Two players with foreign roots will be on the Japanese U-23 Men's National Team for a pre-Rio Olympics match against South Africa on the evening of June 29, ahead of the July 1 announcement of the 18 team members who will make the Olympic squad.
In January this year, the Japanese men won the Asian Football Confederation's U23 Championship, securing a spot at the Rio Olympics. Among those celebrating were players Ado Onaiwu, 20, whose father is Nigerian, and Musashi Suzuki, 22, whose father is Jamaican.
Onaiwu was born in Japan, in the town of Kamikawa, Saitama Prefecture, which has a population of around 14,000. Due to the influence of his father, who had been a soccer player, as soon as he was up and walking he was kicking a ball.
Onaiwu made many friends through soccer, but when he left his town he was met with curious looks. This frustrated him, as he had never been to Nigeria and considered himself Japanese. As a boy, Onaiwu started to not want to go outside because he stood out, but that was when soccer came to his rescue.
Michio Aizaki, 66, who coached Onaiwu when he was in elementary school, recalls, "He was so fast, he could catch up to a ball his teammate kicked from the half-way line towards the opposing side."
Onaiwu's quickness and high-jumping headers gradually won him respect. His mother says, "He was acknowledged by his peers, which gave him confidence." While at Shochi Fukaya High School, Onaiwu was active on the national stage, and after graduation he joined the J-League.
Suzuki, meanwhile, was also troubled as a child by how different he looked. Born in Jamaica, he moved to Ota, Gunma Prefecture, at age 6. At elementary school he was given nicknames like "hamburger" and "croquette." He went home in tears, and tried to whiten his skin with baby powder. "Will I become light-skinned like a Japanese person?" he said, to which his mother Mariko, now 55, said, "I like the color you are, Musashi."
As a second-grader, he joined a soccer team. He was a better dribbler than others, and with his speed he became a high scorer. After a while, he came to think of his mixed race as an advantage because of how he could put on muscle. He was chosen for the 16-and-under Japanese national team, and he felt how he had successfully made it onto the team regardless of his appearance. Nothing made him happier than putting on his "samurai blue" uniform.
In its first match at Rio, Japan will face Nigeria. Aspiring to play in the match against his father's homeland, Onaiwu has pushed himself at training camps and national team games to promote his own way of playing.
Suzuki, who due to an injury has not been able to play for Japan since the January championship, is also looking forward to the competition to be picked for the Rio Olympics team.
The Japanese men's team's final match in Japan before the Rio Olympics is against South Africa, at 7:30 p.m. on June 29 in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture.