WOMEN’S SPORTS IN JAPAN, RYOKO TAMURA AND THE SUCCESS OF JAPAN’S WOMEN’S SOCCER TEAM

WOMEN’S SPORTS IN JAPAN

Daniel Krieger wrote in the New York Times, “At the Judo championships in Tokyo in September 2010, Japanese women came away with their best tally ever: 13 medals, 6 of which were gold. The achievement reflects a wider trend in Japan of growing success in women’s elite competitive sports. In 2008, the women’s softball team won its first Olympic gold medal when it beat the undefeated Team U.S.A. at the Beijing Games. The women’s national baseball team has won the past two World Cups, and last month, the Nadeshiko soccer team became the first in Asia to win a World Cup. [Source: Daniel Krieger, New York Times, August 21, 2011]

“The rise of Japanese women in sports over recent decades has often been in games that used to be the domain of men, like golf, wrestling and marathon running, which women were excluded from in the Olympics until 1984...Milestones include the first women’s track event in the 1928 Olympics, when a Japanese woman, Kinue Hitomi, won a silver medal. Then, in 1964, the women’s Olympic volleyball team beat Russia to win a gold medal...Two years ago, Eri Yoshida became the first woman drafted by a men’s professional baseball team..”

“The development of Japan’s female athletes in recent decades is such that, in the first decade of the 21st century, they have outperformed Japanese men, winning 46 Olympic medals to the men’s 37" At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, women won five of Japan’s nine gold medals. “And high-profile female athletes, like Ai-chan, the table tennis prodigy, and the golf star Ai Miyazoto, are major sports celebrities.”

Robin Kietlinski, the author of Japanese Women and Sport: Beyond Baseball and Sumo , which traces their evolution in sport to the turn of the 20th century, told the New York Times, “It was in a lot of ways political because Japan wanted to be seen as strong, and sports became a heavily publicized and visible stage on which they could prove to the world they were leaders in Asia and able to hold their own against the West.” Kietlinski is a visiting research scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University in New York.

As Olympic athletes women are embraced as much as the men. “Nationality trumps gender,” Lee Thompson, a professor of the sociology of sports at Waseda University in Tokyo,” told the New York Times. “When Japanese women compete on the international stage, people don’t think of them as female athletes, but rather Japanese athletes representing Japan.” He added that “it’s easier to get return for your buck in women’s sports because globally they aren’t as developed as men’s sports.”

Increased Support for Women’s Sports in Japan

Daniel Krieger wrote in the New York Times,”But there is still a ways to go when it comes to equality in sports, both in Japan and around the world. “Wherever in the world you look, the general picture would be that sports is still fairly much a male preserve,” said John Horne, professor of sport and sociology at the University of Central Lancashire in England. “And women are much more marginal in the public arena in terms of media coverage, commercial development and opportunities to work as professional athletes.” [Source: Daniel Krieger, New York Times, August 21, 2011]

“The way forward, he said, is not only to get more women involved in sport as players and coaches, but also into more influential positions in organizations like FIFA and the International Olympic Committee, where their numbers are few. But despite the shortcomings, the global trend is toward a growing female presence in previously male-dominated sports. And nowadays women in Japan can box, play rugby and even sumo wrestle, from which they used to be barred.” [Ibid]

Financial support for women athletes is often inferior to that for men. After Japan's victory in the Women's World Cup soccer tournament the government said it was likely to double the funding for programs to nurture top women athletes. The government has also judged that giving greater support to women athletes will help Japan secure more medals at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and other sports events. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 9, 2011]

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry intends to heighten research and development regarding training methods specific to women athletes, and employ specialists to help women athletes return to competition after giving birth or rearing children. "Since the lineup of athletes for women's events at the Olympics is relatively thin compared with the men's, supporting women athletes likely will increase the number of medals for Japan," a government official said. [Ibid]

