2023 will force everyone to think it through before composing their rosters. In the end, the World Cup break will force the J1 and J2 to end sooner than later – by mid-November everything should be done –, while J3 will go until the end of the month. This without thinking that next year will feature the AFC Asian Cup breaking the season in halves and the possible add of one or two more teams within the pro-world.
This will inevitably impact the Winter transfer market window as well, with clubs that will have to move fast and surgically to fix their problems. But whether you’re in a relegation dogfight or just thinking about how you can get to the top of your league, there will be many, many movements throughout the full Japanese football ladder.
That’s what we’re gonna talk about in “Market Week”, a three-day festival over possible moves, why they should happen and the players to watch out for next Winter. We start with the first part we called “Leaps & Renegades”. On one side, we’ll talk about the players who would deserve a step forward in their career by staying in Japan; on the other one, the players who need a step back to regain confidence.
To talk about “Leaps”, we took three examples from J2 and as many from J3. We didn’t focus on obvious choices or players from teams who could get promoted. Furthermore, no players who are living their rookie season in their league (otherwise people a huge chunk of Roasso Kumamoto players would have been in the conversation, for sure).
- Ryoga Sato
Forward / Age: 23
The past: In the end, it’s actually the third season at Verdy for Sato, although the first one saw him playing just once and the second – as glamorous as it was – could have been a rookie, lucky year. Instead, Sato reached double digits again while Verdy are struggling.
Why leaping? When you score 12+ goals in two consecutive seasons, it makes sense to look out for a Plan B. Also because it doesn’t seem like Verdy are going anywhere since they changed their manager mid-season for the second year in a row.
Possible destination: We would say one of the big should take a good look at Sato. Nagoya Grampus have struggled all year in the no. 9 position, playing Noriyoshi Sakai and now taking in an unknown Brazilian from China. Having Sato would solve most of the problems.
- Shunsuke Ota
Winger / Age: 26
The past: A few years ago, when he became pro in 2018, Ota looked like one of the many strange forwards at Kofu. He first emerged under Akira Ito, then he became a Swiss knife under Ranko Popovic at Machida, having put together 15+ goals and assists in back-to-back seasons.
Why leaping? Tough to say if Machida will make it to the playoffs or they won’t – we would say more the latter –, but they’re stagnating a bit. They might get a J1 season sooner or later, but will turn 27 in February. Better now than later.
Possible destination: We admit we would be super curious to see him at Kashiwa Reysol. Maybe he wouldn’t really fit the line-up, but he can play in so many positions that it wouldn’t be a problem set in stone.
- Ikki Arai
JEF United Chiba
Center-back / Age: 28
The past: After playing a few seasons in J1, he found his home in Chiba. He’s joined JEF United in 2019 and he became gradually more and more important, then transforming himself into one of the anchors of Yoon Jung-hwan’s line-up. But the Korean manager is leaving, so…
Why leaping? A surprising, whopping amount of 7 goals this season put him on the map alongside center-backs like Jordy Buijs and Yutaro Takagi in terms of being decisive.
Possible destination: He’s been already in J1 – he played (not that much) with Yokohama F. Marinos and Nagoya Grampus –, so he wouldn’t be exactly a rookie. If Petrovic stays on in Sapporo, it could be a nice bet to make.
- Daichi Ishikawa
Winger, Forward / Age: 26
The past: It took him some time to find a proper spot within the Japanese hierarchy. Ishikawa started with FC Gifu in J2, had a minor appearance for Azul Claro Numazu in J3, and then moved to Gainare Tottori, where he’s been one of the few bright spots throughout these dire seasons.
Why leaping? 6 goals and 6 assists last season, with a good chance of reaching 10 goals in 2022. Gainare have too many forwards anyway and he seems the only one capable to make a leap forward.
Possible destination: If Renofa Yamaguchi will keep the same mojo in 2023, they could need someone to solve games all of the sudden (although Kazuma Takai has been doing just fine this kind of job).
- Yudai Tokunaga
Central midfielder / Age: 28
The past: He began with SC Sagamihara in J3, but then moved to Tegevajaro in 2019, when the club was still playing in Japan Football League. Two years as a semi-pro forged him, then the return to J3 and a splendid season with the no. 10 in 2022.
Why leaping? Miyazaki haven’t confirmed the progress from last season – when they almost escaped with the direct promotion –, but they showed a few talents to J2 observers. Tokunaga was among them, and he’s experienced enough to give J2 a try.
Possible destination: Tochigi could use some fantasy and Yu Tokisaki has always been fond of talented players. Tokunaga could work as a nice prop for Saturdays and Sundays at Tochigi Green Stadium.
