Can you remember what were you doing in 2012? We could, a bit. But it’s tough to put everything in place among our memories. Surely, Japanese football was in a different place: J.League was starting to attract more int’l interest, Japan just won at the Stade de France in Paris, and we were ready to celebrate the first-ever J1 title by Sanfrecce Hiroshima, after a head-to-head duel with Vegalta Sendai.
Meanwhile, in J2, a young striker found his way to the main stage. Ehime FC were hosting many players on loan, and if you look at the top-scorers chart, you can find some names. It was the season where Davi just steamrolled through the opposition, scoring 32 goals for champions Ventforet Kofu. Kengo Kawamata had his breakthrough year, and Oita Trinita could count on the goals of Yasuhito Morishima and Kazushi Mitsuhira.
At 14 goals, there were six players. Among them, the most surprising was probably a 21 years-old lad on loan to Ehime FC from Vissel Kobe. His goals let the club reach a quiet 15 place, above Avispa Fukuoka for example. He scored against Shonan Bellmare, and twice against Montedio Yamagata… he seemed on a run towards better things, especially with Vissel Kobe having been relegated to J2 for the 2013 season.
Incredibly, though, Koki Arita never repeated those numbers in his career ever again. He lived through a lot of J2 years, but he never repeated this feat… until 2022. The striker won the “Best Signing” Award from our readers and there’s a reason why: he found the best season of his career in J3, but Kagoshima have maybe finally found the last piece of the puzzle they were looking for since the times of Noriaki Fujimoto.
A Long Way Ahead
Born in Niigata in 1991, Arita joined Vissel Kobe from the Hokuetsu High School. Forget the Galacticos times we’re currently experiencing in Kobe: it was a radically different team, living through mid-table seasons and occasional relegations. Arita actually debuted in J.League already on Matchday 3 of the 2010 season, but then found limited pitch time. The loan at Ehime FC was supposed to be his breakthrough.
Instead, when Arita came back to Kobe, he didn’t find any space despite the club being in J2. He scored two goals, but he played just nine matches in the second tier in 2013: ironically, both came away… at Ehime, in a 4-2 win. Therefore, Arita left Kobe and started a long journey throughout the second division: three years at Kyoto Sanga, four years back at Ehime FC, and 2021 spent with Ventforet Kofu.
But the struggle stayed: Arita couldn’t find the net like in previous seasons. Most of those years, the striker scored from five to seven goals, minus three seasons where he racked up one goal per year (2014, 2019, 2021). It seemed like it was hard to find a new gig in J2 which would have brought him back to scoring ways. In the end, Arita joined Kagoshima United FC, who deeply needed a no. 9.
Why Kagoshima Worked Out Just Fine
But why Kagoshima signed Arita? Well, let’s say that since Noriaki Fujimoto left for Oita Trinita in 2017, Kagoshima never really found a striker who could compete with his skillset and performance. Takuma Sonoda didn’t work out; Yusei Kayanuma is a J3 striker; Lucão had a brief appearance before leaving for Kanazawa; Noriyuki Sakemoto was theoretically a holding midfielder. Basically, only Han Yong-thae worked in J2 (and he never repeated that 2019 season anywhere).
Rei Yonezawa was the only sparkle within Kagoshima’s handbook, but you can’t win promotion back with just a player doing the whole heavy lifting. Yonezawa is currently second all-time among J3 top scorers (60 goals), and even if his ACL injury will keep him out for a few months, he needed a partner in crime. With him on one flank and Junki Goryo on the other one, Kagoshima found a formula.
The final step was done by the new manager, Naoto Otake. Former Iga FC Kunoichi Mie in the Nadeshiko.League, Otake actually won it all in 2021, and we were extremely curious to see how he would have adapted to jump back to men’s football with his first head coach gig. It worked: Kagoshima won’t probably go highest than third, but the club was for 19 matchdays in the Top 2. And the 15 goals by Arita helped obtain these performances.
Arita is 31 years old and he’s perfectly on target to have another good season in 2023. Furthermore, Kagoshima United FC will be one of the favorites for promotion next year. Neither Ryukyu nor Iwate look dangerous. We expected Gifu and Toyama to thrive, and they’ve been disappointing in the last two years. Surely Nagano and Matsumoto will be in the mix, and there might be the usual surprise, but Kagoshima will be a contender.
And to be that kind of contender, they need Arita’s goals. He’s one of the seven players to have scored a hat-trick in J3 this season; he won “Player of the Month” in May; and the 4-2-3-1 build by Otake is meant to benefit the no. 9 (and it’s not like Jin Hanato or Shunsuke Yamamoto have been exactly contenders for that role). It’ll be crucial for KUFC to have Arita thriving again, with the striker still in the run to win the top-scoring title in 2022.
Furthermore, Arita has been one of the most decisive players in J3, scoring six game-winners throughout the whole season. It’s strange how the only promotion to J2 Kagoshima ever endured didn’t see any player score more than 10 goals – their best scorers that season were Thiago Quirino and Kosuke Yoshii with five (5!) –, but this time a true striker is needed for further heights.