Trailblazer Yasuhiko Okudera
Toshiyuki Hayashi interviews Japanese soccer legend Yasuhiko Okudera on his career, international experiences, and the lessons he learned playing top-level professional football around the world.
Okudera was the first Japanese footballer to play in a foreign league when he joined FC Köln of the German Bundesliga in 1977. While with Köln, he became the first Asian player to score a goal in the European Cup. He later joined Hertha BSC and Werder Bremen. He achieved 32 caps playing for the Japanese national team, scoring nine goals. Okudera is the founder and current president of the Japanese J2 League club Yokohama FC. He is a member of the Japan Football Hall of Fame and the Asian Football Hall of Fame.
Toshiyuki Hayashi: As a rugby player, I don't know much about soccer. What are the origins of the sport?
It started in England. Originally, children would kick a round object toward the neighboring village with the other village trying to do the same. Whoever managed to get the ball through the entrance to the other town, won! Obviously, over the years it became more sophisticated and rules were added.
How did you get started playing soccer?
Yasuhiko Okudera: I am originally from Akita Prefecture, but moved to Yokohama when I was young. At that time, I was not interested in soccer. I was really into table tennis in junior high school but transferred to the soccer club at the recommendation of a friend. That was my first encounter with soccer. I continued throughout high school and won the Kanagawa Prefecture championship in the third year. From that point on, I had a sense of fulfillment and joy. I really wanted to raise my game to the expectations of everyone around me.
What was the key to improving your game and performance?
By practicing on my own away from the team, I was able to think about the things I struggled with and work towards improving those parts of my game. Also, I was pushed by the coaches and other players around me in a good way. I became completely absorbed in soccer. My high school coach was so important to me. He really instilled tactics and the mental side of training and how to play the game. Later, he introduced me to my first professional team: Furukawa Electric. From there I was able to start building my career.
I believe that good coaches and good leaders are the essential keys for mentoring young people, and indeed: future leaders. You also have to be open to all opportunities that come. Always trying to step up to the next level, to accept new challenges, devote yourself and raise your game.
Furukawa Electric was a great company and the team had fantastic coaches, senior players, and staff, which gave me an opportunity to improve. Opportunities kept coming to me. At the age of 19, I was able to represent Japan internationally with the national team. This led to my next opportunity: going abroad.
Tell us about going abroad…
I thought that going abroad was just a dream, not possible for a Japanese amateur.
I was quick and had a strong left foot, but my skills were not developed enough. I decided to travel to Brazil and learn from the most skillful players in the world. It was an important experience that changed my footballing life.
When I returned to Japan, I could see that I had improved—everyone could see it. After returning, I traveled with the Japan national team to Germany where the management from Köln FC saw me and offered me a contract. It was a big decision, but I decided to take the opportunity.
There, my confidence was low and I was struggling. The coach said to me: “What are you here for? You have to play your own game, do not worry about the people around you.”
He was right. My confidence increased. I became more involved in each game. Chances came around for scoring more and more. We won the league that year.
I learned from playing in Germany for nine years that you have to have a purpose. I knew what I wanted to do and how I would achieve it. That is why I was successful there. I was open to trying new things, like changing my position and I was able to adapt. You need to develop a strong mind to overcome diversity. Of course, you also need the support of your family and the people around you.
Recently, it’s reported that young Japanese people are not going abroad. In the sports world, though, they are still going all over the world.
When I returned to Japan and decided to start the next stage of my career, I felt my international playing experience had the opportunity to make a big impact. When I became general manager of Yokohama FC, it was an amazing feeling to develop the team and have it promoted to the top of the J.League.
I was blessed to have a great team and executives and we did well. I've been involved in soccer all my life, but it’s only with the support of the people around me that I could succeed.
What advice would you give to young Japanese people today?
See the outside world. Get exposed to new things, people and ideas. This can only happen if you go abroad. But go with a purpose, such as developing a skill or wanting to learn how young people in other countries view things.
What do you think of the Japan national team’s chances at this year's World Cup?
Japan is in a strong group, but I think they can do well.
The World Cup will be held for about a month and it will take time for teams to adjust to playing together and the conditions there. I think you will see teams like Costa Rica and Spain gradually improve their form over time, so Japan needs to play its best right from the beginning. The key to moving past the group stage is winning against these two teams.
This year's competition will be held in the middle of league play, which is a bit unusual. Teams won’t be cohesive and unprepared, so I think anything can happen.
About the trailblazers series
The Tokyo MK Trailblazer series are by Japanese rugby legend and Tokyo MK director Toshiyuki Hayashi. In it, he interviews world-class Japanese athletes and sportspeople about their past experiences to inspire a future generation.
While studying at Oxford University in the U.K., Hayashi played in the Oxford-Cambridge Varsity Match in 1990 and was awarded Full Blue honors for the victory by the Oxford University Blues Committee. He later led the Japan Rugby team as captain in the first Rugby World Cup and has been a stalwart of Japanese rugby for more than 40 years. He is chairman and founder of NPO Heroes, using top athletes to educate young people through emotional learning.
For more information on Toshiyuki Hayashi and the Heroes organization, visit his official website at http://t-hayashi.jp.