J.League shows strength of development pathway as alums continue to thrive in Europe

J.League shows strength of development pathway as alums continue to thrive in Europe

The J.League has long been the engine of Japanese football development, with Japan's professional football league producing some of the country's most well-known superstars on the global stage over the last 30 years.

There’s been a change in the last five years, though, as more and more of the promising young talent coming through the J.League has gone on to play in Europe and achieved enormous success almost overnight.

More than 75 players have moved from the J.League to European clubs in the last half-decade, joining teams that range from Spanish giants Real Madrid to the German Bundesliga’s Eintracht Frankfurt. Clubs like Celtic in Scotland and Belgium’s Sint-Truiden have taken it a step further and garnered a reputation for being well-known landing spots for prospects from the Land of the Rising Sun.

Celtic, who visit Japan this week for a pair of friendlies against Yokohama F·Marinos and Gamba Osaka, recently secured consecutive titles under the stewardship of former Marinos — and new Tottenham Hotspur — boss Ange Postecoglou. That revitalization of the Bhoys' fortunes was largely built in the J.League.

Kyogo Furuhashi, for example, was an FC Gifu and Vissel Kobe starlet prior to signing with The Hoops, where he immediately took Scotland by storm. Furuhashi scored 20 goals in his first season with Celtic, then had a 34-goal campaign last season, winning club and league Player of the Year honors.

To the south, Japanese players have occasionally made an impact in the English Premier League over the years—from title-winning Shinji Okazaki to stalwart defender Maya Yoshida—but Kaoru Mitoma has almost immediately set a new bar upon arrival to Brighton & Hove Albion.

On the back of a successful J.League career with Kawasaki Frontale, Mitoma has gone on to star in Sussex, scoring 10 goals and adding eight assists last season, helping Brighton to an astonishing sixth-place finish in the league, to go along with a semi-final appearance in the FA Cup.

Mitoma isn’t the only player who has gone from the J.League to the Premier League recently. Takehiro Tomiyasu came through the Avispa Fukuoka academy, transferred to Sint-Truiden and after just one season earned a move to Bologna in Italy’s Serie A. Two great seasons in that top competition and he had Arsenal calling for him, landing in England, where he helped the Gunners to a second place finish in the 2022-23 campaign.

Elsewhere, Real Sociedad's Takefusa Kubo had a year to remember in Spain, with the former F.C.Tokyo and Yokohama F·Marinos man setting the single-season scoring record for a Japanese player in LaLiga.

These are just some of the swiftly-growing pool of homegrown stars succeeding with clubs across Europe in recent years. With almost every Japanese footballer coming through the domestic professional pyramid now, it only takes one look across the European football landscape to see just how much potential there is in the pathway born 30 years ago in Japan and just how well-prepared alums are to thrive in European football after taking their first steps in the J.League.