Arsenal’s Japanese connection


Over the summer, Arsenal acquired two Japanese players. Takehiro Tomiyasu, a relatively unknown full back from Bologna joined Mikel Arteta’s side and highly rated forward Mana Iwabuchi signed for the Arsenal Women’s team. Both have settled in quickly.

Iwabuchi has scored four times already, while Tomiyasu’s name was chanted throughout the recent draw at Brighton. Most importantly for Gunners fans, both starred in respective North London victories—Iwabuchi with a goal and assist, Tomiyasu demonstrating considerable defensive ability.

These two players, however, are merely the latest chapter in an enduring and unusual Japanese connection that has developed over the club’s modern history.

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Takehiro Tomiyasu at Bologna Fc

Prior to joining Arsenal, Arsène Wenger managed J-league side Nagoya Grampus Eight (now known as just Nagoya Grampus). Nagoya, a city in central Japan, was an unusual destination for a coach, who just a few months earlier had been wanted by Bayern Munich. Yet this was 1994.

There was a sense that Japanese football was on the up. The recent formation of the J-league meant the sport was professional for the first time. An ever-increasing number of fans were flocking to games. Gary Lineker was playing out his final career season at Nagoya (he was unable to inhibit a bottom of the league finish).

Wenger arrived and Lineker retired. After a rocky start, Arsène guided the club to their first ever trophy—the Emperor’s Cup in 1995—and a runners-up league position. He was awarded the manager of the year award but left midway through the following season when Arsenal came calling.

Wenger’s notorious success at the Gunners throughout the 90s was antithetical to the fate of the Japanese premier division. Attendances declined rapidly, in part due to the economic difficulties that beset the country, and the league was reformed again in 1999. Wenger has always spoken fondly about his time in Japan. It is intriguing that the man who shaped the footballing vision of the modern Arsenal cut his teeth in Asian football.

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Arsene Wenger on the Arsenal touchline

After five years as Arsenal boss, Wenger bought in the club’s first Japanese player. Joining in 2001, midfielder Junichi Inamoto’s brief time at Arsenal was understandably insignificant. Inamoto was competing for places in a midfield against Ray Parlour, Edu, and Patrick Vieira.

He made just four appearances, debuting in the League Cup but never playing a league game, before being released. After leaving Arsenal, however, he scored twice in the 2002 World Cup, joined Fulham and became the first Japanese player to appear in the Premier League. Remarkably, Inamoto is still currently playing professional football in Japan.

Wenger’s two subsequent Japanese signings, both made during the 2010s, were similarly unsuccessful at Arsenal. Ryo Miyaichi made only four appearances. Takuma Asano, a supposedly promising young striker, was denied a work permit to play. Neither player lived up to their potential.

So Japan had been a formative location for the club’s greatest modern manager and Highbury had been a formative ground for the first Japanese Premier League player—and yet there was yet to be a Japanese success story in the Arsenal red-and-white. Until this year.

The signings of Tomiyasu and Iwabuchi mark a new era in this connection. Both seem primed to contribute considerably on the pitch. Both are already established as first team players.

An ‘Arsenal: JAPAN’ banner hangs proudly at a corner of the Emirates stadium on matchdays. The influence of the country on the club has simmered throughout recent years. It might be about to heat up.