Japanese football has always been competitive, but the nation didn’t fully come under the spotlight until it jointly hosted the 2002 World Cup. Since then, Europe has seen a steady influx of Japanese players and many of these have made it to the English Premier League.
Here is a guide to the best of those players, including the two men who have EPL winner’s medals in their possession.
Japanese Players to win the EPL
Midfielder Shinji Kagawa had already made his mark on European football when Manchester United acquired his signature in 2012. The Japanese international had spent two years in Germany with Borussia Dortmund and had lifted the Bundesliga trophy on two occasions.
Kagawa made it three major European titles in three consecutive campaigns as his United side won the EPL in 2012/13, and he became the first Japanese player to win a Premier League title. Their Japanese import had made twenty EPL appearances, scoring six important league goals on the way to the trophy.
He showed flashes of his brilliance, but Shinji Kagawa’s stay in the Premier League was a brief one. He played just 18 league games in the following campaign before rejoining Borussia Dortmund in 2014.
By the end of the 2022/23 season, only two Japanese players had won the English Premier League. Shinji Okazaki became only the second man to do so when he formed part of the Leicester City squad that stunned football by claiming the title in 2015/16.
A forward, Okazaki had joined Leicester from Mainz at the start of that memorable campaign and he played in 36 league games across the term. He wasn’t a regular scorer, but some important goals helped the club to the trophy, and he stayed at the King Power Stadium until 2019. Shinji Okazaki played in 137 games for Leicester City across all competitions, scoring 19 goals.
Greatest Japanese Players in Premier League History
Having started his career in his native Japan, Takehiro Tomiyasu made his name with Bologna in Italy. His performances in Serie A persuaded Arsenal to make a move, and the defender joined the Gunners in 2021.
Tomiyasu is a versatile defender and one of his qualities is the ability to play in any position across the back four. He hasn’t always been a first choice starter at the Emirates, but he’s been dependable when Mikel Arteta has called upon him. With Arsenal making consistent title challenges, Takehiro Tomiyasu has a good chance of becoming the third Japanese player to win the Premier League.
Former Cerezo Osaka midfielder Takumi Minamino was a big money signing for Liverpool when he joined the club from Red Bull Salzburg in 2020. He made some promising contributions for his new side but, as he struggled to claim a regular place, Minamino was sent out on loan to Southampton for part of the 2020/21 season.
He could be a frustrating player who featured in just 30 league games for Liverpool over three seasons. Minamino will divide opinion among Liverpool fans, but many saw flashes of his brilliance, and they believe he should have been given more of a chance at Anfield.
International winger Kaoru Mitoma has become a firm fan favourite at Brighton, and many feel that we will eventually remember him as one of the best Japanese players in the Premier League.
Since he joined the Seagulls from Kawasaki Frontale in 2021, Mitoma has helped to improve a competitive Brighton squad, which has qualified for the Europa League for the first time in its history. Mitoma has quality in the final third and scores at a good ratio for a winger. Brighton will be desperate to hang onto his services, but it would be no surprise to see a top four European club make a transfer bid for Kaoru Mitoma in the near future.
Centre half Maya Yoshida is one of the longest serving players in the Premier League. He joined Southampton from VVV Venlo in 2012 and stayed with the South Coast club for the next eight years.
A solid defender, Yoshida’s displays helped the Saints remain in the Premier League at a time when they would usually battle against relegation at the wrong end of the table. He also helped to give Southampton fans some bright spells, and he was part of the squad that finished as runners up in the 2017 EFL Cup.
He moved on to Sampdoria in 2020 and, while his play sometimes lacked consistency, Maya Yoshida made an important contribution during his time in the EPL.
The newest Japanese recruit to the Premier League, Wataru Endo joined Liverpool from VFB Stuttgart at the beginning of the 2023/24 season. He’s an experienced defensive midfielder with over 50 senior caps for his country, and he should provide some steel ahead of the Reds’ back line.
