National team player
Junichi Inamoto
In Japan, the sport known in most countries as “football” is typically referred to as “soccer”, mainly to differentiate it from American-style football, which also enjoys a limited following in Japan, particularly at the university and corporate level. Japan’s organized soccer body, the Japan Football Association (JFA), was established in 1921. In 1948, the national championship competition became known as the Emperor’s Cup. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

Soccer had traditionally not been as popular as baseball in Japan. That changed somewhat with the emergence of the J-League (Japan League) soccer league in the early 1990s and was dramatically altered when Japan became engulfed in soccer fever when it co-hosted the World Cup soccer tournament with South Korea in 2002. Soccer is particularly popular with young people. The flair and colorful hairstyles of the players is more appealing to their tastes than the disciplinarian coaches and dour team conformity that dominates baseball, dismissed by some young people as the sport of grandpas and grandmas. Many soccer fans are 20-something women.

Soccer has been played in Japan since the 1870s. Interest in the sport spiked a little in the 1960s when Japan won an Olympic bronze medal in the sport. Internationally the players and fans were known more for their good manners than skill or enthusiasm. At the 1998 World Cup, the Japanese team lost all of its games but was praised for its sportsmanship. Japanese fans were spotted picking up confetti that had thrown by others in celebration.

Japanese women were playing soccer as far back as the 1920s, but the sport saw a surge in popularity in the 1970s. Until that time there had been corporate or regional women's soccer teams, but in 1979 the Japan Women's Football Association was formed following an appeal from FIFA to try to popularize women's soccer. The following year, the first national competition was held. In 1981, a national team was set up, and in 1989 a women's soccer league was established. In 1991, the national team played in the first FIFA Women’s World Cup competition hosted by China. In 2011, the Japanese national team took the crown for the first time at the 6th World Cup in Germany. The team captain, Homare Sawa, also took the honors of top scorer and most valuable player. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

Japan has bid to host the 2022 World Cup. Qatar ended up being awarded the event.

Good Websites and Sources: Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive ; Official J-League site ; Jsoccer ; Japan Football Association ; 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea ; Wages of Soccer Players in Japan pdf file ;

Soccer Players Official Hidetoshi Nakata site ; Hidetoshi Nakata: Time Magazine Asian Hero ; Shunsuke Nakamura Official Site ; David Beckham in Japan 2003 ; Pubic Hair Like Beckham’s Mohican, 2003


World Club Championship in Japan

Japan hosted the World Club Championship in since 2004. It has been played in December in Yokohama and has been called the Toyota Cup since 2006. There is some debate as whether the competition will stay in Japan. Other countries are interested in hosting it.

The World Club Championship features quarter finals between the champion clubs of Oceania, Africa, Asia and North America, with semifinals between the winners of these matches and the champion clubs of Europe and South America. The finals in mid December.

Japanese National Soccer Team

The Japanese national soccer team is nicknamed The Blues, the Blue Samurai or Samurai Blue. Blue has also been embraced by other teams. France calls their team Les Bleus. Italy calls theirs The Azzuri (“Blue” in Italian). Serbia-Montenegro calls their Plavi (“The Blues” in Serbian).

“Japan’s national soccer team invited Dettmar Crammer, from Duisburg, West Germany, to be coach, and the team trained intensively from 1960 to 1963. Owing to the tenacious efforts of Crammer and the national team, the team won a bronze medal at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

The national team has long been marked by an inability to finish and score. A lot of times it wins with a lucky goal or mistake by the other teams. Japan’s nemesis in World Cup soccer is Australia, which humiliated Japan at the World Cup in 2006 and always gives Japan a hard time. Japan’s rivals in Asia are South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Bahrain always gives Japan a tough time.

At Al Ahli Stadium in Doha, Qatar in October 1993 Japan gave up an second half injury time goal to Iraq for a 2-2 draw that denied them a slot in the 1994 World Cup. The game is known as as the “Tragedy of Doha.”

The Three-Legged Crow and the Japanese National Soccer Team

Yata-garasu — a giant three-legged crow that led the descendants of the Sun Goddess to the homeland of the Japanese in Nara Prefecture — is the featured on the emblems worn by the Japanese national soccer team.

