Nakamura began his professional career with J1 League club Yokohama Marinos in 1997, eventually making 338 league appearances during two spells at the club totaling just over twelve seasons. In between his spells at Marinos, Nakamura played in Europe with Espanyol, Celtic, and Reggina. During his time at Celtic, he became one of the best Asian players to have ever played in Europe; he was nominated for the 2007 Ballon d'Or, was named Scottish Player of the Year and SFWA Footballer of the Year in 2007, and became the first Japanese player to score in the UEFA Champions League. His team accomplishments at Celtic include winning the Scottish Premier League in 2006, 2007, and 2008, the Scottish League Cup in 2006 and 2009, and the Scottish Cup in 2007.
Nakamura has 98 caps and 24 goals for the Japanese national football team, including appearances in the FIFA World Cup finals in 2006 and 2010 and winning the AFC Asian Cup in 2000 and 2004; he was named Most Valuable Player of the 2004 competition. He also appeared in the 1997 FIFA World Youth Championship as a member of the Japanese Under-20 team and the 2000 Summer Olympics as a member of the Japanese Under-23 team.
Asteroid 29986 Shunsuke is also named in his honour.
Born and raised in Yokohama, Japan, Nakamura began playing football competitively at age 5 with local junior club side Misono FC, where his playmaking abilities already garnered attention from locals. In fifth grade, he was selected for Yokohama's city junior all-star team's tour of the Soviet Union, even though the team was only meant to include sixth graders.
At age 12, Nakamura joined the youth setup of Nissan Motors F.C., one of the predecessors of the club known today as Yokohama F. Marinos. While training at the youth setup, Nakamura was already honing his dead-ball technique, practicing free kicks for an hour every day outside of team practice; his coaches also acknowledged he had good ball skills and technique. However, at that time Nakamura was physically underdeveloped compared to his teammates and struggled to transition to the youth level, and eventually was not chosen for the youth team.
Rather than continue on the fringes of Nissan's youth setup, Nakamura instead decided to enroll at Tōkō Gakuen High School in Kawasaki, despite the school being a two-and-a-half hour commute each way. Nakamura led Tōkō Gakuen to Japan's national high school football tournament in 1995 and to the tournament final in 1996. It was his performance there that earned him a call-up to the Japanese Under-20 team for the 1996 AFC Youth Championship and subsequently for the 1997 FIFA World Youth Championship.
By his graduation from Tōkō Gakuen in 1997, Nakamura had attracted interest from several top-flight Japanese clubs, including offers from Júbilo Iwata, Verdy Kawasaki, and Gamba Osaka.
In 1997, Nakamura chose to sign with J.League Division 1 club Yokohama Marinos, the club whose youth setup he had left only a few years earlier. Nakamura made his début with Marinos on 8 March in an Emperor's Cup match against Verdy Kawasaki and his league début on 16 April against Gamba Osaka. Nakamura finished his rookie season with 31 appearances and 5 goals.
Nakamura had his breakout season the following year in 1998, making 37 appearances and scoring 10 goals; his playmaking ability in creating scoring chances for teammates also contributed to Nakamura being considered one of the best young players in Japan. In 2000, Nakamura had his best season in Yokohama, recording 5 goals and 11 assists in league play, helping Marinos to the first-stage championship; Nakamura was awarded J.League Most Valuable Player for his contributions. The following year, Nakamura made 31 appearances and scored 5 goals in all competitions, including 6 appearances and 2 goals in the 2001 J.League Cup, which the Marinos won.
Due to his success, Nakamura became the subject of transfer target rumors from a number of European clubs including Real Madrid and several Lega Calcio sides such as Reggina, Chievo, Perugia, Napoli, Lecce, and Atalanta. Nakamura felt he had to leave Japan and play in Europe to further develop and advance his career, especially after the disappointment of being left off of Japan's 2002 World Cup squad. Nakamura left Marinos partway through the 2002 season to join Reggina, newly promoted to Serie A, after the clubs agreed to a 6-month loan and US$3.5 million transfer fee. Prior to his departure from Marinos, Nakamura remained in top form, scoring 4 goals in 8 appearances.
