Returning Shinji Kagawa the latest in a long line of former Europe-based Japan stars now back in the J1 League

Yuto Nagatomo and Shinji Kagawa are two prominent Japanese stars of the past decade that will be playing back home in the J1 League in the 2023 season. Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

It is commonplace for footballers to return to their homelands at the end of their careers, once they have achieved all they can abroad.

From great footballing nations like Argentina and Brazil to the African continent, many big names eventually return to where it all began after carving out a career in Europe's big leagues.

It is the same for Asia but few boast as illustrious a list of homecomings than Japan.

Following former Borussia Dortmund and Manchester United star Shinji Kagawa's return to boyhood club Cerezo Osaka on Wednesday, we look back at the other big names that are back gracing the J1 League with enhanced reputations.


Previous European clubs: Cesena, Inter Milan (Italy), Galatasaray (Turkey), Marseille (France)

Having initially moved to Europe on loan at Italian outfit Cesena, Yuto Nagatomo would go on to become one of the most-reliable fullbacks in Europe during his seven-year stint with Inter Milan.

He can consider himself unlucky that his time with the Nerazzurri coincided with a lean spell in the club's glorious history, with an Italian Cup winner's medal his only silverware with the Serie A giants.

A fan favourite almost everywhere he goes, Nagatomo then had spells with Galatasaray and Marseille in Turkey and France respectively, before returning to his first club FC Tokyo midway through the 2021 season.

Although he turned 36 last September, Nagatomo continues to perform at the highest level and was a key member of the Japan side that claimed stunning wins over Germany and Spain to reach the round of 16 at last year's FIFA World Cup.


Previous European clubs: Hannover (Germany), Marseille (France)

Like Nagatomo, Hiroki Sakai has been a mainstay in the opposite fullback position for Japan over the past decade -- with the duo also briefly joining forces at Marseille, where the latter played at for five years.

Prior to his time in Ligue 1, where he was an UEFA Europa League runner-up in the 2017-18 campaign, Sakai had initially established himself in the Bundesliga with Hannover.

In eight full seasons in Europe, he only once played less than 25 league games but is now back in the J1 League with Urawa Red Diamonds, who are through to this season's AFC Champions League final.

A few years younger than Nagatomo at 32, Sakai was also a prominent figure for Japan at the last World Cup despite no longer plying his trade abroad.


Previous European clubs: 1860 Munich, Cologne, Werder Bremen (Germany)

While not the most-prolific of scorers, Yuya Osako has made a career of being a valuable contributor in attack -- often taking on multiple defenders and sacrificing his own play so that others can come into the picture.

Having began his career at Kashima Antlers, Osako reached the top the hard way having initially moved to Germany's second tier with 1860 Munich before earning a move to Cologne.

The 57-capped striker then played for a third German club in Werder Bremen, where he was their joint-top scorer in the league with eight goals in 2019-20 before being lured back to the J1 League by big-spending Vissel Kobe.

Having been one of Japan's best performers at the 2018 World Cup, Osako was a surprise omission from Hajime Moriyasu's final squad for last year's tournament.


Previous European clubs: Mainz (Germany), Newcastle (England), Eibar (Spain)

The capture of Yoshinori Muto was part of a statement double signing by Vissel back in August 2021, as they secured his services shortly after he was released by Premier League outfit Newcastle a day before capturing Osako.

While Muto's maiden Premier League goal was a memorable effort against Manchester United, he did not have the best of times in England and was even sent out on loan to Spanish outfit Eibar.

Instead, it was in the Bundesliga where he made his mark with Mainz, having become only the second Japanese player to score a hat-trick in German football's top flight back in 2015.

Previously linked with Chelsea earlier in his career, Muto's 2022 campaign was hampered by injury but he still netted six times in the J1 League to finish as Vissel's second-highest scorer behind Osako.


Previous European clubs: Arsenal, Bolton, Wigan (England), Feyenoord, Twente (Netherlands), St. Pauli (Germany)

Interestingly, Ryo Miyaichi's move to Yokohama F. Marinos cannot exactly be classified as a homecoming given he never played in the J1 League previously, having began his professional career at Arsenal.

Like his predecessor Junichi Inamoto, Miyaichi never made the grade with the Gunners despite plenty of hype but did show glimpses of his ability on loan at clubs like Feyenoord, Bolton and Twente -- before moving to the 2. Bundesliga with St. Pauli.

2022 proved to be a mixed year for Miyaichi as he ended up a J1 League champion with Marinos and returned to Japan fold for the first time in over a decade, only to have his end of the campaign -- and hopes of making the World Cup squad -- scuppered in August by a third anterior cruciate ligament injury of his career.