During his time in the Bundesliga, Endo returned good statistics for duels won and tackles made, and Liverpool are hoping that he will replicate that form in the Premier League. It’s early days, but the signs are promising. Wataru Endo has made some impressive displays in his Liverpool career to date, and he scored his first goal for the club in a Europa League tie against Toulouse.
Newcastle United didn’t see the best of Yoshinori Muto during his three years with the club. A forward who could also feature on the wing, the player joined the North East outfit from Mainz in 2015, after he had turned in some impressive displays in the Bundesliga.
Muto remained with his English club for two seasons and was restricted to just 25 league appearances. Newcastle fans were treated to very brief glimpses of his best form, but we really didn’t get to see the best of Yoshinori Muto.
Junichi Inamoto played for three Premier League sides after initially joining Arsenal on loan from Gamba Osaka in 2001. He was one of the first Japanese players to feature in the EPL, but the Gunners passed on signing him full time, and he left the Emirates after making just four appearances.
Inamoto also appeared for Fulham on loan and he was far more effective for the Cottagers, making 41 appearances across two Premier League seasons. While he didn’t score too many goals in England, he was known for some spectacular strikes, and the Japanese media had even compared him to David Beckham.
Junichi Inamoto eventually left Fulham, but he remained in the Premier League, playing for West Bromwich Albion between 2004 and 2006. He may not be the biggest name here, but he was an effective player when fully fit and Inamoto also claimed a trophy, winning the UEFA Intertoto Cup with Fulham in 2002.
Midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata began his professional career with Japanese side Bellmare Hiratsuka, but he made his mark in Italy. During spells with Perugia, Roma, Parma, Bologna, and Fiorentina, he became the highest scoring Asian player in the history of Serie A.
Nakata also became the first Asian to be nominated for a Ballon d’Or award. Because of those achievements, Bolton Wanderers fans may have been excited when they heard that the player was heading to the Reebok Stadium on a loan deal from Fiorentina in 2005.
Hidetoshi Nakata was, however, nearing the end of his playing career when he came to England. He didn’t hit the same heights as he had with Italian clubs, but he impressed at times, playing in 21 league games and scoring one goal for Bolton.
Other Notable Players from Japan
Kazuyuki Toda produced the briefest spell in the Premier League. He began his career with Shimizu S-Pulse where he played under manager Steve Perryman, who was a legendary captain at Tottenham Hotspur. Presumably through Perryman’s recommendation, Toda came to Spurs in a loan deal in 2003.
He was a versatile player who went on to enjoy a long career, but Tottenham didn’t give Kazuyuki Toda a chance. After just four games, all of which came in the Premier League, he returned to his parent club.
Ryo Miyaichi is an unusual Japanese player as he began his professional career in England. After a successful trial with Arsenal, the Gunners signed the midfielder on a full time contract before instantly sending him out on loan to Feyenoord.
On his return from the Netherlands, Miyaichi then joined Bolton Wanderers on another temporary deal, and he made his Premier League debut for the Trotters in the 2011/12 season. In total, Ryo Miyaichi made just 17 EPL appearances before he left London for German side St Pauli in 2015. Only one of those games came with Arsenal, while he also played in the English top flight with Bolton and Wigan Athletic.
The two Premier League players at the top of this list, Shinji Kagawa and Okazaki, are the most successful Japanese footballers in the Premier League, and many will also consider them to be among the best. However, they have some serious competition among others who have appeared in England’s top flight.
Compared with many other nations around the world, Japan isn’t a big feeder country for Europe’s top leagues. This list shows that there have been mixed results among players, and not all have fulfilled their potential.
As the 2023/24 English season began, Liverpool gave Wataru Endo the chance to make his mark on the Premier League while Kaoru Mitoma continues to impress at Brighton and Hove Albion. Those players have a chance to progress, but who will be the next Japanese player to star in the EPL?