There isn’t much of a women’s professional soccer league in Japan. Some female Japanese players play in professionl leagues in the United States and France. As of 2011, about 230 players belonged 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]

According to the Yomiuri Shimbun: 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.

In 2010, 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.

Nadeshiko Japan, Japan's 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.

Success of Nadeshiko Japan

In December 2011, Nadeshiko Japan was named winner of the Japan Grand Prix of the 61st Japan Sports Awards and their improbable and inspiring victory and the boost it provided back home was overwhelmingly voted as the top Japan sports story of 2011 in a poll of Daily Yomiuri readers. [Yomiuri Shimbun]

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Nadeshiko Japan, the national women's soccer team, had never advanced past the quarterfinals in five previous trips to the Women's World Cup. This summer's squad went to Germany with low expectations, only to launch a wave of excitement by progressing to the final, where the rapture overflowed with a victory in a penalty shootout over the powerful United States.

The Japan women's soccer team defeated the United States to win the Sixth FIFA Women's World Cup in Germany on July 17. Nicknamed "Nadeshiko Japan," they triumphed in a penalty shootout to claim their first world title. Japanese people were moved and encouraged by their win amid the national crisis triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake. The government gave the Nadeshiko players the People's Honor Award, the first time the accolade was bestowed on a group. Nadeshiko Japan also successfully cleared the preliminaries for the London Olympics in 2012, and expectations are high they will repeat their World Cup success.

The popularity of women's soccer soared after the World Cup victory. The Nadeshiko League, the top division of women's soccer in Japan, saw a remarkable rise in spectators at its games, and many companies inked new sponsor agreements with the league or specific teams. "Nadeshiko" was also chosen as the grand prize winner in the 2011 U-can Shingo Ryukogo Taisho (new words/buzzwords) grand prix.

"Support and empathy for Japan's team spread among sports fans everywhere. I was not a fan of women's soccer, but this match affected me, along with millions of others, and I will watch more women's soccer in the future." Paul Watlington of Arlington, Virginia said. "The smiles and determination of the Nadeshiko Japan team members added to their win and raised the spirits of Japan," said Ann Nakamura, Osaka. "It was the miracle event of the year," said -Akiko Yamaguchi of Sakura, Chiba "They showed to the world that Japanese women should be running this country (motivation, endurance and belief in themselves)," said Hans Prisi in Tokyo.

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 two 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

FIFA Names Sawa 2011 Player of the Year

Women's national soccer team captain Homare Sawa has become the first Asian player to be named FIFA Women's World Player of the Year, in 2011. At the awards ceremony she was photographed with Argentina’s and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, the FIFA Men's World Player of the Year. [Source: Yuji Kondo, Yomiuri Shimbun, January 11, 2012]

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The 33-year-old Sawa “won the 2011 prize for leading Nadeshiko Japan to their first Women's World Cup victory. FIFA, soccer's international governing body, also named Norio Sasaki as Women's Coach of the Year, and presented the Japan Football Association with the Fair Play Award for embodying the power of the sport in the face of the devastation caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Sawa, who plays for INAC Kobe Leonessa in the Japan Women's Football League, attended the award ceremony in a light-blue kimono to represent Japan. "I feel very pleased to have been given this honor," she said during her speech. "I'd like to thank all those who have helped me to play soccer. This honor will be great motivation for me to work hard every day." Sawa was regarded as the front-runner among the three final nominees for the Women's World Player of the Year prize. She won the Golden Ball and Golden Boot awards as the best player and top goal-scorer in last year's Women's World Cup in Germany. Upon learning that she had won the highest number of votes from every group of national team coaches, captains and journalists, Sawa said: "I believe it's meaningful that I can give [younger players] a dream that even a Japanese can become the world's player of the year."

In his acceptance speech, Sasaki expressed gratitude for the support countries around the world extended to Japan following the Great East Japan Earthquake. "We could provide excitement for Japanese people, boost their spirits and encourage them [through winning the Women's World Cup]," he added. The 53-year-old coach was praised for his strategy of emphasizing the team's organizational strength and teamwork, which helped the team to maintain its balance despite players constantly shifting positions on the field.

