When Junichi Inamoto arrived at Arsenal in 2001, he cannot have predicted the stir he would cause.
His signing generated such a furore among the Japanese media that a swarm of journalists became a constant presence at Highbury and the Arsenal training ground, and the midfielder had to give his own weekly press conference to keep them happy. Even the reserve team games in which he played became newsworthy events back home.
While on loan from Gamba Osaka, Inamoto struggled to break into a midfield that was especially strong at the time, and was restricted to a few appearances in the League Cup and the Champions League.
In an interview that first appeared in the official Arsenal Magazine, he tells James Braugh and Dan Brennan that his Arsenal spell remains one of the most important stages of a career that has since taken Inamoto to Fulham, West Brom, Cardiff City and subsequently on a European tour which took in Turkey (Galatasaray), Germany (Eintracht Frankfurt) and France (Rennes) before a return to Japan with Kawasaki Frontale.
Being at Arsenal was something major, and it was highly regarded by people in JapanJunichi Inamoto
Junichi, what are your abiding memories of your time at Arsenal?
In general, the fact that it was such a big club with so many famous players. I regard the whole of my time there as a really good experience for me.
And can you remember what your first few weeks were like? You were young, new to the country, and spoke no English - did you feel homesick?
The first and second weeks were quite tough. The culture and language were so different which made life quite hard and, yes, I did get homesick to a certain extent.
You had to do your own weekly press conference for all the Japanese media. Were you aware that the interest back home in Japan would be so high?
You’re right - there was a lot of attention from the mass media, which was unexpected for me. It was because having a Japanese player in England, and at such a big club like Arsenal, was quite a story, but I was still quite surprised by how much interest it caused.
Were you encouraged to go to England to raise the profile of Japanese football?
No. It was my own personal choice. I wanted to go to Europe and Arsenal. But I think that Japan became able to understand more about football through this move.
Was the interest all connected to the build-up to the 2002 World Cup?
Yes, but it was also because Arsenal are such a major club. That was taken up by the media and was something that was seen as very important to Japan.
You played in the Double-winning side of 2001/02, now viewed as one of the greatest sides ever in English football. Which of the many stars particularly stood out for you and why?
For me Dennis Bergkamp stood out the most, particularly in his attitude towards training and matches. He left the greatest impression on me.
You only had the opportunity to play in the Champions League and the League Cup. Was it a major source of frustration for you that you didn’t get to test yourself in the Premier League?
I felt that there were many other strong players, so that it was unavoidable really. However, because I was training with those players day-in-day-out, I learned a great deal, so I didn’t really feel frustrated about the situation. Also, it was my first club in Europe so everything was very new and that made it difficult for me to earn a place in the team. And, as I said, the midfield was full of strong players.
Was the standard of the Premier League higher than you envisaged?
It was only natural I felt, and was what I had expected mainly because I was part of a strong team that despite losing in the Champions League went on to win the Double.
What would you say your Arsenal highlight was?
It was when the team won the Double: the ceremony, and being on the bus in front of all the fans. That’s a good memory.
What was your relationship like with Arsène Wenger when you were at the Club?
He was always very supportive during training. I think he understood that because this was my first European club it was hard for me. I’m very grateful to him for the way he supported me.
Was it helpful that he had an understanding of Japanese and the Japanese culture? Have you ever bumped into him since leaving?
He’d been in Japan for two or three years and I think he understood the culture and also the Japanese character. That was good for me, and if it hadn’t been for that, things would have certainly been more difficult. After I left Arsenal, I saw him at other Premier League games a few times, but not since leaving the UK.
Did you feel pressure as the only Japanese in England - and one of the few in Europe?
As the only Japanese… it wasn’t pressure, but there was definitely a strong sense of responsibility.
Kazuyuki Toda had a difficult time at Spurs; did you speak to him at the time?
We kept in touch yes, and since we both lived in London we managed to meet up occasionally.
[Arsène Wenger] had been in Japan for two or three years and I think he understood the culture and also the Japanese character. That was good for meJunichi Inamoto
You left for Fulham and later played at West Brom and Cardiff what were the differences between these clubs and Arsenal?
They were different because of the size of the clubs: Arsenal were a lot bigger. However, the standards were high at all the clubs I played at in England.
Tell us about the Japanese national side. Was 2002 still your greatest achievement?
Yes 2002 was a great achievement, and one I’m very proud of, although being at Arsenal was also something major, and it was highly regarded by people in Japan.
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Should more players head out to Europe, would this help the national team?
I think so, yes. I’d recommend it. It would help players develop a better understanding of the game because the standards are higher in Europe. A higher standard of play at league level is an important link to winning at national team level.
How has your own game developed since you were at Arsenal?
It’s been some time since I was there and I believe I’ve grown technically and become a lot more experienced.
Would you like to see the new stadium and how Highbury has been developed?
Yes, Arsenal were still at Highbury when I was there, so I didn’t get to play at the new ground. I’d love to go if I get the chance.