AS ONE OF THE MOST acclaimed footballers of the last decade, Hidetoshi Nakata has paved the way for other Asian players who have since joined prestigious European clubs. Nakata spent most of his twenties in Italy, where during the course of his career he played for five teams and rose to global fame thanks to his sporting prowess on the field and his stylish exploits on the catwalks. Outdoing his fellow Italian footballers on both the field and the runway, he was hailed as the Asian David Beckham, earning fashion cred with his adventurous outfits and his penchant for wild hairdos.
But after a successful 10-year run, Nakata surprised everyone in 2006 by announcing his retirement at the relatively tender age of 29. In spite of a brief foray into fashion – he starred in a racy Calvin Klein Underwear campaign – he disappeared from the spotlight, embarking on a four-year journey around the planet. It was a life-changing experience for the young man, who had until then been living a relatively sheltered life and who was now looking for the eyeopening jolt that only years of aimless wandering could provide. Prestige Hong Kong met Nakata to talk about his years in Italy, his homeless status – he has yet to buy a house since leaving football – and his rediscovery of Japan.
Why did you decide to retire at such a young age?
I started to play because it was my passion, not for the money, but then it became my job and I stopped having fun. It wasn't hard or stressful but it wasn't fun any more. I didn't want to play just for the money, although it was a lot. It didn't feel right any more. It was like selling my family – soccer – for money.
How did living in Italy influence you?
It really changed me. I was only 21 years old, and although I always liked design, art, fashion and so on, when you're in Italy you're always surrounded by them; it was a big influence. The Italians know how to have fun – they live to have fun and enjoy life, not just to make money. It's one of the few places where you can enjoy yourself with little or no money, but we instead work for the money, especially in Japan.
Can you tell me more about your travels after leaving soccer?
After I retired, I decided to travel all over the world. I used to travel for my job before, but that wasn't real travelling. The world of football is very small so I wanted to discover the world and find out what I wanted to do in the future. I travelled for four years and visited 60 to 70 countries in Asia, Africa, South America. From backpacking to luxury, I did it all.
What were the places you enjoyed the most?
When you go to parts of Asia or Africa, you never know what to expect, so you get more ideas and inspirations. What I noticed was that wherever I went, people played soccer. I got recognised in every country at least once, so I realised that I could do something bigger through my work as a player. In 2008 I decided to launch my foundation, Take Action. We started to do charity matches in Japan and overseas. When I was travelling, I also noticed that everyone would first ask me about football and then about Japan, but I didn't know that much about my own country. That was a bit unexpected and I figured that I had to go back to Japan to learn more about it.
How was travelling there?
In Japan there are 47 prefectures and I decided to visit them all. I started from Okinawa in the south to Hokkaido in the north. It was a way to learn and I visited artisans, farmers, temples, shrines, ryokan and sake breweries. It's been four years and I've done 41, so I only have six left, all in the north.
Is that why you launched your own sake?
Yes. Nowadays it's quite common to drink sake, but in Japan the production is disappearing. There used to be 3,000 breweries and now there are only 1,300. I visited about 170 producers and I realised that this tradition was an integral part of Japanese culture, so I had to help them preserve it. When I was in Italy I always admired people who kept wine cellars. It was something really prestigious, so when I discovered these sake breweries I wanted to create my own sake and help the industry. There's no support or branding for the industry as there is with wine, so the market remains small.
How involved are you in the making of the sake?
I go to the brewery all the time to see the fermentation of the rice and everything involved in the creation. We want to make the best sake in the world and we make it in the north, in Yamagata prefecture. The production is very exclusive – we're only making 1,000 bottles per year. My sake is in a very modern bottle, designed by awardwinning design studio Nendo, but then there's the traditional element of calligraphy on the label. It's part of my rediscovery of Japanese culture. After sake, I want to focus on tea and ceramics. I want to make Japanese culture more accessible to the West, less mysterious; there's so much people don't understand about it and I want to show it in a more approachable way.
Do you think that the country fully recovered after the tsunami?
Now the situation is better, but it will take a while for the area to bounce back. I think that people's way of thinking has changed. They're starting to go back to traditional values and are less obsessed with modern life. That's the only good thing to come out of it. You only realise this when you lose something. I started my journey of discovery before that happened, but now is the right time to bring back Japanese culture and rebuild it. The easy life of fast food, fast fashion and the Internet is tempting but you have to keep the traditions. I want people to understand that something well made is worth it, even if it's more expensive. You need to educate people about the real value of things.
Would you ever consider relocating to Japan indefinitely?
I have no place yet. I'm always travelling within Japan or overseas. Lately I spend more time in Japan but never in the same place.
Finally, what about fashion? Do you have any interest in designing?
I don't think I could be a designer. I love looking at fashion from the outside and I want to focus on the protection of artisans. I was recently in Murano in the Veneto region of Northern Italy and it was sad to see that even there all those beautiful glass factories are closing, so one day I might decide to do for them what I'm doing in Japan. It's about protecting the culture of Japan and the world.