Five Rising Stars from Japan’s WE League

Alex Bishop identifies and analyses some of the next generation of Japanese talent who could make it big in Europe or the United States

Japanese players are renowned for their exceptional technical skills and footballing intelligence. They continue to light up the elite leagues of women’s football with every arrival swiftly settling in and making themselves key to their new team. Household names such as Mana Iwabuchi (Spurs), Yui Hasehawa (Man City), Hina Sugita (Portland Thorns), and Jun Endo (Angel City), along with the more recent examples of Fuka Nagano (Liverpool) and Maika Hamano (Hammarby, on-loan from Chelsea), are testament to this; Japan has clearly established itself as a prime producer of top talent.

Here we will assess the next batch of young Nadeshiko prospects ready to take the world of women’s football by storm. All are aged 20 or under at the time of writing and are playing regularly in Japan’s top flight, the WE League.

Aoba Fujino (19) – Tokyo Verdy Beleza – Forward/Winger

Fujino vs all WE League forwards using the Winger – All Round profile, last 12 months

Hailing from the elite academy that produced household names such as Homare Sawa, Mana Iwabuchi, Yui Hasegawa, and Risa Shimizu, this high intensity forward is the latest in a long line of top Beleza talent. After a standout performance at the 2022 U20 Women’s World Cup, Fujino is now a regular feature of the Nadeshiko seniors and has clearly earned the trust of head coach Futoshi Ikeda.

Typically, Fujino will play as a wide right-sided forward. She is able to function as a traditional winger, sprinting along the byline before delivering an accurate cross into the box, as well as an inside forward cutting into the box for some incisive passing combinations. There is also a physical element to her game that allows her to barge through opposing defenders with the ball at her feet. She possesses plenty of pace and often makes herself available for a rapid counterattack with the last defender usually finishing second best.

At the time of writing, she is the WE League’s joint top scorer with a tally of six goals in 12 games. She has started every league match for the Empress Cup holders and boasts a goal involvement average per 90 of 0.84, making her Beleza’s most productive attacker. Fujino has played the full 90 minutes in all but one game this season, totalling 1,072 minutes of playing time. The 19-year old’s fitness levels are seemingly limitless.

Fujino vs all WE League forwards using the Striker – All Round profile, last 12 months

With only injury standing in the way of a 2023 Women’s World Cup call-up, Fujino is hardly flying under the radar. Her strength and physicality is a quality not often found in Japanese players and there is little to suggest that she would struggle to adjust to a physically demanding league like the WSL. The international experience the youngster has enjoyed so far will also help her case with the UK work permit regulations.

Rion Ishikawa (19) – Urawa Reds Ladies – Centre back

The departure of Moeka Minami for AS Roma and long-term injury of sturdy center back Hana Takahashi has paved the way for young Urawa Reds prospects such as Ishikawa to step in and establish themselves as dependable first-team members. Despite being thrown in at the deep end early on in the season, she has found consistency and cemented her place in the Reds backline. Her run of good form has been rewarded with a callup to the national team seniors and the defender is hopeful of making the Nadeshiko world cup squad in July.

Ishikawa vs all WE League centre backs using the Centre Back – All Round profile, last 12 months

Sound judgement, physicality and positional awareness are the core attributes that define Ishikawa’s game. Naturally, she made some mistakes after a rushed introduction to the Urawa first-team, but these have now been minimalised and the 19-year-old appears to be much further along in her development than many centre backs of the same age. She commits herself to tackles with conviction and remains composed when faced with an unstable situation. For both Japan and Urawa, she has plays as the centrepiece of a back 3 and regularly displays that all important commanding presence required to strategically organise the backline.

Ishikawa’s start to the 2022/23 season got off to a slightly shaky start with six goals conceded in Reds’ first three games. However, they have gone on to keep five clean sheets from 11 games, with Ishikawa on the pitch for every single minute played so far. She also bagged her first headed goal and has proven to be a handful for defenders when jostling for aerial superiority in the box. 

It would no surprise to see Ishikawa follow in the footsteps of her Urawa defensive cohort, Saki Kumagai and Moeka Minami. Her adaptability and physicality suggest that a move to a major European league would be of little hindrance. With a slight lack of pace perhaps being her downside, a team that places emphasis on defensive structure and organisation would be an ideal destination.

Riko Yoshida (20) – Chifure AS Elfen Saitama – Attacking midfielder/Winger

Riko Yoshida is a homegrown talent who has flourished under the new attacking regime of head coach Tomoe Tanabe. Her linkup play with in-form striker Yukaru Yumura and her individual creativity have been major contributing factors to the drastic improvements seen of late from the side that finished bottom last season.