Nakamura had come to the attention of Reggina scouts after an international match against Honduras during the 2002 Kirin Cup in which Nakamura had a standout performance and scored two goals. Reggina gained promotion to Serie A after the 2001–02 season and had already been looking to sign a marquee player for some time. It is said that, on the day Reggina secured promotion, then-Chairman Pasquale Foti had already called the Marinos to inquire about a Nakamura transfer while Reggina's players were still on the pitch celebrating.
Expectations for Nakamura were very high; the prestigious number 10 shirt was even taken from teammate Francesco Cozza and given to Nakamura, and the club sold 25,000 Nakamura shirts in the first five months he was at the club. Nakamura responded by scoring in three consecutive matches early in the season; in league play, Nakamura finished the season with 32 appearances and tied for the team lead with 7 goals, helping Reggina narrowly avoid relegation (Reggina defeated Atalanta in the relegation playoff).
Nakamura struggled with injuries in 2003 and was limited to just 18 appearances in the 2003–04 season (these injuries also caused him to miss a 2003 Confederations Cup game against Colombia and national team duty in November 2003). Additionally, Reggina underwent four managerial changes in just Nakamura's first two years at the club; Walter Mazzarri, hired in the summer of 2004, would already be Nakamura's fifth manager at Reggina. The frequent changes resulted in Nakamura mostly coming off the bench during the 2003–04 season and not fitting in well under Mazzarri in 2004–05 when Reggina only scored 36 goals in their entire league campaign, with Nakamura only managing to contribute two goals (although each came in crucial 1–0 league victories in a season where Reggina finished only 2 points clear of the relegation zone). Coupled with Reggina's struggle to avoid relegation every season that he had been at the club, Nakamura became concerned he was regressing from top level football and decided it was time to move on.
Nakamura expressed interest in playing in Spain and media reports linked him to La Liga sides Atlético Madrid and Deportivo as well as Bundesliga clubs Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Mönchengladbach in the summer of 2005. Other European clubs including Leeds United, Lazio, and Parma reportedly had also expressed interest during Nakamura's time at Reggina, but Nakamura ultimately chose to join Scottish Premier League runners-up Celtic.
New manager Gordon Strachan became interested in acquiring Nakamura due to his national team appearances in the 2005 Confederations Cup, in particular for his performance against Brazil in which Nakamura scored a goal and helped Japan to a 2–2 draw. The deal with Celtic was completed on 29 July 2005 for a reported transfer fee of £2.5 million, although Strachan has claimed the actual fee was far lower. In welcoming Nakamura to the club, Strachan stated that Nakamura "has got imagination and he sees passes other people can't see." Part of the deal also involved Celtic securing the player's image rights, with a view to enhancing the club's profile and merchandising sales in the Far East.
Nakamura joined Celtic at a time of relative crisis for the club and new manager Strachan. Celtic had been eliminated from European competition after being unable to overcome a shock 0–5 first leg defeat to Artmedia Bratislava in the second qualifying round of the 2005–06 Champions League and also had an inauspicious start to the league season, needing an injury time equalizer from Craig Beattie just to draw with Motherwell in the league opener. For this reason, Strachan immediately inserted Nakamura into the match day lineup for the second league game of the season against Dundee United on 6 August, despite Nakamura not being match fit as he had not played since the Confederations Cup earlier in the summer. Nevertheless, Nakamura had an excellent debut and was named Man of the Match, earning a standing ovation from the home Celtic support when he was substituted in the 84th minute. Both Tommy Burns and Neil Lennon, at the time first-team coach and club captain, respectively, have credited Nakamura's arrival at Celtic with helping turn around Celtic's disappointing start to the season.
Nakamura finished his debut season at Celtic with 38 appearances, 6 goals, and 10 assists. His creativity, as well as his work ethic and composure under pressure, won praise from teammates, manager Gordon Strachan and Celtic supporters. In reviewing Nakamura's debut season, Strachan said that Nakamura's "touch and vision were outstanding... In goal assists, I really do not think there is a player in Scotland to touch him." In his first season with Celtic, Nakamura won his first major club titles, the Scottish Premier League and Scottish League Cup.
