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Books - The Zen of Naka: The Journey of a Japanese Genius (2008)
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DetailsTitle: The Zen of Naka: The Journey of a Japanese Genius
Author: Martin Greig
Player Homepage: Shunsuke Nakamura
SynopsisSince his move to Celtic in the summer of 2005, Shunsuke Nakamura has become a cult hero in both Scotland and the Far East. From the wonderful goal in his Champions League debut against Manchester United in 2006 to the strike against Kilmarnock that secured Celtic’s league win in 2006–07, Nakamura has firmly established himself as a Celtic legend. Nakamura's ability to confront and overcome adversity has been the key to his success. From his rejection as a youngster by home-town club Yokohama Marinos to his omission from the 2002 World Cup squad by Philippe Troussier and his struggle to adapt to the defensive nature of Italian football, Nakamura has bounced back stronger every time. The Zen of Naka is a comprehensive, revealing account of Nakamura’s career to date. It explores his development from the early stages of his footballing journey to his time with Celtic at present, and looks ahead at what the future may hold for the star.
ReviewBooks about footballers are normally so formulaic. A quick history of the person and a smattering of 'revelations' from behind the scenes. In short, nothing unique. The Zen of Naka however, delivers much more than this. Of course it charts the rise to prominence of Asia's most popular player, but more than that it delves into the psyche of Nakamura, revealing the motivations of the man, and how Japanese society as a whole go about attaining their goals.
There is a fascinating insight ino the formation of the J.League, and how this inspired Naka to become a footballer. Greig also goes to some lengths to interview the coaches and teammates who knew the young Naka, as well as tracking down Philippe Troussier, the man who left Nakamura out of Japan's 2002 World Cup squad (a huge blow to Naka). Troussier's interview is a highlight of this book, as is the resolve shown by Nakamura to get over this disappointment to get where he is today.
This is a must read not just for Celtic fans, but for sports fans in general.
- Hardcover: 240 pages
- Publisher: Mainstream Publishing (21 Aug 2008)
- Language English
- ISBN-10: 1845963571
- ISBN-13: 978-1845963576
- Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.8 x 2.8 cm
Other ReviewsSHUNSUKE Nakamura is a footballer apart, a man who, for reasons of language and culture, is destined always to be perceived as an enigma, and as someone who conforms to the stereotype of a footballer in Scotland about as easily as Derek Riordan would to that of diplomat.
It makes him the perfect subject matter for this well-written and refreshingly detached biography, which shines a light on the enigma without shattering it. We catch glimpses of Nakamura – such as walking alone along Sauchiehall Street at night with his player of the year trophy – that tantalise, intrigue, and sustain interest.
The focus, as it should be, is on what makes him such a special footballer – and the explanation is quiet determination, awesome dedication, and a stubborn persistence that seems at odds with his apparent diffidence.
At 12, he had, says one of his old coaches, "ball skills and technique, but he was slender, weak and made little impression." Nakamura's response was to work harder – as he did 15 years later, when thrown into the hurly burly of the SPL.
Martin Greig travels to Japan and his overview of football's development in that country is revealing – as are the points about Nakamura's humility mirroring the values of his country. On this, Philippe Troussier, the national coach who didn't select the midfielder for the 2002 World Cup, is as fascinating as he is eminently quotable.
"My challenge," Troussier tells Greig, "was to get them to impose themselves, to use their shoulders, to walk on people's toes." He feared that his players were too deferential, but "coaching Japan was like discovering raw diamonds and cleaning and carving them".
Nakamura's spell at Reggina is covered, and this too is absoring. On one occasion his manager spotted him "speaking animatedly with his interpreter. I asked what the problem was and was told that Naka had asked for notes to be taken from all the training sessions he was going to miss while away. He had given the interpreter a block of Post-it notes and told him to record with maximum precision what he missed."
In Glasgow, there is a highly amusing passage covering Naka's entourage – introducing The Exile, The Itinerant, The Nightclubber, The Academic and The Chef – and details about his relationship with his Celtic teammates, including the touching bond between the Japanese midfielder and Neil Lennon.
As Greig notes, there are clear parallels with Henrik Larsson, even if Nakamura isn't, yet, as revered. The Swede appeared cool and aloof when he arrived, but as "the public admiration grew, so Larsson's inscrutable veneer began to peel away and his charisma shone through" – and so it is with Nakamura.
Richard Moore Scotland On Sunday
A holiday journey involving fish suppers, Zen and Been on a surprise walking holiday.
