Next Gen J.LEAGUE: Five players to watch in Japan
Free to read: We pick out the Japanese prospects to look out for in 2024.
Historic clubs, vibrant atmospheres, high-quality football, and plenty of young talent - the J.LEAGUE has a lot going for it.
The recent successes of Karou Mitoma, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Takefusa Kubo - among many others - have thrust the Japanese game into the spotlight. With each passing transfer window, more and more clubs are looking to recruit directly from Japan, chasing the latest triumph of great-value talent.
Premier League fans were perplexed at how Brighton managed to pluck Mitoma out of relative obscurity last season, yet those with a keen eye on the Asian game will have known him as an outstanding attacker for Kawasaki Frontale, playing over 60 games and contributing to almost 50 goals, and anticipated his big breakthrough.
Ange Postecoglou is another of its now iconic exports, winning trebles at Celtic and implementing his glorious style at Spurs after three years at Yokohoma F. Marinos. Such successes have made the J.LEAGUE one of football’s hottest markets, and everything suggests its popularity will continue to grow in coming years.
The best bit? You can watch it for free on the J.LEAGUE International YouTube channel. A selection of games is broadcast live every matchweek, complete with English commentary, and there’s a full season’s worth of games available to view right now.
We’ve used the channel in our scouting, and you should too. Here are five emerging J.LEAGUE prospects to keep an eye out for in 2024…
Sota Kawasaki (2001, CM, Kyoto Sanga)
Sota Kawasaki started his first senior game in October 2020 and hasn’t looked back since. A 90-minute outing in a 1-0 win against title-chasing Giravanz Kitakyushu has turned into 120 games for Kyoto Sanga across three years and two divisions.
Having played a key role in helping his club return to the top flight of Japanese football, Kawasaki has gone from strength to strength. His first J1 LEAGUE season saw him play over 2,000 minutes, and his second added another 300 onto that tally and presented the prestigious opportunity to captain the club in all but one of his 28 appearances.
Kawasaki is a hive of activity in midfield. Energetic, persistent, relentless - all of those words are applicable to the small-but-mighty Kyoto Sanga captain. He’s all-action, all-energy on both sides of the ball: when his teams have it, he’s always making angles to receive the next pass; when his teams don’t, he’s constantly chasing to try and win it back.
Indeed, the 22-year-old tends to perform better when playing at an almost frantic speed. He thrives when everything is quick, like his two-touch passing, darts to receive the ball, or aggressive pressing. Kawasaki isn’t a player to shackle in his own specific zone - the best way to utilise his infectious energy is to let him expend it all over the pitch, popping up wherever he’s needed most.
Underpinning everything he does are two things: tenacious mobility and solid basic skills. His smaller size affords him a burst and nimbleness that gets him around the pitch with speed, and he shows a good sense of anticipation and awareness to play with a seamless tempo in possession.
Of the five players on this list, Kawasaki, with three full senior seasons in the bank, is the one that’s most ready to make the leap to European football. Clubs in Germany, Austria and Belgium - where the football is faster and more frantic - should shortlist him immediately.
Kuryu Matsuki (2003, CM, FC Tokyo)
High School and University football are among the idiosyncrasies of Japanese football. A good chunk of J.LEAGUE regulars elected to develop through one or both of those educational systems instead of the club academy, which is the norm in Europe.
Kuryu Matsuki is one of those. He graduated from the Aomori Yamada High School, situated on the northern-most tip of Japan’s Honshu island, before stepping straight into senior football at FC Tokyo, the capital club that boasts a proud record of developing young talent. He played just under 2,500 minutes in his debut campaign, racking up almost 30 starts in one of the world’s best leagues.
The 20-year-old is a left-footed midfielder that can do a bit of everything. His skillset is rounded enough to utilise him in different roles, from a play-building number six to a box-crashing number ten, or a number eight that can contribute to every phase of play.
I like him best as the latter, a role where he can showcase the full breadth of his ability. He has the technical talent and awareness to be the play-developing passer in deeper areas before arriving into the final third, supporting attacks from there. He can slip pressure with little twists and turns too. There’s also a competitiveness to him that lends itself to winning the ball back as well. ‘Compactness’ - being sharp and concise in movements and actions, basically - is something I look for in young midfielders, and Matsuki has that.