"It's important that top-level women athletes work actively to prevent girls from moving away from sports," said Kan Suzuki, senior vice minister of education, culture, sports and technology. In last year's national physical fitness test, more than 30 percent of girls in the second year of middle school said they spent less than 60 minutes a week on sport activities, not counting physical eduction classes. The corresponding figure among boys was about 9 percent. [Ibid]

Eri Yoshida, Female Pro Baseball Pitcher

Eri Yoshida, the teenage female knuckleballer, began playing for the Chico Outlaws of the independent Golden Baseball League in April 2010. She performed respectably in her debut, throwing to some former Major Leaguers. She pitched three innings, giving up four runs on four hits and hit an RBI single in her only at bat in a 8-6 win over Tijuana. She hit one batter in a 47-pitch outing.

Yoshida was the first woman to play pro baseball in the United States since American Ila Borders did in 2000 when she appeared in a game against Tijuana in May 2001. The U.S. Baseball Hall of Fame collected the jersey and ball used by Yoshida in her debut. Yoshida said her goal is to make it the Major Leagues.

Yoshida is only 1.55 centimeters tall and weighs only 51 kilograms but she throws a mean side-armed knuckleball. She first made headlines when she became the first female pro player in Japan, pitching for the Kobe Cruise 9 in the Kansai Independent League. She also pitched for the Yuma Scorpions in the Arizona Winter league.

Yoshida’s presence has boosted the fortune of the Chio Outlaws and the Golden Baseball League, which was founded in 2004. Since her arrival fan attendance and merchandise sales has increased markedly not only for the Outlaws but for other teams in the league. Her No.2 shirt is a hot seller mostly among “little girls.” Not everyone is enthusiastic about her though. Some have dismissed her as a circus, novelty act. She finished the season 0-4. [Source: Reuters Life!]

In November 2008, when she was a 16-year-old high school student, Yoshida was signed by an independent league team, Kobe 9 Cruise, making her the first woman with the opportunity to play professional baseball in Japan. Yoshida, whose main pitch is a side armed knuckleball, was selected in the ninth round of the amateur draft. She was the first woman drafted by a men’s professional baseball team.

Women’s Judo in Japan

At the Judo championships in Tokyo in September 2010, Japanese women came away with their best tally ever: 13 medals, 6 of which were gold. The achievement reflects a wider trend in Japan of growing success in women’s elite competitive sports. The rise of Japanese women in sports over recent decades has often been in games that used to be the domain of men. The women on Team Japan, six of whom have top world rankings in their divisions, owe their success in part to those who pushed through the gender barrier. [Source: Daniel Krieger, New York Times, August 21, 2011]

“In Japan, judo was considered a sport for men only,” said Kaori Yamaguchi, the pioneer who won that lone silver medal back in 1980 and who is now a professor at the University of Tsukuba in eastern Japan. But as it gained ground in the West, the International Judo Federation caved in to pressure from countries like Britain and France, who demanded a women’s world championships. “Foreign judoka all had a strong will to fight,” said Yamaguchi, using the collective term for judo fighters.

Many Japanese were concerned that judo---a sport created in Japan---would come to be dominated in the women’s category by non-Japanese fighters. “The women’s section of the sport was being stolen by foreigners,” said Mark Law, author of “The Pyjama Game: A Journey into Judo.”The looming likelihood of a women’s Olympic event, Law said, prompted officials to give way, and before long a Japanese women’s team was being readied with access to the best coaches in the world.

Yamaguchi became the first Japanese woman to win a world championship title in 1984, and when women’s judo first appeared at the Olympics, in Seoul four years later as a demonstration sport, she took a silver medal. A role model for the next generation, she also inspired a popular manga cartoon called “Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl,” about a girl whose grandfather urges her to master judo and win a gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Ryoko Tamura

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Yawara-chan
Ryoko Tamura, a 4' 9" judo world champion known to her fans as "Yawara-chan," is one of Japan's best known athletes. She carried the flag for Japan in the opening ceremonies the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and has appeared in numerous television commercials, often tossing men several times her size, and inspired Yawara-chan manga and cartoon character who always wears a lucky ribbon in her hair and overcomes greats odd to reach the top.