The black crow is a symbol of Japan that appears on the uniforms of Japan’s national soccer team. The crow is so honored because it is directly connected to one of the most pivotal episodes in Japan’s classic mythology. A close look at the emblem on the soccer uniforms reveals that the crows has three, not two, legs.[Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, June 17, 2010]

Kevin Short, a cultural anthropology professor in Tokyo, wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “When Japan’s first Emperor the legendary Jimmu tried to establish a new capital in Nara the route to the Nara Basin was through a long stretch of steep, densely forested mountains. Once in the forest Jimmu’s expedition quickly lost their way. At this point Amaterasu the Sun Goddess stepped in and dispatched her own familiar spirit, a giant three-legged solar crow called the Yata-garasu, which guided the expedition along the difficult mountain path all the way to Yoshino at the southern edge of the Nara Basin.”

Images of a three-legged crow inside a sun circle have been found on the banner of the Kumano-Hongu shrine, the center of the Kii Peninsula’s sacred lands and pilgrimage paths. The Yata-garasu on the national soccer team emblem is said to symbolize power and quickness. The symbol was adopted in 1931, in honor of Kakunosuke Nakamura (1878-1906), considered to be the founding father of soccer here in Japan.

Japan in the Asian Cup and International Youth Competitions

Japan won the Asian Cup in 1992, 2000 and 2004. Japan, Iran and Saudi Arabia have all won the Asian Cup three times. South Korea has won it twice (2004).

In 2000, Japan won the Asian Cup by defeating Saudi Arabia 1-0 in final with a first half goal by midfielder Shigeyoshi Mochizuki in a game played before a crowd of 49,500 in Beirut. The game was almost a carbon copy of Japan's victory over the Saudis is the 1992 final of the Asian Cup played in Hiroshima.

Japan was unable to make to final in Asian Cup in Vietnam in 2007. It lost 3-2 to Saudi Arabia in the semifinal. Iraq defeated Saudi Arabia in the final 1-0.

In 1999, Japan’s under 20 team finished second in the FIFA World Youth Champion. The team had a good run before losing to Spain 4-0 in the championship game in Lagos, Nigeria.

Asian Cup Soccer Violence in China

Japan beat China 3-1 in the finals of the Asian Cup soccer tournament in China in 2004. Television replays of Japan’s key second goal seemed to show that a Japanese player illegally touched the ball with his hand.

Anti-Japanese soccer violence was a problem during the 2004 Asian Cup. Chinese fans booed the Japanese players and threw garbage at the Japanese supporters and shouted things like “May a big sword chop off the Japanese heads!” During the Japanese national anthem Chinese fans hissed and booed despite messages on the scoreboard that read: “Be Civilized Spectators! Show a Civilized Manner!”

Outside the stadium before and after the finals, Chinese supporters burned the Japanese flag and made anti-Japanese speeches. One group of Chinese surrounded the car of the Japanese ambassador and smashed the car’s windows. Another group scuffled with police and chased the bus with the Japanese team and pelted it with bottles while shouting, “Kill! Kill! Kill!”

In a first round game, between Japan and Thailand, in Chongqing — which had been subjected to fierce Japanese bombing in World War II — two Japanese players were left behind when an angry mob forced the Japanese bus to take off early after a game The angry mob surrounded the bus but didn’t throw anything. Throughout the game Chinese fans booed the Japanese team and threw garbage at Japanese fans. The Japanese government criticized the Chinese government for not doing more to protect Japanese players and fans and reign in the violence.

Asian Cup Champions in 2011

In thrilling fashion Japan won the Asian Cup in January 2011 playing exciting, close, hard-fought games against nearly everybody they faced whether it was regional powers such as South Korea or upstarts like Syria — finally defeating Australia in the final 1-0.

Japan beat Qatar 3-2 in the quarterfinal before hometown Qatari fans. After being reduced to ten men when Atsuto Uchida was red-carded. Japan went ahead for good with a goal in the 89th minute by Masahiko Inoha. Shinji Katagawa scored the first two Japanese goals. Earlier in the tournament Japan beat Syria 2-1 after one of its players was red-carded.

Japan defeated Korea in the semifinals with 3-0 penalty shootout victory after regualtion time was over. Kyodo reported: “After a 2-2 draw over an intense 120 minutes, Yasuyuki Konno struck the winning penalty as Eiji Kawashima kept out South Korea's first two shots before Hong Jeong Ho fired wide.”