The surprise was that it was supposed to be a driving holiday but the car broke down. I had been expecting it. It had been bottling things up for some time.
The holiday brought back memories. Twas not quite Proust's madeleine cake; more like Lorne's sausage. Holidays are always an investigation into the slightly strange, particularly if one ventures abroad with such as big Tam. His first meal in Majorca some 30 years ago was an up-market fish supper accompanied by a wedge of lemon. Tam pulled a face as pained as a Tour de France cyclist facing a drugs test. He had just eaten the lemon.
He has never quite grasped the concept of refined eating. While remarking to him lately that South Ossetia was a pawn in a diplomatic game, Tam asked if this was a fish dish in a pheasant sauce and, if so, could he have it with chips, please. He believes, too, that Peaches Geldof is a dessert, though he just might be right on that one.
Tam is a man for whom travel broadens the behind. His idea of intrepid exploration is to visit the hotel's roof bar. Tam is not one to immerse himself in the local culture unless that culture consists of a vat of ethanol. I am, in truth, hardly Indiana Jones, though as a regular visitor to Hampden for Scotland games I am familiar with the concept of a Temple of Doom. However, my reticence to embark on challenging adventures has given me an admiration for those who attempt something new.
In the case of Martin Greig, this consists of a Herald sports writer who tries, with conspicuous success, to write. In the case of Shunsuke Nakamura, this consists of a footballer who leaves home to be faced with challenges that are both physically robust and psychologically demanding. They joyously unite in the pages of The Zen of Naka, presumably written by Greig while I put my head on the desk of an afternoon.
Naka is the hero in a remarkable story. He was a youngster who seemed destined never to make the grade. Instead, he has crossed the world to become part of a wonderful narrative at modern Celtic.
Footballers have the propensity to mark themselves on the lives of the fans. Some have fabulous careers but never have a defining moment. The Japanese playmaker has had, at least, three such moments playing in the hoops. There was the goal against Rangers at the end of last season as the ball swerved from his boot like a heat-seeking missile whose prey had suddenly moved. There was the free-kick against Kilmarnock in 2007 that secured a title that was just becoming ever so slightly awkward to win. Nakamura settled the nerves with a precise finish and spared Celtic the angst of having to wait yet another week for glory.
His greatest moment, though, was the free-kick against Manchester United at Parkhead. It needs no date, time or context. It is emblazoned in the mind of every Celtic fan. It was great for two reasons. The first is that this was the only way Celtic were ever going to score that night. The second is that Nakamura accepted the responsibility and, gloriously, made the most of it.
It was a piece of technical brilliance. More importantly, it was an example of how there must be a moral bravery in the great player. Nakamura was prepared to fail. His natural ability ensured he succeeded but the Japanese internationalist impresses far beyond the world of flicks and volleys.
Nakamura is a brave player. He accepts a clattering with equanimity that is, well, Zen-like. The big boys seem to walk away embarrassed after chopping down a player so slight he has to wear moon boots on a windy day. But Naka's strength lies in a different field. He has the courage to accept the ball when all others are shunning the obligation. Naka shows, takes the ball deftly on an instep and tries to make something from nothing. There is the wilfully erroneous view of him as a lightweight or as someone who never gets going when the going gets tough. He may be insubstantial in physique but he is a player of substance.
There is more to bravery than being up for the fight. One must be willing to take on difficult challenges, even when they involve eating a wedge of lemon.
Hugh MacDonald The Herald
Though sprightly in parts, Martin Greig’s biography of Japan’s most gifted footballer is too often the victim of the pitfalls inherent in crafting a book around protracted quotations and match reports.
The result is a work that is short on insight and long on minutiae, an unfortunate affliction for a book that promises to uncover the “Zen” of Shunsuke Nakamura, the prodigy from Yokohama now beloved of the Celtic diaspora. That said, Greig, a senior sportswriter at the Herald, has got his timing right. Celtic are in the reckoning for a domestic treble and Nakamura, a common factor in their successes of the past three seasons, will stay at Parkhead until at least the summer.
In pure football terms, too, Nakamura is more worthy of attention than other Japanese exports who, with the possible exception of Hidetoshi Nakata and Daisuke Matsui, contributed little more than a boost in merchandise sales, as the author wryly points out. In the foreword, Gordon Strachan says of his midfielder: “For pure ability Nakamura is the best footballer I have ever worked with.”