Daniel Krieger wrote in the New York Times, “Tamura won seven world titles, two Olympic gold medals, and obliterated the stereotype of the subservient Japanese wife by continuing her career after marriage and taking her last title after giving birth. Last year, she won a seat in the upper house of Parliament and began a second career in politics. “I forged the path of women’s judo,” said Kaori Yamaguchi, the first Japanese woman to win an Olympic medal “and Yawara-chan made it broader.” Tamura’s exciting style and colorful personality led to a judo boom in the 1990s, Yamaguchi said, out of which judo clubs and tournaments for girls emerged, laying the groundwork for their ascent. [Source: Daniel Krieger, New York Times, August 21, 2011]

Tamaru competes in the 48 kilograms division, the lightest of the seven women’s weight divisions. She hates winning on points. "I always want to win on ippon." she said. Before bouts she gets herself psyched up listening to J-pop groups like Chage & Asska, Misato Watanabe and Yuki Koyanagi.

Ryoko Tamura’s Life

Commenting on her mother displeasure over her taking up judo at 8, Tamura said, "She didn't like the idea of her little girl doing judo. She wanted me to play the piano, or maybe take tennis lessons. Something more girl-like. Tamaru graduated from college in 1998 during the middle of her judo career and continued with graduate work at Nippon Sports and Science University, where she studied judo. Her sponsor is Toyota.

Daniel Krieger wrote in the New York Times, “Tamura took judo against her mother’s wishes. At the age 16 years old, she upset world champion Karen Briggs at the 1992 Barcelona Games and took a silver medal. That marked the beginning of one of the most successful and inspirational sports careers in Japanese history. At 145 centimeters, or 4 feet 9 inches, tall with a signature ribbon in her hair fashioned after the heroic manga character, she was nicknamed “Yawara-chan” after the cartoon character inspired by Yamaguchi.[Source: Daniel Krieger, New York Times, August 21, 2011]

Tamura wed Orix Blue Wave baseball player Yoshitomo Tani in December 2003. The wedding ceremony and party was held in Paris. Afterwards she was named Ryoko Tani. Both Ryoko and her husband won silver medals at the 1996 Olympics and both competed at the 2004 Olympics. Yoshimoto now plays for the Yomiuri Giants.

Ryoko Tani gave birth to her first child, a baby boy named Yoshiaki, in December 2005. She said that childbirth was tougher than judo. Tani won her 7th Judo World Championship after giving birth to her son.

In August 2011, Tani was named the greatest female judoka of all time by the International Judo Federation. Beginning with a Toyota ad in 1992, Tamaru has appeared in more than 30 spots for 13 companies as 2000. In 2000, she did ads for Toyota, Marudao Food and Paint House.

Tamura's Judo Career

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Yawara-chan shows off
her gold medal
Tani has won more world titles than any other judoka---woman or man. She burst on the judo scene when she won the prestigious Fukuoka International tournament at the age of 15 and won her seventh world title in 2007 after giving both to her son. She missed the 2005 world championships because she was pregnant and lost the national final before the 2007 meet but was selected to compete by Japan’s national judo body,

Although she has been world champion five consecutive times, Tamura had to settle for silver medals in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. In Barcelona, when was only 17, she was defeated by Amarilis Avon of Cuba in the gold medal round. In Atlanta, she was defeated by Kye Sun-Hee, an unknown 16-year-old North Korean girl, in the gold medal match in the extra lightweight division. Kye has never fought abroad before and Tamura had won 80 straight matches over four years going in the gold medal bout.