“Ki Sung Yong opened the scoring midway through the first half,” Kyodo reported, “with a penalty won by South Korean captain Park Ji Sung, who made his 100th international appearance. Ryoichi Maeda leveled later in the half before substitute Hajime Hosogai put Japan up in the first half of extra time with a rebound from a missed Keisuke Honda penalty. Hwang Jae Won made it 2-2 in the 120th minute from a penalty-box scramble, sending the match into the shootout.”

"It's been a tough tournament for us right from the beginning," Kawashima told Kyodo. "So to win it after the way they came back means a lot. The outfield players had worked so hard up to the shootout, but we unfortunately conceded in the very last minute. "I thought it was my time to step up. We've fought to come this far, but none of this will mean a thing if we lose the next one. We can win it, we just need to stay confident."

The victory was only the 12th time Japan has beaten South Korea in 71 meetings. Japan’s coach Alberto Zaccheroni said, "The great thing about this team is that we leave everything we have out on the pitch, every time...When we concede, it's usually through set pieces," Zaccheroni said. "I was annoyed they scored that late in the game, but when I looked over at my players, I thought we could do it."

Japan’s Asian Cup Win Australia in the Asian Cup Final

Japan defeated Australia in the final of the Asian Cup with a goal late in overtime. Kyodo reported: “Tadanari Lee struck a volley for the ages as Japan lifted a record fourth Asian Cup with a 1-0 extra time victory over Australia in the final...Lee, who only made his international debut in Japan's opener against Jordan, came on in the 99th minute for Ryoichi Maeda before finding the net 10 minutes later in spectacular fashion.” [Source: Kyodo, January 31, 2011]

“Lee spun in the box to connect with Yuto Nagatomo's leftwing cross and buried his left-foot shot in the top corner, leaving Australia keeper Mark Schwarzer motionless. The goal was reminiscent of Zinedine Zidane's legendary volley for Real Madrid in the 2002 European Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen. "This is just the best," said Lee. "I have had to wait for playing time but my patience has paid off. I was confident I would be able to seize my chance if it came my way. I'm delighted."

"It was a great win from a great team," said Zaccheroni. "It was a collective effort against a very strong Australia side. All of the players were tired but the team effort and team spirit pulled us through. I knew he (Lee) would do a job for us. We lost aerial power in taking off Maeda but I believed he would deliver. The whole of Japan can be proud of having a team like this."

“The first half proceeded at a pedestrian pace, the two teams combining for a meager three shots on target, none of them proving to be a threat. Australia thought it had gone ahead three minutes into the second half through Tim Cahill, but Maya Yoshida cleared off the line with his chest to keep the score at 0-0.”

The game began showing signs of life six minutes past the hour, when Okazaki headed centimeters wide of the far post from Nagatomo's cross. Harry Kewell slipped past Iwamasa for a one-on-one with Eiji Kawashima in the 72nd minute, but the Japanese keeper did well to deny the Galatasaray striker his fourth strike of the competition. Kawashima, who stopped two penalties in the shootout against South Korea, continued his heroics in extra time, tipping substitute Robbie Kruse's header onto the bar for another super save before Lee broke the deadlock with arguably the best goal of the tournament.”

Japanese Olympic Soccer

Japan appeared in the 2004 Olympics in Athens and the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and did poorly in both events. At Beijing in 2008 it lost to the United States and Nigeria and failed to advance to the second round. Japan’s appearance in Beijing was the forth consecutive time Japan made it to the Olympics. In November and December 2007 Japan held Saudi Arabia to a 0-0 draw to win a berth to Beijing.

At the 2000 Olympics, Japan lost to the United States in penalty kick shootout in a quarterfinal match, preventing them from making the medal rounds. Japan was leading in the game 2-0 but got sloppy and allowed the U.S. to tie the game, forcing the game into overtime. Some of the fans that traveled to Australia to see the team play arrived on 3-day, no-night tours in which they flew from Japan on an overnight flight, did some sightseeing in the morning, watch the team play in the afternoon, had dinner and then flew home on another overnight flight back to Japan.

One of the greatest moments in Japanese soccer occurred at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta at when Japan beat a Brazil team with Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Rivaldo, Bebeto and Juninho Paulista 1-0 in Japan’s first games of the Olympics. The loan goal came when Ryuji Michiki launched a long kick and the Brazilian goalie collided withe the defender Aldair and the ball fell in front of Teruyoshi Ito who kicked it into the empty net, Japanese goalie Yoshikatsu had a super game, blocking 28 Brazilian shots. Japan then went on to lose to the eventual gold medal winner Nigeria and was unable to advance to the knockout phase. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Japan won a bronze medal.

