Football found its roots in Japan in 1934 when Paul Rusch, a teacher and missionary from Kentucky, brought Tokyo college students and resident Englishmen together to play the first game in the country's history. Since then, the game’s popularity has grown, especially in Tokyo and Osaka, with the rise of club and college programs. With that growth, a greater demand for more advanced and comprehensive training programs has risen among the nation’s players. IMG Academy, world-renowned for its training of youth, college-bound and professional athletes, has quickly become the training home for some of Japan’s most promising players.
Most recently, Tomokazu Sueyoshi, a 23-year old native of Tokyo, arrived in Bradenton, Fla. with his sights set on preparing for the NFL Regional Combine in Seattle, Wash. Tomokazu played running back for the Waseda Bears, and was the youngest player ever selected to represent Japan against the Notre Dame Legends in the annual Japan Bowl, a game which pits Notre Dame football alumni against the top university level players in Japan. Tomkazu was joined during his NFL Regional Combine training at IMG Academy by Hidetetsu Nishimura (pictured right), a 26-year old kicker who previously played for the Fujitsu Frontiers.
Tomkazu and Hidetetsu are two among many Japanese football players who have trained at IMG Academy in 2013. A group from Kyoto University arrived on campus in March for a two-week stay to refine their skills. The group included top players like: QB Yuma Hyashida(pictured left); RB Tomoya Okabe; WR Kisuke Inoue; TE Ryo Aoi; OLDaisuke Yamauchi; DL Daicha Shibata; LB Hiromi Fujishiro; and DB Kazumasa Takahashi. During their stay, the group took part in the IMG Academy football program’s annual Kickoff Weekend Mini-Camp.
Earlier this year, following the announcement of IMG Academy being named the ‘Official Training Provider’ of the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), IMG Academy also hosted the World Team Development Camp, which attracted players from around the world, including a group of 16 aspiring Japanese players vying for a spot on the IFAF World Team.
Football, however, is only one of a number of sports experiencing the arrival of more and more athletes seeking training.
In tennis, the [Masaaki] Morita Tennis Fund was started nine years ago to send promising young tennis players from Japan to develop in the U.S., with an emphasis on both skill development and English language and cultural education. Mr. Masaaki Morita, former CEO of the Sony Corporation, created the tennis fund to further Japanese tennis with these elements in mind. One player who arrived in the first group is now a household name in Japan – Kei Nishikori (seen left, after winning the 2012 Japan Open). Nishikori came to IMG Academy at the age of 14 to begin his training in the Bollettieri Tennis program, and now 23-years old, recorded a historic win in October 2012, becoming the first Japanese player to win the Japan Open. Not only is Nishikori the most accomplished tennis player in Japan’s history, he is the first Asian player to finish in year-end, top-20 since Thai Paradorn Srichaphan was No. 11 in 2003.
In golf, Mika Miyazato (pictured right) has been a fixture at IMG Academy since 2008. Prior to her arrival to prepare for LPGA Q-School, Miyazato was the youngest winner of the Japan Amateur Women's Championship in 2004 at 14 years and eight months. The in 2006, she won the 15-17 girls' division of the Callaway Junior World Golf Championships. She was the 2006 Asian Games individual and team silver medalist. She also won back-to-back Japan Junior Championships in 2006-07. Since training at IMG Academy and working with Coach Larry Marshall, Miyazato’s consistency and swing has evolved, leading to her first LPGA Tour victory in 2012 at the Safeway Classic, and surpassing $1 million in career earnings.
Even in lacrosse, a sport that predominantly is played in North America, three Japanese players traveled all the way to Bradenton, Fla. to take their training to the next level. Kohsuke Kubota, Toshio Nakamura and Kazuki Terada spent a week learning the finer points of lacrosse to bring back to their teams at home.
Of the more than 800 student-athletes at IMG Academy who attend school year-round, and who hail from more than 80 countries, nearly 20 are from Japan.
Some of the current standout IMG Academy student-athletes from Japan include:
- Yoshihito Nishioka is a rising star from Tsu-shi, Japan, who at 18-years old, captured his first professional tennis victory at the Mexico F3 Futures in February. Nishioka is the highest ranked Japanese player in the ITF Junior rankings at No. 18 overall.
- Rina Hill, a native of Nagakute, Japan, is a member of the Japan Women’s National Basketball Team, and is one of the most dominant players in the IMG Academy girls basketball program, helping the team to a 38-8 overall record (5-2 vs. junior colleges). She is joined in the program by her sister Ellie, who is also a standout point guard.
- Kaito Onishi is originally from Nagoya, Japan, but came to IMG Academy from Los Angeles, Calif. Onishi has quickly emerged as one of the top players in the golf program at only 15-years old. In five appearances on the IMG Junior Golf Tour, Onishi finished in the top-five four times, and recorded his first tournament win (Juliette Falls) after two previous second place finishes.
- Naoki Nakagawa is another top junior player in the Bollettieri Tennis program, and is the second highest ranked player in the ITF junior rankings at No. 40 overall.
- Eisuke Sakamoto is an aspiring football player, and at 15-years old, ventured to IMG Academy to hone his football skills. He will take part in the IMG Academy Varsity football team’s first-ever spring practices before the inaugural season begins.
- Shuhei Takahashi is another rising talent in the golf program, who notched his first career win on the IMG Junior Golf Tour in the Boys 11-14 Division last October (LPGA International).