Eiji Kawashima is undoubtedly a footballing pioneer. The first Japanese player to play in Belgium’s top flight – a championship more used to drawing on African and South American talent – he is also only the second goalkeeper from the Asian nation to play professionally in Europe. Despite the lack of precedents, Kawashima has settled remarkably well on Belgian soil, to the extent that now, three years on, he is considered among the finest custodians in the Jupiler League.
Also his country’s undisputed first-choice between the sticks, Kawashima was one of the Samurai Blue’s finest performers at the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013. On the back of a campaign during which he even managed to save a penalty in the Asian champions’ group clash with Mexico, the Japan stalwart made time for an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Eiji, what’s your overall verdict on Japan’s performance at the FIFA Confederations Cup?
Eiji Kawashima: Results-wise we can’t be happy, but it was a good experience. Even though we lost all three games I think we can take some positives, and there’s still a year to go until the World Cup so we’ve got time to improve.
What do you think was the main lesson you’ll take from the tournament?
I think that for us it was important to know where we stand [in global terms] and to find out what we need to work on. I think a good analysis has been made and what comes next is working hard to make sure we go back to Brazil in the best form possible.
The Brazilian fans were particularly impressed by Japan’s display in the 4-3 loss against Italy. Is that the kind of performance the team should be measured by?
We played well against Italy and it’s safe to say that was when we gave the best account of ourselves, given our poor game against Brazil [in their opening match] and the defeat by Mexico [in the final group encounter]. But playing well doesn’t do you much good if you don’t pick up a positive result. If you don’t win, even if you deserve to, it’s always disappointing.
One notable difference between this Japan squad and previous generations is the number of players with European experience. Is that factor important in terms of the squad’s potential?
No doubt about it! Picking up European experience gives a player something different. For me personally in my career, it’s been fundamental. But I also think that the standard of the players in the Japanese league is improving. In general, Japanese football is on the up, with better players and better preparation.
You’re currently playing your football in Belgium, which is not exactly a well-trodden path for Asian footballers. What made you decide to move there?
After the 2010 World Cup I really wanted to play in Europe, but the standard of keepers in the bigger leagues was very high so it wasn’t an easy task. Besides which, teams rarely use up one of their non-European player berths on a goalkeeper. Then the opportunity with Lierse came up and I decided to take it, because I thought it was crucial for my development. Even though this isn’t a major league, it’s a completely different experience to playing in Japan and I’m learning new things every day.
After impressing at Lierse, you earned a move to domestic heavyweights Standard Liege. What do you think Belgian football is bringing to your game?
Japanese football’s come on leaps and bounds over the last 20 years but Belgium’s footballing culture is far more established, while the training methods here are tried and tested. That’s made me a better footballer and more mentally strong.
How have you settled into Belgium’s society and to the country’s culture? Was it a very radical change at first?
I feel very at home, I’ve got Belgian friends and I’m really happy here. It’s true that sometimes in the past Japanese players have struggled to adapt. They were the first ones to try their luck abroad and everything was new, both for the players themselves and the people [in the countries] where they went. Things have changed now though. People in Europe now know about Japanese players and that helps us settle more quickly.
You’re one of the few members of this Japan squad who speaks English. Do you think that’s helped you adapt better to life in Europe?
I learned English before I left Japan because I thought it’d be vital for my career. These past two years or so abroad have helped me keep improving it. And what’s more, you need to remember that it’s even more important for a keeper to speak a language his team-mates understand, because we spend all our time telling them what to do! (Laughs)
However, not everything has gone smoothly, particularly the unseemly chants of “Fukushima-Kawashima” directed your way in a league game following the nuclear catastrophe in 2011…
That was very tough to take, I was very disappointed. Not for myself, obviously, but for the people back in Japan who’d been really hit hard and didn’t deserve chants like that. Unfortunately that’s not an isolated incident. There have been cases of intolerance in other parts of the world too and it’s something that must stop. I don’t think fans do it to hurt individuals, it’s more a way of provoking someone who’s out on the pitch. But, as human beings, we ought to be able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. If that was the case, situations like these wouldn’t happen again.
Finally, what are your hopes and expectations on an individual and team level for the year ahead?
[With Japan] we’re working hard to make sure we’re in great form for the World Cup. We know we’ve got quality and we also know what our problem areas are, so I’m confident we can do it. On an individual note, I’d like to perform well enough to earn a move to a bigger European league. I’m 30 now and that’s a good age for a keeper. If you look at the [English] Premier League, for example, not many of them are young. Ever since I came to Belgium one of my ambitions has been to play in one of Europe’s major leagues. Playing well in Brazil next year could open those doors for me.