Japan have been involved in two upsets during this World Cup so far. They first upended Germany, beating the four-time World Cup winners 2-1, before losing 1-0 to unfancied Costa Rica, which leaves them in a genuine predicament when it comes to advancing from Group E. The Samurai Blue must find a way to earn at least a point against Spain in their group-stage finale on Thursday to have a realistic chance of reaching the round of 16 for the fourth time in their history.
While Japan are going into the game as clear underdogs, there is hope that another upset is in the realm of possibilities thanks to a backbone of technical and high-octane players who all earn their money in Germany.
Out of the 23 outfield players selected by national coach Hajime Moriyasu, eight play in the German Bundesliga and one in the 2. Bundesliga. "The [Japanese (JFA) and German (DFB) FAs] have been close for many decades, going back to 1960, when Japan trained in Germany in preparation for the Olympics, and Dettmar Cramer was appointed by the JFA as a technical advisor," Dan Orlowitz, a Tokyo-based reporter, tells ESPN.
Yasuhiko Okudera became the first Japanese to appear in the Bundesliga after he signed with FC Cologne in 1977, although his decision to go to West Germany was met with rejection at home. "He was branded as a 'traitor of the nation,'" Tatsuro Suzuki, a Berlin-based translator and coach, explains. "At the time it was a no-no to go abroad." That changed some years later, as a wave of Japanese players led by Shinji Kagawa and Makoto Hasebe came to the Bundesliga in the 2010s.
"I think Bundesliga clubs see Japanese players as dedicated hard workers who play for the team and don't have egos, which fits the dynamic over there," Orlowitz says.
While German teams are well connected in Japan nowadays and are able to get a hold of emerging talents, not every Japanese player appearing in the Bundesliga came directly from Japan. The group of eight in the World Cup squad can be divided into three parts: Ko Itakura, Takuma Asano, Ritsu Doan and Wataru Endo were signed by clubs in England, Belgium or the Netherlands, but either could not establish themselves there and had to go elsewhere, or showed their talent and were signed by German clubs later.
Daichi Kamada, Hiroki Ito and Ao Tanaka moved directly from Japan to Germany, while Maya Yoshida played eight years in the Premier League and three in Serie A before he signed a contract with Schalke 04 this summer.
Kamada might be the biggest name in Japanese football right now, having been part of Eintracht Frankfurt's Europa League-winning campaign in 2021-22. In the months leading up to the World Cup, Kamada impressed with his attacking instinct and finishing skills, scoring 12 goals in 22 games. Naturally, he has been linked with several potential clubs if he chooses to leave the Bundesliga side, although Frankfurt would like to keep the midfielder because they know how much they can count on him delivering consistently good performances.
What Kamada is to Japan's attacking midfield, Endo is to their defensive midfield. The 29-year-old from VfB Stuttgart is widely regarded as one of the more dominant No. 6s in the Bundesliga, combining smart positional play and relentless defensive intensity. In a sense, Endo is a successor to Hasebe, who at 38 has moved into an elder-statesman-like role at Frankfurt. In his heyday, Hasebe was a field general similar to what Endo personifies today.
While Kamada and Endo have realised much of their potential in recent years, other Japanese players have still not reached their ceiling. One example is Itakura.
The defender-midfielder hybrid was spotted by Manchester City in 2018, but never played a minute for the Sky Blues after signing with them. Instead, he went on loan to Groningen and later Schalke, where he helped the club gain promotion back to the Bundesliga. As Schalke were not able to pay the fee required for a permanent transfer, Borussia Monchengladbach stepped in and picked up Itakura to replace Germany international Matthias Ginter. Itakura has the tactical intelligence to play in a back line and control strikers through positional play and timing. It took him some time to get settled after leaving Japan, but the Bundesliga seems perfect for the 25-year-old.
The same can be said about Doan, who also had some good showings for Groningen across two seasons in the Eredivisie, but really had his coming-of-age moment when he was on loan at Arminia Bielefeld in 2020-21. The agile winger increased his stock significantly to the point that SC Freiburg were determined to sign him from PSV Eindhoven permanently a year later.
"Germany is the country in Europe where Japanese generally have an easier time getting along," Suzuki says. "Stable structures, relatively safe, a lot of Japanese subsidiaries. Many people in Germany understand English. In comparison to 20 years ago, you can find authentic Japanese food much easier. Restaurants and Asia markets are spreading across the country, and you are able to eat just like you do in Japan. For many Japanese, food plays a crucial role in terms of their standard of living."
While the billion-dollar business that is football demands players to simply function, there are these soft factors that can impact the performance of professional footballers as much as of everyone else. It is no coincidence that the Netherlands and Belgium, two of Germany's neighboring countries, have also served as promising destinations.
The Bundesliga benefits from the presence of Japanese players, as they contribute with their style of play to the attractiveness of the league while also opening doors to the eastern Asian market. In return, the players benefit from the success they have at clubs with huge followings such as Schalke, Stuttgart and Frankfurt. National coach Moriyasu talked about the fact that the Bundesliga fuels his team after Japan beat Germany on matchday one, claiming: "They are fighting in these very strong tough leagues. They've been building up their strength. So in that context, if those leagues have been contributing to the development of our Japanese players, I respect that and I'm very grateful for this."
"Like I said, there's a deep respect for the German game," Orlowitz adds. "And I think everyone knows that the Bundesliga isn't just a stepping stone for Japanese players but an elite league of its own, and players like Kamada, Doan, etc. have really been able to prove their worth."
These players will be the center of attention for a nation of 125 million once again when Japan take on Spain and Germany meet Costa Rica in what will be a dramatic final matchday of Group E. In a cruel twist of fate, Japan could end up eliminating Germany from the tournament, though Germany's Bundesliga stars will also know their opponents, so it could also happen the other way around.
Additional reporting from ESPN's Gabriel Tan.