In his second season at Celtic, Nakamura played his debut Champions League game on 13 September against Manchester United at Old Trafford. He scored from a free kick to bring the game level at 2–2, making him the first Japanese footballer to score a goal in the Champions League, although Celtic eventually lost 3–2. On 14 October, in a league game against Dundee United at Tannadice, Nakamura scored the first hat-trick of his Celtic career and won the Man of the Match award; the game ended 4–1 in Celtic's favour.
On 21 November, Nakamura scored perhaps the most important goal of his career with a 30-yard free kick against Manchester United at Celtic Park in a crucial Champions League game, leading to Celtic qualifying for the Champions League knockout stage for the first time. Sky Sports pundit and Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier later ranked Nakamura's free kick as among the best five set-piece goals he has ever seen. On 26 December, Nakamura chipped the ball over Dundee United's goalkeeper Derek Stillie at Celtic Park; the goal earned Nakamura the SPL Goal of the Season award. It was Nakamura's performance in the final 20 minutes of the game which allowed Celtic to escape with a point, prompting Gordon Strachan to proclaim him "a genius".
On 25 February, during the Scottish Cup quarter-final between Celtic and Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Nakamura broke a bone in his left hand after an Inverness player stepped on it. However, Nakamura nevertheless played in the next game on 3 March against Dunfermline Athletic. Hoops manager Gordon Strachan insisted that Celtic couldn't play the second leg of the Champions League match against A.C. Milan in the San Siro without him. He played in both legs of the fixture, the first of which was a 0–0 draw at Celtic Park, with Milan going on to win the tie 1–0 after extra-time at the San Siro.
On 22 April, Celtic won their 41st league championship, and second in a row. The title was won in dramatic fashion by an injury time free kick from Nakamura in a 2–1 victory against Kilmarnock. The result left Celtic 13 points clear of Rangers with four matches remaining. Quite fittingly, later that day Nakamura was recognized by his peers with the Scottish Player of the Year award. This was followed in May with the SFWA Footballer of the Year award and both Players' Player of the Year award and the Fans' Player of the Year award at Celtic's own end of season awards ceremony.
Due to Nakamura's form, transfer rumors again swirled during the summer window suggesting that Nakamura might exercise a release clause in his contract to join one of Europe's elite clubs, including Liverpool; however, Nakamura reiterated his desire to remain at Celtic.
Nakamura featured little in the first part of Celtic's 2007–08 campaign due to a knee injury which was initially picked up in a Champions League qualifying match against Spartak Moscow in August 2007. Nakamura attempted to play through the injury, including coming on as an 85th-minute substitute in a Champions League group stage match against A.C. Milan and being involved in the buildup to Scott McDonald's injury time winner. However, Nakamura wound up repeatedly aggravating the injury, including in a match against Motherwell on 27 October, after which an MRI revealed nerve damage next to a knee ligament and Nakamura sat out for nearly three months. During this time, Celtic slipped from the top of the table into second place; teammate Artur Boruc called Nakamura's absence the "big difference" in Celtic's drop in form. Nakamura returned to play on 12 January, for Celtic's Scottish Cup match against Stirling Albion, in which he scored a goal.
On 16 April, in a crucial Old Firm league game that Celtic had to win in order to prevent Glasgow rivals Rangers from winning the league title, Nakamura scored his first goal against Rangers, making him the first ever Japanese player to score in an Old Firm game. Typically, it was a fantastic goal, this time being a 30-yard volley. He later had a goal bound effort cleared off the line by a Carlos Cuéllar handball in the same match; although McDonald missed the ensuing penalty, Celtic eventually won the game 2-1. Celtic won the league title on the last day of the season, their third title in a row.
On 13 September, Nakamura played his 100th Scottish Premier League match in a 4–2 victory against Motherwell.
On 28 February 2009, he scored a hat trick against St Mirren in a 7–0 win.
Media assumed that Nakamura would return to his hometown club Yokohama F. Marinos after his four-year contract with Celtic expired at the end of June 2009; however, negotiations broke down over contract terms. On 22 June, Nakamura instead agreed to a two-year contract with La Liga side Espanyol.
