Hong Kong Premier League

How a promising Japanese-Hong Kong footballer deals with national identity ahead of the World Cup

Young Kitchee forward Tiger Hirokane Harima has risen through the ranks under Hong Kong’s most legendary footballing figures but one day dreams of playing in his father’s native land of Japan

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 June, 2018, 8:05am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 June, 2018, 12:03pm

Whether he is roaming the backstreets of Yokohama or rushing to football training in Sha Tin, Japanese-Hongkonger Tiger Hirokane Harima always wears his home colours with pride.

The 20-year-old Kitchee forward’s four character-long Chinese name immediately catches the eye on the teamsheet and his surname is virtually unheard of in the city.

“When I go to the doctor or driving school, they see my name and ask ‘do you speak Chinese?’ in English,” said native Cantonese speaker Harima after an off-season shooting session at the Jockey Club Kitchee Centre earlier in the week. “It was a bit annoying at first but as I got older I realised it’s quite unique.”

Harima was born in Hong Kong to a Japanese father and Hong Kong mother. His eight-year-old sister, Shiori, is a proud supporter and has been Kitchee club mascot in the past.

Harima visits Japan every year to care for his grandparents – who have only seen his fledging career via video clips – and cites the island nation’s extensive football scene as his source of inspiration.

“I never thought I’d be a footballer, but after going to Japan each summer, I saw many different clubs playing high-level football. From then on I would keep up with the Japanese and Hong Kong leagues,” said Harima, who spent last season on loan to Dreams FC.

Tiger, as his fans call him, has represented Hong Kong at every youth level up to under-23 last year. As a teen, he played under legendary Hong Kong winger Lee Kin-wo for Eastern youth before moving to Rangers. By 14, he was intermittently training with the Rangers first team.

The striker was tallying plenty of youth team goals and would always turn up against one opponent in particular.

“Kitchee youth team was the best. Our Eastern team was not as good but I managed to score against them. Then when I played for Rangers against Kitchee, I scored again.”

Then-Kitchee youth coach Alex Chu Chi-kwong – now senior team manager – would observe from the sidelines. How could the same kid score against his dominant side with two different teams?

Chu eventually persuaded Harima to join Kitchee, and with the clinical striker at the helm, they broke the record for biggest win in a Hong Kong youth game – 28-0 against a district team.

Skip to the season before last, where coach Chu invited Harima to play in a first-team training match. Surprise surprise, he scored a goal and did not leave the senior squad until his recent loan move.

Now returning for his fifth season with the domestic champions, Harima reflects on a whirlwind season which saw Uruguay superstar Diego Forlan join for four months.

“You could say that more Hong Kong people followed the sport after Forlan arrived,” said Harima, who had brief interactions with the former Manchester United forward. “But football is not a one-man game; Kitchee’s 10 surrounding players have to coordinate just as well. You need everyone to play well for Hong Kong people to realise, ‘oh, football here isn’t that bad’.”

Having also scored in his brief loan spell at Dreams, Harima is beginning to gain a reputation as one of Hong Kong’s most promising forwards.

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Just last week, he featured at an official 2018 World Cup pop-up event alongside popular girl group Super Girls in Central.

“Hong Kong football doesn’t get much attention so going to these shows and having people come up to me for photos afterwards ... it made me feel like becoming a footballer is no bad thing; my choice can be considered a success more than a failure,” Harima said.

As for the World Cup itself, Harima will naturally support his native Japan with his family but also backs a South American giant.

“I’m half-half, Japan and Argentina,” he said. “Japan is Asia’s representative at the World Cup so I want to see what I can learn from them and South Korea. But this is also the only trophy [Lionel] Messi hasn’t lifted.”

Harima revealed that he dreams of one day playing in Japan and – if the opportunity arises – would consider representing the Samurai Blue.

“I look like a Hong Kong boy and I’ve represented them before [at youth level], but I could play for Japan since I’ve never played for a senior international team,” he said.

“I’ve never let go of the idea. If one day a [Japanese Professional Football League] team is looking for me, I’d consider changing my passport to play. Only if.”

And what if Hong Kong comes knocking on his door tomorrow?

“I would have to think about it,” he said, smiling. “Once I play my first game [it closes the door on Japan] ... I would probably not have to think for long, though. I’d probably play for Hong Kong.”