Tamuaru finally, at the age of 25 won a gold medal at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. She defeated her opponents Lioubiv Briuletova in the gold metal match with an ippon only 36 second into the contest. The were hundred of Japanese in the audience and the erupted in applause when it was announced that Tamura had won. Tamara said, "At last I've got the gold and it's a very special moment. When I received the gold medal on the podium I thought I was dreaming. It was like meeting your first love after 80 years."

At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Ryoko Tani won an unprecedented forth Olympic medal and second straight gold medal. She won a gold in women’s 48 kilogram division At the Beijing Olympics in 2008 she won her fifth Olympic medal but disappointingly it was a bronze. Tani won her 7th world gold in Rio de Janeiro in 2007 after having a chi;d. One 2007 world title she said, “Winning the gold after giving birth sent a message that a woman can continue her career after giving birth.”

Tani gave birth just a few months for the Beijing qualifiers. Her $3 million Paris wedding with Yomiuri Giants star outfielder Yoshitomo broadcast was broadcast in national television.

At Beijing in 2008 Tani was a 32-year-old mother. She lost in the semifinals to eventual gold medal winner Romanian Akina Dumitru because of controversial shido caution penalty assessed against her with 30 seconds left in the match. She won the bronze medal with a decisive hip-throw ippon over Russian opponent Lyudmila Bogdanova. She had been selected for the Japanese Olympics team because of her experience despite losing in the final at the Japan championship to Emi Yamagashi.

Tani ended her Olympic career with five medals in five Olympics: silvers in 1992 and 1996, golds in 2000 and 2004 and a bronze in 2008.

In February 2009, Tani announced that she would miss the world judo championship because she was pregnant with he second child,

In July 2010, Tani, then a 34-year-old mother of two, won a seat for the DPJ in Upper House elections. In October 2010 she said she was ending her judo career so she could focus on politics. Before that she said she was going to continue with competitive judo with an eye on the 2012 Olympics in London.

College-Level Female American Football Player in Japan

In November 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “It was unusual enough that when Masayo Kushida got her first look at football, she decided she wanted to give the sport a try. What really makes her stand out is that she now plays a position that assures maximum contact. Kushida played on the defensive line for the Kyoto Seika University Gawks when she made history last month by becoming the first woman to appear in a Kansai Collegiate League game. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, November 8, 2012]

Kushida, a 1.64-meter, 75-kilogram sophomore, held her own in the game against Osaka International College. Fears of Kushida getting injured were somewhat mitigated by the fact that Kyoto Seika plays deep in the Kanto League's third division. Because the four schools in Block G have few players, games are played six a side. [Ibid]

Kushida often played against boys while growing up, participating in swimming and karate. At Shonan Kokadai Fuzoku High School in Kanagawa Prefecture, she played on the team's rubber-ball baseball team, batting fifth and playing third base. After entering Kyoto Seika, Kushida observed a football practice and, attracted by the power of the game, decided to join the team. League officials, given the level of competition, determined that she had the size and athletic ability to play with the men and approved her participation. However, what would have been Kushida's first season ended prematurely when she suffered a fractured collar bone the day before the first game. This season, she put the disappointment behind and, determined to be physically ready, practiced with one of the few women's club teams in the country, the Wildcats. [Ibid]

The Wildcats will form the base for Japan's national team at next summer's Women's World Cup in Canada, and Kushida plans to make that trip. Originally a wide receiver, she moved to the defensive line three months ago. As she hits as hard as anyone on the field, Kushida lets out a scream of exertion. "I want to knock over the opposing linemen and get a quarterback sack," Kushida said. Kushida, who is studying manga production, hopes to become a manga editor after graduating, with a dream of producing a football comic. [Ibid]

Japanese Women’s Soccer League

About 230 players belong to the nine teams of the women's top national soccer league, Plenus Nadeshiko League, but most are amateurs. National team captain Homare Sawa and a few others are professionals. The league's key sponsor is Plenus Co. Amateur players have to work for a living and many have part-time jobs. They turn out for practice sessions in the evenings and sometimes quite late at night. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 3, 2011]

The team that offers the most favorable conditions is INAC Kobe Leonessa, which has seven national players, including Sawa, more than any other team. It attracts many local sponsors by setting the minimum contribution at 50,000 yen. Established in 2006, the team's sponsorship program is supported by 85 companies, including hotels and restaurants. The contributions account for roughly half of the team's annual operating expenses of about 100 million yen.