Nakamura made his debut with Espanyol in the first league match of the 2009–10 season against Athletic Bilbao, playing the entire game. However, as the season went on Nakamura lost his place in the first team, spending significant time on the bench and with most of his appearances being as a substitute.
By December, Espanyol staff expressed concerns about Nakamura's slow adaptation to Spain and Spanish football, with manager Mauricio Pochettino even suggesting that most of the issues were cultural. Despite assurances from Espanyol as late as January that Nakamura still had a future at the club, Espanyol acknowledged that during the winter transfer window they had accepted a bid from Middlesbrough, who wanted to reunite Nakamura with new manager Gordon Strachan but there were questions about whether Nakamura would accept playing for a club in the second tier. By the following month Espanyol had transfer-listed Nakamura; media reports cited language and communication problems. On 26 February, Marinos agreed to a €1 million transfer fee. Nakamura acknowledged that his return to Marinos was largely due to ensuring playing time so that he would be selected and ready for the 2010 World Cup.
Nakamura rejoined Yokohama F. Marinos for the 2010 J.League season - 8 years after leaving the club to play in Europe. Nakamura appeared in 32 of Marinos' 34 league games in his first season back at the club, including 31 starts and 5 goals.
In 2011, Nakamura was appointed captain of Marinos and led the club to its best point total (56) in the J1 League since Marinos last won the league in 2004.
During the 2013 season, Nakamura made 33 appearances and scored 10 goals in league play. He also made 10 appearances and scored 2 goals in the 2013 Emperor's Cup, which the Marinos won. His league goal tally included a free kick goal against Oita Trinita on 27 October, Nakamura's 17th direct free kick goal in J1 League, surpassing Yasuhito Endo for the all-time league record. However, Nakamura was sidelined with injury late in the season and the Marinos lost three of their final four games, finishing one point behind Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the title race. Nakamura described Marinos' collapse as the "worst moment" of his career. Nevertheless, Nakamura was awarded J.League Most Valuable Player for his contributions, becoming the first and only multiple-time winner and, at the time, the oldest recipient of the award.
During the 2016 season, Nakamura became the longest-serving captain in Marinos history, passing Masami Ihara. He also scored free kick goals against Avispa Fukuoka on 5 March and against Gamba Osaka on 2 April, his 21st and 22nd direct free kick goals in J.League, further extending the all-time league record.
After the end of the 2016 season, J1 League rivals Júbilo Iwata made a multi-year contract offer to Nakamura. This led to media speculation in December that Nakamura was unhappy at Marinos due to interference in both player and staff personnel decisions by City Football Group, who had taken a 20% stake in Marinos in 2014. Júbilo Iwata confirmed signing Nakamura on 8 January. Nakamura called his decision "anguished" and reiterated his desire to retire with boyhood club Marinos - the only club he had played for in J.League - and expressed disappointment that he never won a league title with Marinos, but cited the ongoing stakeholder interference as creating an atmosphere where "every day there were things I felt were wrong" and he could not "face football properly". Nakamura reportedly accepted an annual wage of ¥80 million from Júbilo Iwata despite a contract extension offer from Marinos worth ¥120 million annually. Marinos general manager Takao Toshishige publicly expressed regret at the club's failure to re-sign Nakamura, saying "We absolutely cannot allow something like this to happen again.” A Marinos official reportedly stated that due to Nakamura's popularity with fans, his departure could result in a one-third drop in Marinos annual revenue.
Nakamura joined Júbilo Iwata for the 2017 season. He scored his first goal for Júbilo in a match against Omiya Ardija on 11 March, scoring from a direct free kick to bring his record J.League tally to 23; the goal was later nominated for J.League Goal of the Month for the February-March period. Nakamura followed up the nomination by winning J.League Goal of the Month for April for his 30-yard strike against Kashima Antlers on 22 April.
Nakamura's national team career with Japan started in 1996 as the only high school player selected to the Under-19 team for the Asia Youth Championship. The following year, he was a member of Japan's Under-20 team that finished in the final 8 of the FIFA World Youth Championship.
In 1999, Nakamura was selected a member of Japan's Under-23 team that won all its Asian qualifying matches in the run up to the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Nakamura formed a lethal combination in the attacking midfield with Shinji Ono on a team that would form the core of the Japanese national team, and included Atsushi Yanagisawa, Junichi Inamoto and Naohiro Takahara. In Sydney, Japan reached the quarterfinal round.