On the international stage, Matsuki captained Japan at the AFC U-20 Asian Cup and FIFA U-20 World Cup this past year and has already accumulated over a dozen appearances a few age groups up at U-23 level. He was named the AFC Young Player of the Year for 2023 too, further adding to his burgeoning reputation.
European clubs were already aware of him during his High School days, where he starred in the Aomori Yamada side that won the High School Championships in early 2022, and they’ll have been following his first couple of J.LEAGUE seasons closely too. I think Matuski has the upside to play to a strong level in a top-five league within five years, but he may need to step on a stone before hitting those levels.
Kota Takai (2004, CB, Kawasaki Frontale)
Playing over 1,000 minutes as a teenager in a J.LEAGUE season isn’t that common. Only five players aged 19 or under managed to rack up as many minutes in 2023. One of them was highly-rated Kawasaki Frontale defender, Kota Takai.
He did so despite spending a few weeks in another continent halfway through the campaign . Takai was part of the Japan side that competed at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Argentina during May; he started all three games in the tournament as a right-back and was one of five players to play every minute. That’s where he first caught my attention.
On the pitch, perhaps his most obvious attribute is his height: Takai stands at 1.92 metres, according to Transfermarkt, which translates to about 6’3”. That’s considerably above the average in Japanese football. Despite his size, Takai moves pretty well - he’s not the fastest nor the most agile, but he’s spry enough to cover space effectively and has a decent leap. Keep in mind that he’s only 19 years old.
As a defender, Takai is neither overly aggressive nor passive, he adapts to the situation. He reads the game pretty well and has the physical capacity to overwhelm attackers in duels, particularly when stepping onto the ball - looming from behind, getting a foot in to pinch the ball - or sweeping in wider channels, levering his big frame between man and ball. He’s a little too ball-focussed at times, especially when defending space, allowing runners to dart off his blindside, but that can be worked on.
His ability in possession is secure and steady. You won’t see him pinging a 60-yard pass to the opposite wing or gallivanting off on a mazy dribble into midfield, but you will see him moving with the ball with tempo and slipping passes through a line or two. He takes with his left foot and moves with his right, providing a solid foundation for Kawasaki Frontale in build-up phases.
With only 13 J.LEAGUE starts to his name, staying at Kawasaki Frontale for at least another season should be Takai’s priority. A full season as a starter, racking up 30-odd games and over 2,500 minutes, would be perfect for him at this stage of his development. Clubs will be watching him very closely.
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Riku Yamane (2003, CM, Yokohama F. Marinos)
Who remembers Kevin Muscat? Many of you will from his time in British football, where he played for Crystal Palace, Wolves and Rangers. I specifically remember him from that Neil Warnock documentary and those famous words, “serves you right for Muscat, that.”
Anyway, the Aussie is now a distinguished manager. His most recent success has come in Japan, leading Yokohama F. Marinos to a J.LEAGUE title in 2022, building on the foundations laid by countryman, now Spursman, Ange Postecoglou. Muscat has since left to take the reins at Shanghai Port in China, but he leaves a tangible legacy.
Indeed, Riku Yamane was one of the young players that Muscat integrated into senior football during his time at Yokohama FM. He made his debut as an 18-year-old in the early knockings of their title-winning 2022 season before going on to make 46 more appearances under Muscat, racking up over 2,500 minutes in total.
Now 20 years old, Yamane catches the eye for his high-tech skillset. He slots into this Yokohama FM side - who averaged the joint-most possession in the 2023 season - because of his quick and secure use of the ball. His touch is clean, his awareness is sharp, and he coordinates both of those traits to play with tempo on the half-turn in midfield. He’s comfortable taking the ball of the centre-backs in tighter spaces, bouncing it around or manipulating an angle to play into higher areas.
He’s predominantly been used at the base of midfield, where he connects and breaks up play on both sides of the ball. His speed in possession is matched by tenacity out of possession; his smaller stature affords him a nimbleness to fizz around and get a foot in, showcasing promising basics skills in his footwork and anticipation.
At least another year in the J.LEAGUE, or probably two, is what’s needed for Yamane before thinking about making the leap to European football. With 18 starts to his name in 2023, the 20-year-old has a firm footing to build into a bigger role under a new coach going into 2024.