Last year, four players, including Sawa and Shinobu Ono, another national team player, moved to INAC from NTV Beleza to seek better playing conditions. Only Sawa, Ono and two South Korean players have signed contracts with the team as professional players, but 18 other players have been hired by sponsor companies that give them preferential treatment so they can concentrate on playing soccer. Unlike at other teams, all INAC players can practice in the daytime.

INAC is the only team that has been able to provide such favorable conditions. Out of 22 women playing for Okayama Yunogo Belle, a team based in Okayama Prefecture, only Aya Miyama is a professional soccer player. Her teammates work at such jobs as cashier at a local supermarket and receptionist at a hot spring hotel. Only Miyama and Miho Fukumoto are national team members, but Fukumoto works at a prefectural athletic association and can only train in the evening.

All 30 players on JEF United Ichihara Chiba Ladies' team, including national team member Karina Maruyama, are amateurs. The team, based in Chiba Prefecture, starts its two-hour practice session at 7 p.m. However, some team members occasionally arrive late because of their jobs. One team member returns home after midnight, and another has to wake up at 5 a.m. to avoid being late for work.

Japanese Women’s National Soccer Team

The Japan national women's soccer team is officially nicknamed the Nadeshiko. A nadeshiko is a pink, frilled carnation said to symbolize the ideals of Japanese womanhood. The team has performed solidly yet quietly over the years but was largely little known internationally until they won the women's World Cup in July, when they surprised everyone by beating the world’s best teams---including the United States, Germany and Sweden---and helped lift their homeland which was still reeling from March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Daniel Krieger wrote in the New York Times, “The national team’s success can be traced back to the birth of a women’s soccer league in 1989, but it has been a rough ride, said Elise Edwards, an anthropologist at Butler University in Indianapolis who is writing a book about women’s soccer in Japan and who played for the Nikko Securities Dream Ladies in the league’s early days. After losing corporate sponsorship in the late 1990s, the league nearly folded. Since then, finances have been scarce and most players receive little if any compensation.” [Source: Daniel Krieger, New York Times, August 21, 2011]

After abysmal showings at the first few women’s World Cups, the Japan Football Association decided to invest more in the women’s national team, Edwards said. Results came fast. The women made it to the quarterfinals at the 2007 World Cup---where they lost to defending champion Germany 2-1 and lost to England but beat Argentina---and came in fourth in the 2008 Olympics. But even so, financing has been “really slow coming,” Edwards said. “The Japanese men aren’t anywhere close to where the women are now, but the J.F.A. is still more interested in men’s soccer.” That is now changing . Since the World Cup victory, attendance at women’s League games has been at a record high, and the sports ministry has announced it will increase funds for women’s soccer.

There isn’t much of a women’s professional soccer league in Japan. Some female Japanese players play in professionla leagues in the United States and France.

Japan Wins Women’s Soccer World Cup

Japan won women's World Cup in July 2011, upseting the Americans in the final in Frankfurt 3-1 on penalty kicks, after coming from behind twice in a 2-2 tie. Not bad for Japan's first appearance in the final of a major tournament, especially considering it hadn't beaten the Americans in their first 25 meetings, including a pair of 2-0 losses in warm-up games a month before the World Cup. It was also the first World Cup title won by an Asian country. [Source: Nancy Armour, AP, July 18, 2011]

The American scored first in regulation play. The Americans squandered countless chances before Abby Wambach scored in the 104th minute of overtime to give the U.S. a 2-1 lead. But Homare Sawa, flicked in a corner kick in the 117th to tie it. It was the fifth goal of the tournament for Sawa, who led all scorers in her fifth World Cup.