Japanese Men’s Soccer Team at the 2012 Olympics in London

The Japanese men’s soccer got off to a good start at the 2012 Olympics in London, defeating Spain, for Spain, which won the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, in the first match 2-1. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Yuki Otsu scored to lift the Japanese men's soccer squad to a historic 1-0 win against medal-favorite Spain in their first Olympic group stage match at Hampden Park. Otsu, who plays for German club Borussia Monchengladbach, scored in the 34th minute from a corner by Takahiro Ogihara. Japan's solid defense allowed few chances for Spain, which won the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 with teams that had no age limits. The men's Olympic soccer competition is primarily limited to players under 23. A maximum of three members on each team may be older.[Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 28, 2012]

Spain's starters included three players who won the Euro 2012 earlier in July — Jordi Alba, Javi Martinez and Juan Mata. The game started with Spain dominating possession through their smooth passing. However, Japan threatened Spain with sharp counterattacks led by their speedy star Nagai. The attacks bore fruit in the 34th minute when Japan had a corner on the right side. Otsu broke free from his marker and hit a cross from Ogihara with a sharp right-footed shot. Just after the 40th minute, Spain's Inigo Martinez was sent off when he was handed a red card for stopping Nagai by pulling on his shirt just outside Spain's penalty area.

The match was dubbed by AFP-Jiji as "one of the greatest upsets in Olympic football history." “Japan produced a major shock... with pace and guile in a match that could have ended in a rout had the finishing been more accurate," the AP reported. Not surprisingly, the mood in Spain was one of lament. "Japan beats Spain clearly," declared the Spanish sports daily El Mundo Deportivo on its website."Japan was expected to be technical and fast, but it also dominated a large part of the match with spectacular soccer."

But in the end the Japanese men’s soccer team went home without a medal after losing to Mexico in the semifinals and South Korea in the bronze medal match. On the latter, Fox Sports Network reported: “Chuyoung Park and Jacheol Koo scored on each side of half as South Korea downed Japan, 2-0, on Friday at Millennium Stadium in the bronze medal game in men's Olympic soccer. Park scored in the 38th minute and Koo in the 57th, as South Korea claimed its first medal its ninth appearance. South Korea lost just once in the event - in the semifinals to Brazil. The closest Japan came to scoring was in the 87th, when Kenyu Sugimoto headed in a goal that was called back for a foul on teammate Maya Yoshida, who wiped out Korea goalkeeper Sungryong Jung. [Source: Fox Sports Network, August 10, 2012]

In March 2012, Japan qualified for its fifth successive appearance at the Olympics after securing a comfortable 2-0 win over Bahrain at National Stadium [Source: Sean Carroll, Daily Yomiuri, March 16, 2012]

Japan Humbled by Brazil in 4-0 Defeat

In October 2012, Japan was soundly defeated by Brazil 4-0 in a friendly in Wroclaw, Poland. Kyodo reported: “Six years after their last meeting, the gap between Japan and Brazil has not closed much. Japan remained winless against Brazil as the Asian champions suffered their worst loss under Alberto Zaccheroni, suffering a humbling 4-0 defeat in a friendly at the hands of the five-time World Cup winners. The sublime Neymar scored on either side of halftime while Paulinho and Kaka chipped in with a goal each at the Municipal Stadium. [Source: Kyodo, October 18, 2012]

The last time the two teams played, Japan, under Zico, was thrashed 4-1 in the last group game of the 2006 World Cup. The Blue Samurai now have a total of seven defeats and two draws against the Selecao, and they will meet again in June 2013 at the Confederations Cup in Brazil. It was Japan's first defeat since February 29, when it lost 1-0 to Uzbekistan in a World Cup qualifier.

“Brazil and Spain are the leaders of international football," Zaccheroni said. "We were fully aware they are in a different class but the important thing was to see how Japan would respond in the face of such adversity. The result obviously is disappointing, but I'm pleased with the way we approached the game. I hope we play more teams like them so we can gain on the world's best side, and eventually stand toe-to-toe against them," he added.

Brazil coach Mano Menezes paid Japan a compliment — but with respect to Iraq and China, who his team whipped 6-0 and 8-0, respectively, in recent friendlies. "I would say Japan are the strongest out of those teams. They saw a lot of time on the ball," Menezes said. "Things worked out for us tactically, and we were able to score a few goals."

