Japanese power for the EHF European League Women
Nearly 10,000 kilometres separate Japan from Ramnicu Valcea, Erfurt or Dortmund. However, three Japanese players have found a new home in these cities in Romania and Germany, trying to adapt to a new country, a new culture and a new style of handball.
SCM Ramnicu Valcea right wing Asuka Fujita, Thüringer HC left wing Yuki Tanabe and BV Borussia 09 Dortmund left back Haruno Sasaki are all trying to win the title in the EHF European League Women, with their teams qualified in the quarter-finals of the competition.
Between the three players, Fujita is the player most accustomed to Europe, having herself gone to Germany to play for Dortmund in 2018. After two years there, she moved to Romania, where she featured in the EHF Finals Women twice for CS Minaur Baia Mare, switching to Valcea last summer.
“First of all, I did not speak English, so it was very difficult to communicate when I played in Europe in my first season at Dortmund. Also, it was difficult to get used to the differences in food, culture and lifestyle. But I have been living in Europe for about five years, and now I got used to it and I am really enjoying it. It feels like a good fit for me,” says Fujita.
Asian handball has been getting stronger and stronger over the last decades, with Japan following in the Republic of Korea’s footsteps, as the latter side became Olympic and world champions in the late 1980s and the start of the 1990s.
Yet the difference between the basics of handball, the way the pyramid is built and the culture of the sport could not be bigger. While European powerhouses have become true handball machines, players in Japan are amateur and train only after their day-to-day jobs are completed.
“We are always working, it is a good thing, because the system is good and you have a job. There is a big difference between Europe and Japan, but the level is now increasing in both men’s and the women’s competitions,” says Tanabe.
“I hope that even more players from Japan will come to Europe, inspired by the ones which are already here,” she adds. Tanabe also featured for another European side, Fehérvár KC, between 2016 and 2018.
While handball might be different, the culture shock felt by Japanese players coming to Europe is much bigger. The language barrier is the first big test, as Japanese is not spoken at all in teams around Europe.
Then, the distance is also a factor. Living away from one’s family and having to spend over 15 hours on a plane to get back to Japan, when the calendar is hectic and games are squeezed in tightly, is another problem which can impact performance.
“First of all, the biggest problem is that we cannot speak and communicate, because everything is done in English. You also have to be determined, if you make up your mind, because Japan is very far away,” confirms Fujita.
Her career was definitely influenced by current Odense coach, Ulrik Kirkely, who will be leaving for Györi Audi ETO KC this summer. Kirkely was also the coach of the Japanese women’s national team between 2017 and 2021, leading the side to 12th place at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, which Japan hosted.
Another Japanese player, right wing Ayaka Ikehara, is featuring for the Danish champions in the EHF Champions League Women, the only player to do so this season.
“It was not easy to come to Europe. But it has been my dream to play in Europe since I was 18 years old. From that moment, I chased my dream and prepared to come to Europe. Ulrik Kirkely, who was Japan’s coach, supported me a lot,” says Fujita.
But how do Japanese players adapt to European handball?
“It is different, because players here are taller, the handball is more physical. For us, it is impossible, for example for backs, to dominate the defence and beat them with shots. Therefore, we need to fully take advantage of our skills – speed and technique – to succeed,” believes Tanabe.
However, all three players have been crucial to their team’s success in this year’s EHF European League Women. Fujita and Tanabe even met on the court in the group phase, when Thüringer took three out of four points against Valcea, as both teams qualified for the quarter-finals.
“Haruno Sasaki and Yuki Tanabe are my friends. We fought together for the Japan national team in the past six years before Tokyo 2020,” says Fujita.
“They are very special to me because we are Japanese players who have made the same decision to play in Europe. And I guess we have suffered the same, to try to adapt in Europe. I was happy to meet her and it was also special, because it was the first time playing against a Japanese player in Europe.”
The three Japanese players – Fujita, Sasaki and Tanabe – have scored 72 goals between them this season in the second-tier European competition, including the qualification phase. Fujita leads the path with 34 goals, her second-best season in Europe, after having scored 39 goals last season for Baia Mare.
But there is one more game that all three have to play before securing the chance to play in Graz in the EHF Finals Women. Secure that berth and all the sacrifice will be worth it.
Photos © ImagePlus, Steffen Prößdorf, Wolfgang Stummbillig