Organisation is vital at the back, and language ability can have an impact on how smoothly things run… (日本語版はこちらです)
There was recently a very interesting interview with Maya Yoshida in the English newspaper The Independent, in which the Southampton defender discussed how he had been able to become the first Japanese player to renew a contract with a Premier League club.
Yoshida left Japan at the age of 22 having already established himself as a regular at the heart of the Nagoya Grampus defence and has grown steadily since, captaining Japan at the 2012 Olympics in London before transferring to Southampton in August of that year.
Nearly three years on the 26-year-old has matured into one of the leaders of the national team, and cited his efforts to pick up and communicate in the local language as key to his success.
“This problem of people who cannot speak English – this is a problem with Japanese education,” he said. “When I was young, I studied English since I was 12, in middle school and high school. But after six years studying English, people can read English, understand a little bit, but cannot speak English. It’s English for an exam, not for talking. And if they cannot speak English, there are no opportunities. It’s a shame. Some Japanese players are lazy.”
Of course, there are plenty of foreign players (and foreigners in general) in Japan who can’t speak, read, or write Japanese but find a way to get by – and the same can be true of Japanese players abroad. For Yoshida, though, that is dependent on your role on the pitch.
“Not all positions are the same. The most difficult for Japanese people are striker, centre-back and goalkeeper. I am the only Japanese player playing as a centre-back in Europe. Goalkeepers, there is maybe just one, my friend [Eiji Kawashima] in Belgium. There are many Japanese midfielders and full-backs, but the key positions are not as easy. You have to lead the team. If you cannot speak the language, you cannot lead the team.”
That reminded me of a discussion I had had a few years ago about the lack of foreign goalkeepers in the J.League. One explanation proposed was that goalkeepers need to be able to organize the defence and dominate the penalty area, and for that Japanese ability is vital.
With that in mind I was interested to see that Jubilo Iwata had signed a Polish goalkeeper, Krzysztof Kamiński, ahead of the 2015 J2 season, and a couple of weeks ago I headed to their game against Yokohama FC to see how he was getting on.
The 24-year-old certainly had an interesting start to the game, conceding that goal to Kazuyoshi Miura in the 14th minute, then playing a hospital pass to Yuichi Komano which led to Junki Koike doubling Yokohama’s lead before half-time.
“It was not such good marking [for the first goal] but the second goal was my mistake,” he said after the game. “I shouldn’t have passed to Koma because he was in a difficult situation.”
Jubilo ultimately went on to win the game 3-2, though, and Kamiński doesn’t feel that the language barrier is holding him back at the moment.
“Many words in Japanese during the game are similar,” he explained. “These are short words, so everyone understands. Maybe they can’t speak [English] but they understand when I scream something.”
Even so, like Yoshida he knows how important smooth communication is on the back-line, and has started to pick up some key vocab.
“[I know things like] ‘Hidari’, ‘migi’ – right, left – this is important in the game, but sometimes I don’t have time to think about it and I say something in English. But I want to learn Japanese to a basic level.”
As well as adapting to the new language, the 191cm stopper is also getting used to a different style of football.
“The difference in the game is that the players are more quick. They make many short passes. Sometimes of course teams play long passes, but here is very quick game.”
The biggest surprise was not the speed, however, but the timidity of opposing forwards.
“Strikers don’t want to shoot,” he laughed. “This is for me different. Because, you know, everyone should want to score, but here they want to pass, pass, pass. This is the biggest difference.”
As a new goalkeeper, hesitancy on the part of opponents to test your reflexes must help in the settling in process, but it will be interesting to see if there are any other breakdowns in communication between Kamiński and his teammates as the season progresses.