- Kosuke Fujioka
Striker / Age: 28
The past: It’s incredible how many seasons Fujioka played before even becoming a pro in J3. Four with the reserves of Fagiano Okayama, and four more with Tegevajaro. In the hindsight, it’s incredible how then he trashed J3 opponents in the last two years between Miyazaki and Gifu.
Why leaping? While scoring 27 goals in 139 matches in the JFL, he already racked up 22 in 52 games in J3. Time to move up the ladder.
Possible destination: Honestly, it would be a nice player to see under Takahiro Shimotaira in Oita. And Trinita has been an environment where players from minor divisions have been able to fly.
About the part talking over “Renegades”, we featured players older than 25, with less than 10 league games in 2022 (until now) and coming from J1.
- Daiki Watari
Forward / Age: 29
The past: We don’t need to say anything. Just a number: 59, like the goals Watari scored between Kitakyushu, Tokushima, and Fukuoka. He’s a “category player”.
Why start from scratch? Despite not playing this much in these two years in J1, Watari can still make the difference. Surely at this level he’s more fitted for that aim.
Possible destination: If Roasso are bound to lose Toshiki Takahashi, Watari could be a nice replacement (and his Kyushu tour would go on).
- Junya Suzuki
Side back / Age: 26
The past: It’s incredible how his rise stopped. After playing a few matches with VfR Aalen in 3. Liga in Germany, he came back and steamrolled through J3, being one of the best prospects between Fujieda MYFC and Blaublitz Akita.
Why start from scratch? Because the leap towards FC Tokyo didn’t work out anymore after Albert Puig took over. Suzuki isn’t a player for ball possession, but he does have speed, stamina, and a nice foot.
Possible destination: A romantic return to Blaublitz would warm our hearts (and Akita need any possible strength to avoid another relegation in 2023).
- Origbaajo Ismaila
Striker / Age: 24
The past: Ismaila came silently to Japan, joining Fukushima United FC mid-2019. After 2020, he was clear he was ready for something more, but he signed for Kyoto Sanga last season mid-year.
Why start from scratch? Because he’s not a J1 player at the moment. He’s a diamond in the rough, and he clearly jumped the gun to J1, while a J2 loan would have helped him this season.
Possible destination: If Sanga will be solid enough to avoid relegation, honestly a loan to JEF United would be nice to see (especially if someone smart will put his hands on Solomon Sakuragawa).
- Kengo Kitazume
Right back / Age: 30
The past: Kitazume was a heart-warming story: he came up through the ranks of J2, playing firstly for an almost J1 returning side like JEF United Chiba, and then being a part of Yokohama FC’s promotion to J1 in 2019.
Why start from scratch? Kashiwa Reysol should have been the next step, but Kitazume found relative space on the pitch. He played many games in 2020, but then disappeared from rotations and featured in just 11 matches in all competitions.
Possible destination: If Fagiano Okayama won’t go up, it would be interesting to see him there, in a fast-paced team.
- Jun Ichimori
Goalkeeper / Age: 31
The past: He was a rising star once he won the J3 League with Renofa Yamaguchi, before moving to Fagiano Okayama and becoming a solid commodity for the club. When he signed for Gamba Osaka in 2020, his destiny was clear.
Why start from scratch? Surely, no one expected Ichimori – back then 28 years old – to overcome the institution that Masaaki Higashiguchi is. But with Kosei Tani looming for a return and Kei Ishikawa on the roster, it doesn’t make any sense to stay.
Possible destination: Tokyo Verdy really need a keeper. A good one.
- Noriaki Fujimoto
Striker / Age: 33
The past: Fujimoto has been one of the feel-good stories of the 2010s in Japanese football. He almost gave up on football, only to join Kagoshima United FC and become a major force in J3. Then Oita, the J1, the passage to Vissel Kobe and the 2019 Emperor’s Cup win as a protagonist.
Why start from scratch? Because, in the hindsight, the move to Vissel backfired. With all that star power, Fujimoto hasn’t had any chance to shine. Nevertheless, his loan last year at Shimizu S-Pulse showed there’s still potential in him. Maybe not for J1, but who cares?
Possible destination: Fujimoto has given his best to play as a lone striker or with a close partner (e.g. Yusuke Goto in Oita). We’d be super interested to see him in Nagasaki, maybe partnering either Ken Tokura or Edigar Junio.
Stay tuned for the next episode tomorrow! “Market Week” has just started, and we’ll have plenty of chances to talk about several players and their future in 2023.