"We ran and ran," Sawa said. "We were exhausted, but we kept running." "The players were patient. They wanted to win this game," Sasaki said. "I think it's because of that the Americans scored only two goals." Feisty goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori made many critical saves. Chirping and yelling, AP reported, she showed no fear as she faced the Americans. Never mind that she is just under 5-foot-7, and the goal is 8 feet high and 24 feet across.”

In the penalty shoot out, NBC's Anne Thompson reported ‘Shannon Boxx took the first U.S. shot, and it banged off Kaihori's right leg as she dove. After Miyama made her penalty, Lloyd stepped up and sent her shot soaring over the crossbar. As the crowd gasped, Lloyd covered her mouth in dismay. After Kaihori's impressive two-handed save on a shot by Tobin Heath, Mizuho Sakaguchi converted Japan's third kick. One more, and Japan would win the title. Wambach made her penalty kick, but Saki Kumagai buried hers and the rest of the Japanese players raced onto the field.” "This is a team effort," Kaihori said. "In the penalty shootout I just had to believe in myself and I was very confident."

The final set the record for tweets per second, eclipsing the wedding of Prince William and Kate and the death of Osama bin Laden. The exciting climax drew 7,196 tweets per second, according to Twitter. Paraguay's penalty shootout win over Brazil in a Copa America quarterfinal later the same day came close to beating it with 7,166. President Barack Obama was a fan, taking to Twitter on Sunday morning to wish the team well and again after the loss. "Couldn't be prouder of the women of (hashtag) USWNT after a hard-fought game. Congratulations to Japan, Women's World Cup Champions."

Japan Wins Women’s Soccer World Cup for Their Tsunami-Stricken Homeland

After the final whistle, Sawa, the outstanding player and the top scorer of 2011, said, “Japan has been hurt and so many lives have been affected,” she said. “We cannot change that. But Japan is coming back and this was our chance to represent our nation and show that we never stopped working.” Wambach said. "It just seemed like all of Japan suffered so much, It seemed like their country needed them to win more than ours."

Nancy Armour of Ap wrote: “The Nadeshiko pushed ahead, playing inspired soccer and hoping their success could provide even a small emotional lift to their nation, where nearly 23,000 people died or were reported missing in the March 11 catastrophe. "Before we went to the match tonight we had some commentary on television and we heard comments on the situation in Japan," coach Norio Sasaki said after "We wanted to use this opportunity to thank the people back home for the support that has been given."

Japan’s coach, a man, Norio Sasaki used photographs of the March 11 devastation to motivate his squad. Following each of their games in Germany, the players made a solemn parade around the field with a banner that read, "To our Friends Around the World - Thank You for Your Support." Before Japan upset Germany in the quarterfinals, Sasaki showed his players images of the destruction to remind them of their higher purpose. "They touched us deep in our souls," star Aya Miyama said about the photos at the time.

And they responded in kind. Joyous fans wearing Japan jerseys hugged and sang in Tokyo as they watched the players hold the trophy aloft, confetti swirling around them and flecking their hair with gold. Special newspaper editions were printed by the national papers and handed out to pedestrians in Tokyo on Monday morning, while scenes from the game were replayed constantly on television.

Japan’s Women Overcomes Great Odd to Win with Style

Rob Hughes wrote in the New York Times, “It was not just that Japan twice came from a goal down to neutralize the United States and then beat it on penalties in the final in Frankfurt on Sunday. It was the manner in which Sawa and company grew into this tournament, game by game. It was their ingenuity in finding ways---different ways---to overcome opponents Japan had never beaten at this level before. We noticed, first, the ferocity of the team’s tackles in the group stages.”