Jumpei Hayakawa (2005, ATT, Urawa Red Diamonds)
We’re getting ahead of the curve on this one. Jumpei Hayakawa was the youngest player to feature in the 2023 J.LEAGUE season. He was one of just four 2005-born players to play in the Japanese top flight last year - and the only one to start a league game, doing so three times.
His status as a regular for Urawa Red Diamonds in the YBC Levain Cup - the J.LEAGUE Cup essentially, in which he started all but two games as his side reached the final - earned him the New Hero Award, which recognises the standout emerging talent of the tournament.
Hayakawa is a small but mighty prospect, a multi-faceted attacker that can play anywhere around or even on the forward line, popping up in all kinds of spaces to get involved in play. The teenager can burst past defenders with and without the ball, find quick little combos to get in behind bodies, make darting runs off back shoulders, carry counter-attacks, and shoot powerfully off both feet, the stronger being his left - all while possessing the creativity and skill to manipulate the ball.
His short stature gives him a stocky balance that means he can bump bigger opponents off the ball with relative ease. He’s a tenacious defender as well, pressing with technique and intensity, then relentlessly hassling his opponent once in their vicinity. Again, his compact size and punchy mobility makes him difficult to get rid of.
Having already served a worthwhile apprenticeship last year, 2024 could prove to be a breakout campaign for the 18-year-old. The attributes are there for him to impact J.LEAGUE games from the get go. Hayakawa is probably the one on this list that has the biggest margin for a breakout season, so remember where you heard about him first.
And, as an added extra, here’s a little profile we prepared earlier before he made the leap to European football…
Shunsuke Mito (2002, AM, formerly Albirex Niigata)
Shunsuke Mito has burst onto the scene in the J.LEAGUE this season, but by no means has it come out of the blue.
His breakout top-flight campaign comes off the back of being a regular with Albirex Niigata in the J2 League for the past couple of years. He accumulated almost 50 appearances and 2,500 minutes in the second tier of Japanese football, helping them to promotion last year.
Mito has put together an exciting highlight reel in his first J1 League season. It includes four well-taken goals, all of which showcase different nuances of an interesting skillset. The first was certainly the most spectacular: a rocket of a right-foot strike into the top-left corner from 25 yards which clinched a 2-1 win against title-chasing Yokohama F. Marinos in matchweek 13.
Perhaps the most encouraging from a scouting perspective was his third, a late equaliser against Gamba Osaka in matchweek 27. Flitting between the lines, he showed for a pass, let it run past him into the centre-forward, all while quickly turning to receive the set pass, knocking it past a motionless defender, then slotting it into the bottom corner. It showcased a sharp thinking and innate awareness that can translate to higher levels.
That’s what the 21-year-old is: a clever operator around the striker(s). Feed him the ball between the lines and he has the qualities to make good things happen. It could be a quick one-two to get in behind his man, a weighted pass into a runner, a cross or cutback from wider areas, or a cutting third-man run beyond the ball. His ability to play in tight spaces, on the half-turn, is excellent.
His exploits earned him the J.LEAGUE Young Player of the Year award, which is a significant accolade. It sets up a big 2024 season that will likely play out in Japan, but don’t be surprised if certain European clubs are already eyeing the little attacker up.
A little update…
Since writing this piece in December, Shunsuke Mito has indeed been eyed up by a European club. More than that even, he’s moved to a European club.
The 22-year-old has made the leap and landed in the Eredivisie, joining Sparta Rotterdam who already have Koki Saito in their attack. He’s already made his mark too, scoring 32 minutes into his debut with a razor-sharp run and finish that was the staple of his skillset in the J.LEAGUE.
All things considered, the Eredivisie is probably the ideal league for Mito at this moment: its emphasis on the technical and tactical, rather than the physical, should allow him to contribute immediately as he continues to develop his athleticism. It’s become the place to be for Japanese talent, along with Belgium. He will be fun to follow in the Netherlands.
That’s just five players, too - there are a few more we could’ve focussed on, and there are countless more that we’ve yet to even watch ourselves.
The new season kicks off on February 28, and you will be able to watch a block of games each week for free on the J.LEAGUE YoutTube channel. If you want to do some scouting, then make the most of this opportunity.
This piece was produced as part of a paid collaboration with J.LEAGUE.