Yoshida typically plays as an attacking midfielder, occupying the space in behind a central striker. Her wing-play should not be ignored as she possesses the passing nous and crossing skills to offer much from the wide areas. However, it is her silky-smooth dribbling skills that make her very easy on the eye. Yoshida has work to do on her shooting, and she could get on the ball in dangerous areas more too, both factors reflected in her TransferLab profile.

Yoshida vs all WE League forwards using the Attacking Midfield – Attacking Playmaker profile, last 12 months

This season is Yoshida’s second as a key player for Elfen. We are already seeing a significant increase in her attacking output with 0.43 goal involvement per 90 after just 12 games and 1,049 minutes played. Last season she averaged 0.28 from 1,634 minutes over 18 games. In part this may be a result of the new attacking approach last year’s lowest ranking team has taken as of late but the less tangible signs do indicate that Yoshida has become a dependable starting member of the Elfen first team.

Yoshida vs all WE League forwards using the Winger – Classic Winger profile, last 12 months

Professionalization has allowed for a more even distribution of top talent throughout the league. Last year’s lowest ranking team are now the envy of most with this high-potential creative talent on their books. While the early signs indicate that Yoshida could work her magic in the big leagues, a stepping stone move to a higher ranking WE League club is likely to be the best foot forward.

Mei Shimada (20) – Urawa Reds Ladies – Striker

The current WE League Cup holders are known for their attacking prowess and arguably there is no better place for a young Japanese forward to learn their trade. This is the setting Mei Shimada finds herself in as the Japan U20 international continues to compete for a starting place at the current league leaders.

Shimada vs all WE League strikers using the Striker – Target Striker profile, last 12 months

Typically, the Reds academy graduate plays the role of a target forward, playing with her back to goal ready to either play in a teammate or go for goal herself should a viable opportunity present itself. Shot accuracy, shot power and movement in tight areas are her prevalent qualities. Her decision making is often on-point and she is rarely seen to hesitate in a critical do-or-die situation. In fact, her sole weakness seems to be non-shot attacking heading in open play; for expected goals, touches in the box, and open play defensive headers she is in the top 10% of the league.

Shimada has featured in all 11 games for Reds, totalling 630 minutes of playing time. She has found the net four times, usually providing the finishing touch of a finely crafted attacking move. As it stands, there is stiff competition ahead of her in the current Urawa setup. 2021/22’s Golden Boot winner Yuika Sugasawa and veteran forward Kozue Ando seem to be head coach Naoki Kusunose’s preferred strike partnership so the long-term plan for the youngster could be one of succession.

Shimada’s decisive edge is a quality seldom found in young Japanese strikers. She plays with a maturity and physicality beyond her years and would adjust to life in the NWSL or Europe with little hindrance. However, an enticing offer of regular first team football at Reds is likely to come when one of the veteran’s decides to hang up their boots.  

Chinari Sasai (18) – Nojima Stella Kanagawa Sagamihara – Winger/Forward

Diamonds are often found in the rough, not to be too disrespectful to a standalone women’s team punching well above its weight in the WE League. This dynamic forward is surrounded by attacking quality at Nojima and has been appropriately introduced to life in Japan’s top-flight. The presence of veteran forwards such as Ami Sugita and Arisa Minamino provides an excellent environment in which the youngster can develop.

Above all, it is Sasai’s eye-catching dribbling skills and tricky movement that make her an absolute joy to watch. Defenders will often close in and surround her only for the youngster to weave her way out of the situation and advance on goal. She usually plays as a wide forward, attacking the box from wide by either playing in a teammate or going for goal herself. There is an element of unpredictability to her game that often leaves opponents guessing her next move, be it a shot, pass or dribble. Sasai has work to do as a creative presence, though, and her profile is intriguing, suggesting that she could well develop into a predatory striker.

Sasi vs all WE League forwards using the Winger – All Round profile, last 12 months

Indeed, Sasai has started eight of 12 matches for Nojima with a total of 644 minutes played and has scored three goals, all from close range inside the box. Head coach Masaaki Kanno seems to be carefully managing her introduction to the first-team with the 18-year-old remaining on the pitch past 80 minutes on just 3 occasions, although she has made an appearance of some sort in every league game so far.

A call-up to the Nadeshiko U20 side may well be the next milestone achievement for Sasai. The stage seems set for her to establish herself as a Nojima starter should her performances continue to impress. This one certainly passes the eye test and an increase in game time should put her firmly on the radar.


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