“They were expected to be overrun by Germany, which had not lost a World Cup game since 1999 and which had won the previous two World Cups. Japan refused to be intimidated by reputation, by power or by a partisan home crowd. The Nadeshiko went toe-to-toe with the Germans, refused to yield in 90 minutes, and then, with a goal in extra time scored like a stone out of a sling, knocked out the German giant in the quarterfinals.”

Next up, the Swedes. Here, again, size was supposed to be decisive. The Japan women played on the suggestion. “The Swedish players are big and have very long legs,” said midfielder Aya Miyama. “Our legs can’t reach that far, so we have to be very careful of those long legs.” Miyama was smiling when she said it. The Swedes took an early lead before Japan overhauled them, 3-1 with two goals by Naho,i Kawasumi . Their ball retention, their swift and accurate ground passing, their work ethic, and their sheer belief ran Sweden, one of the originators of women’s professional soccer, ragged.

Beating the Americans and the Size Issue

Then there was the size issue and American formidability. Rob Hughes wrote in the New York Times, “The analysts forecast that the United States, never beaten by Japan, would overpower and overrun the Nadeshiko. Abby Wambach, the pregame story line went, was simply too big and too adept in the air to be stopped by defenders who stood shoulder-high to her. Well, Wambach did score with a trademark header in extra time.

But if finals swing by momentary efforts, something that happened five minutes from the end of regulation time defined the Japanese players’ refusal to let size overcome them. The ball was played in the air to where Wambach likes it. The big American, 5-foot-11, or 1.81 meters, tall, was beaten to the ball by Yukari Kinga, whose height from head to toe measures 1.61 meters. On average, Japan’s players were 7 centimeters, or more than 2 inches, shorter than their U.S. counterparts and the Europeans. In that single incident, that mighty leap for a small woman, Kinga proved that timing, not physical build, is often the key to sports. Timing, and determination.

“Some of the men’s teams from Asia, and their coaches, have used the excuse that physical size legislates against their winning world soccer events. Led by Homare Sawa’s extraordinary amalgam of talent, vision and tenacity, the Japanese women simply would not give in to that preconception.

Winning the World Cup, however, had been gestating since the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Japan had finished fourth there, and Sasaki told the players that the teams that had won the medals had wanted them more. He trained the players like beasts for this World Cup. The earthquake came years after the motivational rigors. And, game by game, the coach’s input was to study the opposition and advise the women accordingly.

Japan’s coach, a man, Norio Sasaki, had been drilling this into his players for at least three years. Sasaki’s theory on the Americans, for example, was that the time to hit them was when they thought they had hit the decisive blows. “When the Americans score a goal,” he apparently said, “they stop moving their feet. We saw that.” Twice the Americans led, and twice their defense stopped moving sufficiently for Japan to claim reprisals.

Sawa was the star. was named the tournament’s MVP. Hughes wrote, “She has been running since she was 14 years old. Now, at her fifth World Cup and in her 18th season as a pro, including years in the United States, she was the most complete player at this tournament. She created goals with her ability to make a pass unseen by most others. She scored the most goals of any individual, including the glancing shot on the near post from a corner kick that equalized Wambach’s goal deep in overtime.”

After Japan Won the Women’s Soccer World Cup

Japan’s women’s soccer team was welcomed home at narita airport in Tokyo by hundreds of fans. They received a letter of congratulations from the Japanese Emperor and did a photo op with Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

The government gave the People's Honor Award to Nadeshiko Japan in recognition of their winning the FIFA Women's World Cup. It was the first time the award has been bestowed on a group. The award ceremony was held at the Prime Minister's Office. "[Nadeshiko Japan] have given Japanese people the courage to face difficulties such as the Great East Japan Earthquake," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said.

After Japan's victory in the Women's World Cup soccer tournament the government said it was likely to double the funding for programs to nurture top women athletes.

