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The Importance of Mike Havenaar

Note: This is an updated version of the original post from 28 August, 2011

Mike Havenaar is a Japanese footballer. Despite the name, the towering physical presence, and the European appearance, Mike Havenaar is 100% Japanese. Soon he could be one of the biggest stars on the Japanese national team.

Havenaar was born to Dutch parents in Hiroshima in 1987, where his father was playing football professionally. He began his career in the youth system for Consadole Sapporo, his father’s team, before moving to Yokohama F. Marinos as a teenager. After some loan spells, Mike (that’s what J. League fans call him) moved to J2 side Ventforet Kofu in 2010 and was an instant success. He scored 20 goals in his first season, earning the team promotion to J1. This past season, he proved that the jump to J1 was not a step too far, scoring 17 league goals and being named to the J League Best Eleven. He couldn’t save Kofu from immediate relegation, but was good enough to be noticed by several European teams, including Stuttgart and Wolfsburg. Ultimately, he moved to Vitesse Arnhem over this winter period, and has already scored a goal in three Eredivisie appearances.

This past year, he was also called up for the Japanese national team. So far, he has 5 caps, and has scored twice, both in an 8-0 trashing Japan dished out to Tajikistan in World Cup qualifying. Mike’s inclusion into the national team is significant. He is not the first player of foreign descent to play for Japan. The two most well known examples are Alessandro Santos and Marcus Tulio Tanaka, both of whom enjoyed exceptional success for the national team. However, both Santos and Tanaka are of Brazilian origin, and a long history of immigration between Japan and Brazil has led to a greater level of acceptance for Japanese-Brazilians than experienced by most other foreign groups. Mike, on the other hand, is European, and does not get this break. In most parts of Japan, it is not everyday that you see a white European who speaks perfect Japanese and considers himself completely Japanese, like Mike does. For this reason, Mike’s emergence onto the national team is a big deal, and could hold implications for Japanese culture and society that extend beyond the confines of football.

Despite being one of the largest economies in the world, into which thousands of people traveling to and from everyday, Japan remains a difficult country for foreigners to be accepted in. Outside of Tokyo, it is not uncommon for locals to stare at any foreign-looking person in surprise. Foreign businessmen and women are often denied entrance to restaurants because of their appearance. I am half-Japanese, and when I went to elementary school in Osaka, I was made fun of and bullied just because of my foreign appearance, despite my fully Japanese name and the fact that I spoke fluent Japanese. This behavior does not reflect any feelings of race-based enmity, but rather a lack of exposure to foreign presence. Japanese people do not dislike foreigners—they are simply not used to them in their society. For this reason, many see a foreign presence as a threat—and act to protect their culture.

There is no better indicator of this feeling than the foreign labor policy of the government of Japan. Currently, Japan is experiencing the crisis of a declining population. If the current rate of decline continues, the population of the country will be cut in half to 60 million by 2050. Despite this, the Japanese government has absolutely no interest in loosening immigration regulations to allow a greater foreign influx. On top of that, Japan is experiencing a labor shortage, as an aging population retires and fewer youths are inclined to work. The government has so far responded with measures to increase the participation of women in the work force and with temporary contracts with Chinese, Vietnamese, and Filipino workers. These workers all have to go home in two years.

Despite the country’s rapid postwar growth and subsequent increased role in the global economy, Japan has never had a large foreign presence. This lack of exposure has left parts of the population still uncomfortable with the idea of foreigners in Japan. Mike has experienced this sentiment first hand in the J League, when he was the target of anti-European chants from some supporters. If Mike is successful for the national team, it could help dissipate some of this feeling and lead to the further acceptance of foreigners in society. Japan is a country that idolizes its sport stars; following the devastating ‘triple disaster of the Tohoku earthquake-tsunami-nuclear accident in March of last year, the entire country supported Nadeshiko Japan as they won the Women’s World Cup. The success of the women’s national team helped ease some of the pain felt from the greatest national tragedy since the war. Should Mike become a national team legend and a household name, he could help the country overcome a cultural attitude that has lingered long enough. In his first interview for Vitesse, Mike proclaims in Dutch, that although his parents are from the Netherlands he feels completely Japanese. Perhaps through success with the national team he can show that at 6-4 and white, with the name ‘Mike Havenaar’, he is 100% Japanese.

Here’s an interview of Mike speaking perfect Japanese.

And here’s a video of him in action.

For this article and other updates about the Japan national team, please check out japanfootblog.blogspot.com.

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