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Rapids' Kosuke Kimura Was the Star at Japanese Emperor's Birthday Reception

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Consul General Kazuaki Kubo and Mazuko Kubo w/ Kosuke Kimura, defender of the MLS champion Colorado Rapids soccer team.

Early every December, the Consulate General of Japan in Denver hosts a reception to honor the Dec. 23 birthday of Emperor Akihito, which over the years has become one of the few times that Colorado's Japanese and Japanese American communities gather together. It's a festive, catered affair, with Consul General Kazuaki Kubo and his wife Kazuko in traditional Japanese garb of kimono and hakama greeting guests as they arrive.

This year's birthday reception was held at the Westin Tabor Center on Dec. 2. Kubo, who's been the longest-serving Consul General since the consulate was established almost 10 years ago, gave his usual excellent speech.

It was full of historical perspective and a grasp of the current, shifting geopolitics and business climate that may be a hallmark of a career diplomat but seems more passionate and learned. He also delivers his annual speeches in his excellent, vernacular English, not all stiff and formal. He's a very authentic and likable personality; the Denver Japanese community will miss him when he's rotated out of Colorado to parts unknown, which surely will happen any month now.

During his speech, the Consul General introduced a special guest of some historic note: Kosuke Kimura (shown above with the Kubos), a defender for the Colorado Rapids Major League Soccer (football in the rest of the world) team. The Rapids won the MLS Cup league championship on Nov. 21 in an overtime Finals game in Toronto against FC Dallas, 2-1, the franchise's first championship season.

His team's big win -- and his award as the Rapids' 2010 Humanitarian of the Year for his community service -- aren't the only reasons Kimura stole the spotlight after the Consul General stepped down from the podium, and spent the next hour of the reception shaking hands and signing autographs on scarps of paper, hotel napkins, invitations, whatever people pulled out of their pockets.

He was in much demand, even with people who wouldn't know soccer from, well, football, because he's the only Japanese-born player in the MLS.

Kimura grew up playing soccer in school in Japan, but took an unexpected detour when he injured his foot. In Japan, there is no college level that feeds into professional sports. Kids go from high school into pro soccer. His injury would have been a career-ender in Japan, so he emigrated to the United States to play college soccer. His decision was criticized because at the time, and still, soccer isn't a big money, glamor sport like it is throughout the rest of the globe.

He didn't know English at all until 2003. He taught himself by taking a one-year intensive class in six months so he could take his SAT test in time to play soccer at Western Illinois University. He managed it by avoiding all Japanese and immersing himself in an English-only existence, watching endless American movies and TV shows when he was studying for class -- hence his English is very Americanized, with only a slight accent and lots of slang and colloquialisms.

It's easy to forget he's Japanese until you listen to him speaking with Japanese fans, or watch him sign autographs with his trademark, the name written in Kanji.

Kimura racked up a bunch of college awards, and was drafted by the Rapids in 2007 and spent a couple of quiet seasons. But his MLS star is rising. He scored the game-winning goal against San Jose on Nov. 13 that sent the Rapids to the MLS Cup, and played the entire game and overtime during the final.

His career arc's been noticed back home too, not just in his hometown of Kobe but throughout Japan. Few knew who he was a year ago, but he's flying to Japan this month to make the rounds of media interviews, including a TV spot on NHK, the national network.

I asked him if he's heard from his soccer pals in Japan, and he said they're all happy for him. But his plan, in touring Japan, is to urge more young players to trade a career as a Japanese pro and play in college and then the MLS in the U.S.

A couple of years ago, when I interviewed him for a story in Asian Avenue Magazine (it's no longer available online), Kimura was a little nonchalant about being the first Japanese in the MLS:

"I don't really care that much about being the only Japanese," he said at the time. "That was the result of my playing hard in college. It doesn't give me much pressure."

Then he thought about it for a moment and added, "Maybe I should care a little more, and be a good example for Japanese people."

I'd say he's doing a fine job of inspiring the Japanese people, and I hope he gets all sorts of accolades when he goes home -- it's his first visit in several years.

(Cross-posted from Nikkeiview.com)