Sawa Diagnosed with Vertigo

In March 2012, it was revealed that Sawa had been diagnosed with vertigo. Sawa, who was absent for two matches during the 2012 Algarve Cup which Japan lost 4-3 to Germany in added time, has benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. The condition, caused by problems in the inner ear, is characterised by symptoms including short-term, repeated bursts of dizziness. In a statement issued via her club, INAC Leonessa Kobe, Sawa stated that she hopes to return to training as soon as possible. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 12, 2012]

Miyama Named Asian Women's Player of the Year in 2012

Nadeshiko captain Aya Miyama was named the Asian Football Confederation's feamle international player of the year for 2102. She defended her title as the continent's top women's player, over reigning world player of the year Homare Sawa for leading Japan to a silver medal at the London Olympics. Nadeshiko was voted the best women's national team, while Hanae Shibata was picked as the top women's youth player. Asako Takemoto was selected as the best women's coach. [Source: Kyodo, December 1, 2012]

Kyodo reported: “Miyama, who is also shortlisted for the FIFA Women's Player of the Year Award alongside teammate Homare Sawa, beat out another teammate in Japan goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori to capture the most prestigious individual honor in the Asian game. Sawa, the MVP and top scorer of this summer's Women's World Cup, had been nominated but did not attend the awards, making herself ineligible to win. "It's such a big surprise," said Miyama, who is one of 10 nominees for world player of the year honors to be decided on FIFA Ballon d'Or night on Jan. 9. "I appreciate this great AFC award. I would like to dedicate the award to my family and teammates of my club and the national team." [Source: Kyodo, November 25, 2011]

"It's not an honor that's been relevant to me up until now, and I wonder if I deserve it," she said. "It's a team sport. I think it's great for the team if one of us wins an individual award because it's a reflection of the team, but me personally, I'm not one to bask in it. It was a hectic year. We went from winning the World Cup straight into Olympic qualifying in such a short amount of time, which is something none of us has ever done before. But it was such a rewarding year."

Japan Earns Third-place Finish in U-20 Women's World Cup

Japan survived a wave of late pressure to edge Nigeria 2-1 to claim third place at the Under-20 Women's World Cup, making history with its best ever finish at the tournament. Gus Fielding of Kyodo wrote: “Free-scoring Yoko Tanaka set the wheels in motion with the opener in energy-sapping heat at National Stadium and Asuka Nishikawa added the second shortly after halftime after coming off the bench to replace Ayaka Michigami. Desire Oparanozie pulled one back for Nigeria but Japan held on to avenge its defeat to the Africans in the 2010 edition of the tournament, when Young Nadeshiko failed to advance from the group stage while Nigeria reached the final before losing 2-0 to Germany. [Source: Gus Fielding, Kyodo, September 9, 2012]

"To be able to play and win in front of such of a big crowd has been a really great experience," said Japan coach Hiroshi Yoshida. "The fact that the players were able to perform so well was very much due to the support from the crowd." "We were struggling at the end. I think it is significant that we were able to win by trying to play our game against a physically strong Nigeria team."

Japan, looking to rebound from its heartbreaking semifinal defeat to the Germans, nearly got off to a dream start when Kumi Yokoyama picked out Michigami after three minutes, but the striker's first touch let her down and allowed Nigeria goalkeeper Ibubeleye Whyte to make the save at her feet after three minutes. Nigeria went close seconds later when Oparanozie's free kick eluded everyone and came off the post, but it was Japan that took the lead with Tanaka's sixth goal of the tournament. In the 24th minute, the 19-year-old, on target in every game except the semi defeat to Germany, let fly from 25 meters and although Whyte got a hand to the ball, the shot had too much purchase and nestled just inside the right-hand post.

"I just hit the ball and it went in and I am glad that was able to swing the momentum," said Tanaka. "Mistakes on our part put us on the back foot and I am pleased that we were able to see the game out."

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.

Last updated January 2013

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