Japan continued to link well but the Brazilians opened the scoring after 12 minutes when Paulinho let loose from almost 30 meters out. Goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima was a heartbeat late to react, his fist getting under the shot that bounced into the net. Japan was not helped by a harsh decision by the referee, who awarded Brazil a penalty in the 26th minute.Yasuyuki Konno put a clean tackle on Kaka inside the box, but the referee ruled that the Japanese defender handled as he went down and the ball spilled over his right arm. Neymar read Kawashima well from the spot to make it 2-0 for his first of the afternoon.

Brazil added to its tally just three minutes into the second half. Japan was on the end of more misfortune when Neymar fired from close range with nowhere to go. But the shot went off defender Maya Yoshida's knee, and was redirected inside the left post with Kawashima completely wrong-footed. Honda and Kagawa valiantly tried to make it a game but Menezes' side poured salt in Japan's wounds in the 76th minute as Kaka struck off Kawashima's leg to close out the scoring.

"There's no question it hurts because I wasn't expecting us to lose by this big of a margin," Honda said. "We wanted to set the tempo right from the start, but they scored their first two goals early and took control the way we wanted to." "The biggest difference between us and them was the accuracy in front of goal," he said.

Japan Shock France in Paris with a 1-0 Victory

Japan beat France 1-0 at the Stade de France after a stunning goal from 29-year-old Yasuyuki Konno in the 88th minute of their international friendly. AFP reported: “The hosts had largely controlled the game but they were caught cold with two minutes to play when Konno volleyed home Yuto Nagatomo's cross following a rapid counter-attack. It was Japan's first win over France in six attempts. [Source: AFP, October 13, 2012]

Despite a patchy pitch at the French national stadium, the hosts settled quickly and won five corners in the first 10 minutes, one of which was headed narrowly wide by Laurent Koscielny in the fourth minute. Deschamps' desire to find a place in his starting XI for Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud obliged Karim Benzema to play on the left, but the Real Madrid man was nonetheless a constant threat in the first half. After heading Giroud's feathered cross straight at Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima in the seventh minute, he shot wide three times before forcing Kawashima into action again with a well-placed free-kick from 20 yards.

Benzema left the fray at half-time, in one of three changes made by Deschamps, and although France remained on top, there was a scare in the 55th minute. Hugo Lloris could not hold a low free-kick from Kengo Nakamura and the rebound was collected by Shinji Kagawa, but he could only drag the ball across the face of goal. Japan were coming into the game more and more, with Manchester United's Kagawa repositioned in a central role, and Deschamps elected to introduce Franck Ribery from the bench. The Bayern Munich winger worked Kawashima with a deflected effort in the 74th minute, before an angled pass from fellow substitute Mathieu Valbuena almost rolled straight in after Kawashima was distracted by Giroud's attempt to play the ball.

The game opened up, Lloris just getting enough on a Nagatomo centre to take the ball away from Mike Havenaar, before Bafetimbi Gomis headed in Giroud's overhead kick at the other end, only for the goal to be ruled out for offside. Kawashima then had to drop quickly to block a near-post shot from Ribery, before an eventful denouement culminated in Konno's winner. Twice Kawashima was solicited, thwarting Giroud and then Valbuena from range, but from the corner that followed Valbuena's attempt, Japan broke at speed and Nagatomo crossed for Konno to convert the winner.

French “Fukushima Effect” Joke Angers Japanese

Japan was angered by a joke made by French TV comedian presenter Laurent Ruquier that attributed the success of the Japanese goalie in a soccer game against France to deformations caused by Fukushima radiation. Following Japan's surprise 1-0 victory over France in a game played in France TV station France 2 showed a composite image of goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima with an extra set of arms, blaming the extra limbs — and his excellent performance — on the "Fukushima Effect." [Source: Ryan Bailey, Dirty Tackle, October 16, 2012]

Japanese politicians were upset by the remark, finding it in extremely poor taste. The Guardian reported: “Japan's chief cabinet secretary Osamu Fujimura called Ruquier's remark, a reference to last year's nuclear crisis in Fukushima, "inappropriate". He added that the Japanese Embassy in France had sent a letter of protest to the TV station France 2. The letter said the remark "hurts the feelings of people affected by the disaster and hinders efforts for reconstruction," Fujimura added.

Image Sources: Japan Zone and

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), 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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