Brexit.
It means clubs are broadening their horizons, with Hearts investing successfully in players from Australia, Ross County and St Johnstone adding players from North America, while Celtic’s new striker, Oh Hyeon-gyu, has come from South Korea.
The Asian market in particular can offer great value for Scottish clubs, who are typically competing with wealthier English and European clubs who can offer more money.
On average, European clubs only spent £52,673 in fees per transfer for players playing for clubs in the Asian Football Confederation last year, the cheapest of all confederations, according to a Fifa report.
Only 500 players moved from AFC clubs to Europe, with Concacaf the only federation to have fewer players switch to football’s richest continent.
It means less competition and better rates. That may be changing with the growing number of Japanese players playing in Europe’s top five leagues – including Kaoru Mitoma at Brighton & Hove Albion and Arsenal’s Takehiro Tomiyasu – but the J-League still represents value.
A boost for Scottish football?
From the players’ point of view, Scottish football offers a platform to show their qualities and adjust to a different culture so they are primed for a move to a bigger league.
But aside from their skill – the Vissel Kobe midfielder and World Cup winner Andres Iniesta described young Japanese players as “dynamic, talented and physically strong” – Japanese players offer a commercial opportunity for Scottish clubs.
A country of 125 million people with a growing love of football after a successful World Cup and an increasing number of their best talent moving abroad raises profile and interest.
“Celtic games are always quite easily available,” Gibson says. “Teams are getting to be known. Now that Hearts have signed Yutaro Oda, it’s amazing how many people are interested.
“The pandemic has limited people, but once that things truly settles down, there will be hundreds of Japanese fans at Celtic games and Hearts games and any other teams that sign our players.
“And the press will be there more and more. Five or six years ago, there would suddenly be 50 journalists that would attend matches in countries where certain players had moved to.
“They even lived in the same city as these players. So there will be a huge influx of tourists and football tourists with people interested. There will be a lot of kick back for Scotland, that’s for sure.”