He was 'Japan's David Beckham.' But at 29, Hidetoshi Nakata gave it up. Here's why

'Japan's David Beckham,' Hidetoshi Nakata, on pursuing a new goal
'Japan's David Beckham,' Hidetoshi Nakata, on pursuing a new goal

Hidetoshi Nakata had built the career he always dreamed of — by the time he was 29 years old.

The former soccer player, often referred to as the “Japanese David Beckham” had notched three FIFA World Cup appearances, two Olympic games, and major contracts with clubs in the U.K. and Italy. He even received one of Italy's highest orders, the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity, honoring his near decade-long career there.

But 11 years into his soccer journey, he decided to walk away from it all.

Hidetoshi Nakata looks on during the Zanetti and friends Match for Expo 2015 at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 4, 2015 in Milan, Italy.
Marco Luzzani | Stringer | Getty

“I was not playing football because I wanted to become famous or a millionaire, but because I loved football,” Nakata said. “But, I was feeling maybe a little bit tired from the environment and things.”

Just weeks after Japan’s 4-1 loss to Brazil in the 2006 World Cup, he announced his surprise retirement, saying that he had quietly made the decision six months before, after realizing that soccer had just become “a big business.”

With his playing days over, Nakata went in search of a second act.

Hidetoshi Nakata of Japan tries to tackle Kaka of Brazil in Dortmund, Germany during the FIFA World Cup in Germany 2006.
Jamie McDonald | Getty

It didn’t come easily.

He traveled by car to all 47 prefectures in Japan to reacquaint himself with his home country after spending much of his career abroad. He met with farmers, chefs, and other craftsmen, determined to preserve decades-old Japanese traditions. It took Nakata seven years to complete the cross country trip, but he eventually found his true passion: sake.

“Once I started understanding the culture behind sake and the industry, I started to understand the quality of sake and the people behind it, the history behind it,” Nakata said. “But at the same time, I understood the problems they have.”

Nakata’s interest in sake — an alcoholic drink made from fermented rice — coincided with declining domestic sales: Sake purchases have fallen 30 percent since 1975, according to numbers from Japan's tax agency. While a declining population and aging drinkers were partly to blame, the sake industry was also suffering from an image problem and had been replaced by wine and cocktails among younger consumers.

Hidetoshi Nakata, founder of Sakenomy, visits sake tasting session 
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So, Nakata turned passion into ambition. In 2013 he launched “N,” a high-end sake that retails for $1,000 a bottle. Next, he helped develop a sake fridge to make it easier for restaurants and sake enthusiasts to enjoy the beverage at optimum temperatures.

“So many people think (sake) is the same as wine, or that room temperature is fine,” Nakata says. “But actually, you need to keep it at minus (five) degrees. Because nobody tells you this type of information, there's no such product like a wine cellar.”

A few years ago, Nakata launched Sakenomy, an application that translates sake labels for users and offers an extensive guide to sake makers, as well as recommendations on pairings for different cuisines.

In the process, he has become a type of cultural ambassador for his country, traveling the globe to showcase the best of Japan.

Hidetoshi Nakata is interviewed prior to the 2018 Laureus World Sports Awards at Le Meridien Beach Plaza Hotel on February 26, 2018 in Monaco, Monaco.
Boris Streubel | Getty

“All of those traditional markets, like craftsmen and sake makers don’t really open doors that easily to the public,” Nakata says. “If you have a great object, if you have great information, if you have great experiences or stories, it’s better to share with people.”

Nakata’s business keeps him far from the field these days, but the former soccer player says the discipline he learned as an athlete, still stays with him. He continues to train every morning, because he says it keeps him mentally sharp. He says his body is a measure of “how you are pushing your mind.”

Even as he looks to expand his sprawling sake business, Nakata insists there is no real end goal.

“I just do things I have a passion for. Soccer, craft, culture,” he says. “I’m not doing it for money or fame. That’s why, for me, there is no real success or no real fail.”

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