But then it was back to work. A couple weeks later they had to play some tough matches to qualify for the Olympics. When they tied one game with North Korea it looked like those ambitions might be squashed. But in the end they qualified, finishing the qualifying round with a 1-0 victory over China, and claimed one of the two spots set aside for Aisan teams.

Nadeshiko's Wins Silver Medal at the 2012 London Olympics

The Japanese women’s soccer team had to settle for a silver medal after losing in the finals to the gold medals winners, the U.S. women's football team, avenging its World Cup defeat with a 2-1 victory over Japan. Carli Lloyd scored in the eighth and 54th minutes for the Americans, who lost to the Japanese in penalty kicks at last year's World Cup final. Yuki Ogimi scored in the 63rd for Japan. [Source: AP, August 10, 2012]

AP reported: “Japan played well and showed some of the same poise it had in the World Cup final against the Americans in 2011. It had more than enough chances to beat the United States for the second straight time in a major women's football final. But it squandered too many scoring chances at Wembley in its 2-1 loss to the now three-time defending Olympic champions. Japan twice hit the crossbar and missed on several opportunities from close range. And in one of its last chances of the match, U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo made a brilliant save off a shot by Mana Iwabuchi in the 83rd minute. [Ibid]

Some of the Japanese dropped to the ground after the final whistle, and many had tears streaking down their faces as they left the field. Coach Norio Sasaki huddled the players near midfield and they went around bowing to the large Japanese crowd at Wembley. The team got a standing ovation for the 80,203 fans, the largest ever to watch a football game at the Olympics. [Ibid]

Japan’s best result before that was a fourth-place finish in 2008 in Beijing, when it lost to the U.S. in the semifinals. They reached the gold-medal match by eliminating France in the semifinals, and a round earlier they got past Brazil, silver-medalist in the last two Olympics. [Ibid]

Japan’s semifinal match against France was one of the most thrilling soccer games at the 2012 games, with goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto blacking a number of shots by the French team. Akemi Ishii wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: Fukumoto stands just 1.65 meters tall, but she made one of the biggest contributions to Japan's nail-biting defeat of France that has given Nadeshiko a shot at the gold medal. She punched, parried, blocked and caught a withering barrage of shots from the French team in the semifinal Monday, a performance that left coach Norio Sasaki looking for the superlatives. "That little goalie Fukumoto looks like a deity for us," he said after the 2-1 victory. [Source: Akemi Ishii, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 8, 2012]

France's surge started right after Japan scored to go ahead 2-0 in the 49th minute. Despite working hard in defense, Japan conceded a goal in the 76th minute. Three minutes later, Japan teetered on the brink as France was awarded a penalty kick. Fortunately for Nadeshiko, the kick missed and Japan retained its lead. France's relentless attack continued after that. Fukumoto, 28, fended off their attacks, punching crosses clear and making some catches at full stretch. France peppered Japan's goal with 27 shots. [Ibid]

Fukumoto's performance at the London Games marks a turnaround from what she says was a humiliating experience at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. At Beijing, Japan finished fourth. During the semifinal and the bronze-medal match, goals were scored over Fukumoto's head. Many fans blamed her for the losses. "A short goalkeeper is no good," she often heard after returning to Japan In autumn that year, Fukumoto tore her left Achilles' tendon during a game and had to undergo rehabilitation for six months. [Ibid]

After overcoming her injury, Fukumoto was a substitute goalkeeper when Nadeshiko Japan reached soccer's pinnacle by winning the World Cup in Germany last summer. Ayumi Kaihori, 25, who was three years younger and five centimeters taller than her, was chosen in the starting XI because of the wide area she can cover. [Ibid]

Kaihori performed well, pulling off a string of fine saves and helping the team to the championship. Fukumoto regained her starting spot on the team for Olympics, a reward for her dedication and effort. She has given her all for the benefit of the team. Her fighting spirit was clear in the excellent saves she has made from the first game of the preliminary round. [Ibid]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, Daily Yomiuri, Japan Times, Mainichi Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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