Japan have been the standout performers of the World Cup so far, winning all their group games without conceding. To the untrained eye, Japan may be considered dark horses of the tournament, but their past success deceives a different story.
In 2011, Japanese women’s football reached the zenith of its ‘golden age’. The Nadeshiko rose to national glory as World Cup champions after defeating a USA side featuring the likes of Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe.
Japan had heroes of their own. Captain Homare Sawa returned a national icon, having scored a last-minute equaliser in the final. Duly, she boarded the plane home with a suitcase of trophies, named as Player of the Tournament and the top scorer.
Her success, and the rest of the Japanese team, emerged from a story of tumult and perseverance.
The first buds (1970-2007)
Women’s football in Japan only started to bloom in the 1970s as teams emerged around the country. Though it was not until 1981, however, that Japan formed a national team that was independent of any club.
As women’s football continued to establish itself in the country, the newly established national team went on to compete in the inaugural Women’s World Cup in China in 1991. Just four years later, Sawa would make her debut at the 1995 edition and Japan would make it out of the group stage.
Yet, just as the native cherry blossom blooms as quickly as it sheds its flowers, by 1999 women’s football in Japan fell to its nadir. Despite an appearance at the 1999 World Cup, economic crisis left the sport teetering on the brink of collapse.
While facing many losses on the pitch, the Nadeshiko would not be defeated. The 2000s saw a period of regrowth for the team who remained ever-present at the World Cup. The 2003 and 2007 editions of the competition featured an impressive 6-0 victory over Argentina, and a 2-2 draw with England. While failing to progress from the group stage in either tournament, these results were the first buds on a tree waiting to blossom.Embed from Getty Images
Into bloom (2011)
The 2011 victory cannot be described as plain sailing. In the same year, Japan had to confront disaster.
In March 2011, the nation was hit by an earthquake. It was the most powerful to ever hit the island and triggered a tsunami and meltdowns at Fukushima nuclear plant. It was in this context that Japan’s national team would travel to Germany, hosts of the 2011 World Cup. A chance to give their nation an escape — the opportunity of respite for a nation in mourning.
Their group stages were underwhelming. Despite securing victories against New Zealand and Mexico, they fell to defeat against England. Second place in the group consigned them to face Germany in the knockout stages. It took extra-time to beat the hosts, before securing their place in the final with a 3-1 defeat of Sweden. Next up, the USA.
In the face of national disaster, Japan had shown resilience to make it to the final. It would certainly be needed in order to overcome the tournament favourites on the global stage.Embed from Getty Images
But Japan had resilience in abundance. Equalising in the 81st minute to send the game to extra-time was a sign of their character. When Abbi Wambach put the USA 2-1 up, Japan were once again unwilling to accept defeat.
Cue captain Sawa. Receiving at the near post from a corner, she poked home the equaliser just three minutes from the death.
Penalties saw the USA falter first and so the cherry blossom of Japanese women’s football entered full bloom. A victory dedicated to victims of the earthquake, inspiration for women’s football, hope for all those back home.
The years that followed signified the so-called ‘golden age’ of Japanese women’s football. They went on to reach the final of the 2012 Olympics, only narrowly losing to the USA, before claiming victory in the 2014 Asian Cup.Embed from Getty Images
Arriving at the World Cup as defending champions in 2015, Japan played their part well. They remained undefeated in the group stages and progressed relatively unfazed throughout the knockout stages. Their tree was still in blossom.
A re-run of the 2011 final was in store as Japan met the USA once more in a battle for the trophy. But proceedings would not go the same way.
The USA found themselves 4-0 ahead within 16 minutes and, despite a valiant effort to salvage the game, Japan fell to a 5-2 defeat. The petals were turning brown at the edges for Japan.
By 2019, Japan did not even come close to the final. Escaping the group stage in second place, they fell to the Netherlands in the round of 16. The petals had fallen once more.
Return to bloom? (2023)Embed from Getty Images
The cherry blossom symbolises transience and the acceptance of destiny within Japanese culture. But just as a blossom is impermanent, so too is its absence.
Japan have been in scintillating form so far this World Cup, registering a 4-0 victory against expected challengers Spain. Qualifying top of their group, they now face a lacklustre Norway in the round of 16.
A history of World Cup glory against the odds, a team catching the attention of the world, an away shirt that deserves a place in the history books. Japan look destined to blossom once more.