Nakamura made his senior national team debut on 13 February 2000, in an AFC Asian Cup qualifier match against Singapore. He scored his first national team goal against Brunei in the very next match on 16 February 2000, also in Asian Cup qualifying.
After playing a key role in Japan's championship at the 2000 AFC Asian Cup, Nakamura appeared to have cemented his place in the national team, having played every match of the tournament. However, his national team career took a sharp turn in a friendly match on 25 March 2001, a humiliating 5–0 loss to France. He did not play for the team led by manager Philippe Troussier again until almost a year later, in a friendly match against Ukraine on 21 March 2002.
Although Nakamura played in four friendly matches leading up to the 2002 World Cup Finals, he was left out of the 23-man squad to the disappointment of fans. In the second to last warm up match for the World Cup against Honduras, he scored two goals, one of them a curling shot made directly from a corner kick. However, he picked up a knee injury against Honduras and did not play in the final warm up match, a 3–0 loss against Norway, and was ultimately not picked for the World Cup squad.
Despite Nakamura's talents, Troussier could not find a place for him in his rigid, defensive-minded system. He believed Nakamura lacked the physique and stamina to play either the center or the left of the midfield, and had a surplus of players at both positions.
After the World Cup, Troussier resigned as manager of Japan, and was replaced by former Brazil and Kashima Antlers star Zico. The new coach immediately brought the talented player back to the national team, starting Nakamura in his debut against Jamaica.
Zico has lauded Nakamura's improvement since 2002, especially his physical development, stating, "Unquestionably, he has improved a great deal since his move to Serie A. He is the soul of our midfield." Nakamura has flourished under Zico's attacking style and earned his place as the central playmaker. He led Japan to the championship at Asian Cup 2004, where he was named Most Valuable Player, and qualification for the 2006 World Cup Finals. Nakamura also starred for Japan in the 2003 and 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup, scoring a total of 4 goals in 5 matches.
Nakamura was suspended for the World Cup qualification match against North Korea on 8 June 2005 that clinched Japan's place in the 2006 Finals, he nonetheless played a key role in the qualifying run and has replaced Hidetoshi Nakata as the main playmaker in Japan's attack.
In the 2006 FIFA World Cup Nakamura scored the controversial opening goal in Japan's first game against Australia, which Australia came back to win 3–1.
After the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Nakamura retired from international football.Scores and results list Japan's goal tally first.
As of 5 August 2017
Scottish Premier League (3): 2006, 2007, 2008
Scottish Cup (1): 2007
Scottish League Cup (2): 2006, 2009
Yokohama F. Marinos
J. League Cup (1): 2001
Emperor's Cup (1): 2013
AFC Asian Cup (2): 2000, 2004
J. League Best Eleven (3): 1999, 2000, 2013
J. League MVP (2): 2000, 2013
Japanese Footballer of the Year (2): 2000, 2013
AFC Asian Cup MVP (1): 2004
SPFA Players' Player of the Year: 2007
SFWA Footballer of the Year: 2007
Celtic Player of The Year: 2007
Celtic Fans Player of the Year: 2007
Scottish PFA's Team of the Season: 2007
Scottish Premier League Goal of the Season: 2007
Nakamura married a former Japanese talent in 2004. In the same year, his first son was born. His second son was born on 15 January 2008 in Glasgow, Scotland. According to the Evening Times, he is a fan of the Grand Theft Auto and Gran Turismo video games. He has appeared on the front cover (some of them with Zico) of the Japanese releases of Konami's Winning Eleven video game series (WE 5 WE 9, WE 9: Ubiquitous Evolution and WE 10) in 2001, 2005 and 2006. He also appeared on the front cover of Namco's Football Kingdom Trial Edition in 2004. He is the paid promoter of the Yamada electronics chain. His current boot sponsor is Adidas. Nakamura has illustrated the precision of his free kicks with novelty performances on television, including knocking ornaments off a wedding cake without disturbing the cake itself and striking a ball through the window of a moving bus.