In encapsulating that innate ability, Nakamura’s 30-yard free-kick against Manchester United in the Champions League group stage in November 2006 is a good place to start, yet Greig tests our patience by milking the moment of every last drop of dramatic effect. As a literary device the montage – in this case a crawl through ten world cities to gauge the reaction of Celtic fans to the wonder goal – has been known to work in thrillers, but here it borders on the irritating.
Once Greig has established that the free-kick was indeed sublimely executed, he enters more comfortable territory, splicing facts about Nakamura’s upbringing and career with anecdotes and insights from those who know him best. Greig’s coverage of Nakamura’s formative years takes him to Japan, where we learn of his rejection as a youth by his local club, Yokohama Marinos, and his quiet determination to prove his doubters wrong.
It is the best part of the book, in which a picture emerges of a decent, if painfully shy, family man who, in that hackneyed observation of celebrated free-kick exponents, would rather stay out on the training field than join his team-mates for a drink. There are amusing vignettes, too, of the cultural and personal dissonance any Japanese player can expect in a faraway dressing room, not least his ill-advised acceptance of some chewing tobacco from Neil Lennon.
That is the nearest the book’s pivotal character gets to achieving the status of enfant terrible for, his visionary football aside, Nakamura’s unwavering modesty is hardly the stuff of a biographer’s dreams. That is not to say that the book wouldn’t have benefited from a deeper dig into his psyche. There is no discussion, for example, of how big an influence his widely reported membership of Soka Gakkai, a controversial Buddhist sect, had on his football, his relationships with his manager and team-mates, and even his attitude to injury and loss of form.
That’s a shame, as on occasions Greig is capable of flowing, evocative prose – on Nakamura’s struggle to make the grade as a youth player, his omission from Japan’s World Cup squad in 2002 and his three years in Italy with Reggina. In an early chapter Greig asks: Who is the real Nakamura? Yet 200-odd pages later, we are still some way off finding the answer.
Justin McCurry When Saturday Comes
Far from your normal book about a footballer as Martin Greig tries to unravel the complexities of our very private Japanese midfielder.
His early life and football career are covered in detail, of course. Because Naka is so private, very little is known about him as a person (even in Japan) so it was interesting to find out about his upbringing, the reasons for his move to Italy then to Celtic and to get an insight into the dedication that has gone in to making him arguably the best technician we’ve had since Lubo.
As well as focusing on Nakamura, the author also gives us a fascinating overview of the development of football in Japan since the Second World War (and if you want to find out more you should get a hold of ‘Japanese Rules: Japan and the Beautiful Game’ by Sebastien Moffett). Greig goes to some lengths to interview the coaches and teammates who knew the young Naka, as well as tracking down Philippe Troussier, the man who left him out of Japan’s 2002 World Cup squad (a huge blow to the player).
Troussier’s interview is one of the highlights of the book, as is the resolve shown by Nakamura to get over this disappointment to get where he is today.
Apart from the endless free-kick training, “At high school, Nakamura also began to practise qigong, a set of breathing and movement exercises often taught in association with Chinese martial arts... Qigong’s slow external movements help stimulate the internal organs by promoting the flow of the body’s internal energy or qi.”
Certainly different from John Hartson’s two pints of lager and a pizza training regime.
In the chapter ‘Naka Sells the jerseys’, the commercial spin-offs of having him at Celtic are explained by David Thompson, Celtic’s former commercial director. The numbers are impressive, and apparently, “Celtic are now the third most popular Scottish brand in Japan, behind whisky and Sean Connery. Their popularity has even led to the creation of a word for Scot - “Scoto-rando-jin” - whereas in the past Scots were referred to as being English.
It’s easy to see why Peter Lawwell and the bhoys in the boardroom were anxious to get Naka’s successor signed before he leaves to keep the profile up in the far east. 140,000 Nike Hoops tops a year isn’t to be sniffed at.
I suppose the question is, will the interest in Celtic remain once Naka has gone home? And will his entourage of reporters go home with them?
They are all described in the book, these professional Naka followers, and what an eclectic, not to mention eccentric bunch they are, including the one who took up Scottish country dancing while a teenager in Japan, so fascinated was he with all thing Caledonian.
At the end of the book Nakamura is still something of an elusive character, but he does come across as someone who has enjoyed his experience at Celtic, even though it doesn’t always show in his persona.
As Greig notes, “there are clear parallels with Henrik Larsson, even if Nakamura isn’t, yet, as revered. The Swede appeared cool and aloof when he arrived, but as the public admiration grew, so Larsson’s inscrutable veneer began to peel away and his charisma shone through – and so it is with Nakamura”.
Not your average footballer biography in more ways than one. I enjoyed it.
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