Japan

日本 / Nippon / Japan

  • Capital: Toyko / 東京
  • Official Languages: Japanese
  • Nicknames: サムライ・ブルー (Samurai Blue); なでしこジャパン (Nadeshiko Japan)
  • Association: Japan Football Association (JFA) / 日本サッカー協会
  • FIFA Code: JPN

Records

  • Best World Cup Result (Men): Round of 16 (2002, 2010, 2018)
  • Best World Cup Result (Women): WINNERS (2011)
  • Best Asian Cup Result (Men): WINNERS (1992, 2000, 2004, 2011)
  • Best Asian Cup Result (Women): WINNERS (2014, 2018)
  • Best Copa América Result (Men): Group Stage (1999, 2019)
  • Best Olympics Result (Men): Bronze Medal (1968)
  • Best Olympics Result (Women): Silver Medal (2012)
  • Best EAFF Championship Result (Men): WINNERS (2013)
  • Best EAFF Championship Result (Women): WINNERS (2008, 2010, 2019)
  • Highest FIFA Ranking (Men): 9th (March 1998)
  • Highest FIFA Ranking (Women): 3rd (December 2011)
  • Lowest FIFA Ranking (Men): 62nd (December 1992)
  • Lowest FIFA Ranking (Women): 14th (July 2003)
  • Most Capped Player: Homare Sawa – 205 caps
  • Top Scorer: Homare Sawa – 83 goals

The grand nation of Japan is regarded as one of the strongest Asian nations in world football with the Samurai Blue having won the Asian Cup four times in the men’s competition, and twice in the women’s edition. However the success of the Japanese sides on the international stage only started in the 1990s, which coincided with the start of the country’s first professional league, the J.League. The men’s side were very close to qualifying for their first ever World Cup in 1994, but managed to qualify for their first in 1998. Co-hosting the World Cup in 2002 was probably the biggest boom to the Japanese game, with the men’s team managing to progress from the group stage and adding huge national interest in the national team. Although the national side have yet to progress beyond the Last 16 of the World Cup, they have become consistent qualifiers from the AFC region, and are one of the most exciting teams in international football. Their frenetic and entertaining style of play brought many plaudits in the 2018 World Cup, whilst the country are now regularly producing many talented youngsters, many of them performing well in Europe’s top leagues. Just like the sun in their iconic flag, Japan’s fortunes in international football look set to be further rising…

For the amazing transformation of the men’s national team, the Japanese women’s national team has dramatically improved even further than their male counterparts. Despite qualifying for every Women’s World Cup since its first inception in 1991, they had not made much waves in the tournament by failing to progress beyond the group stage in four of their five appearances. However the 2011 World Cup proved to be the huge turning point in Japanese football when the Nadeshiko shocked the world by reaching the final (beating former winners Germany and Sweden en route), and then overcoming the defending champions, the United States on a penalty shootout after a 2-2 draw. It was the first time any Asian team had won a FIFA-organised global tournament! They would return to the final four years later, but suffered the wrath of a vengeful USA to lose 2-5. Although the team would be knocked out by a resurgent Dutch side in the Last 16 of the 2019 World Cup, they are considered one of the best teams in women’s football, bless with some world class players, and certainly the best women’s side in Asian football. This is confirmed in having won the past two Asian Cup tournament in 2014 and 2018.

To talk about one of the powerhouse nations in Asian football, and one of the most potentially exciting teams in international football, we interviewed the brilliant Sushi Football. A superb and knowledgeable account which focuses on all things J.League and Japanese football, as well as the host for the excellent J-Talk: Extra Time, a football podcast that covers Japan’s J2 & J3 Leagues. To find their social media accounts, follow the links below:

Q. Who would you say is your country’s best player and coach/manager of all-time, and the reasonings behind the choices?

There will be a multitude of opinions on this – some will say midfielder Yasuhito Endo (140 caps), some will say goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi (116+ caps, first Japanese goalkeeper to challenge himself in Europe). Some will say superstar midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata because of the trailblazing nature of his move to Europe and the silky skills that set him apart in football terms. Some might say “King” Kazuyoshi Miura because….well, because he’s 53 year old still playing pro football.

For me though, it comes down to two players: Kunishige Kamamoto and Keisuke Honda.

Kunishige Kamamoto

Kamamoto had an incredible career both at club level (when Japan didn’t have a professional league) where he scored over 200 goals for Yanmar [now known as Cerezo Osaka], and at international level. A forward of fearsome repute, Kamamoto scored a mind bending 75 goals in 76 full internationals, including 7 goals in Japan’s bronze medal finish at the 1968 Olympic games.

Keisuke Honda

For the modern Japanese football follower, Keisuke Honda is the man who redefined what it is/was to be a Japanese footballer. Japan has a reputation for producing hard working, diligent, systemic players – good at what they do but a bit reticent to take on responsibility. Honda changed that image. Whether it be his blond hair, wearing a watch on both wrists, or playing for AC Milan, Honda was never far from the limelight. It is on the international stage though, that he simply grew bigger. He has scored in three World Cups (the only Japanese player to do so) and lifted his performances and those of the players around him. Probably most famous for his “gyroball” free-kick against Denmark in 2010, Honda was, with Makoto Hasebe, the heartbeat of the Japanese side of the 2010’s. Not fast & not athletic, his football intelligence – he was able to play as a forward, a false 9, wide on the left, central midfield – and his insatiable will to win and focus on excellence is what set him apart form his peers. His club career has been very nomadic, but when he pulled on the blue Japan jersey not many were his equal.

Takeshi Okada

For manager, I think it has to be Takeshi Okada. He led Japan to two World Cups, and took Japan out of the group stage in 2010. Phillipe Trousier deserves a mention too after masterminding the build up and execution of the 2002 World Cup squad, and that 2002 team played some great football, but Okada just edges it for me (although Kazuyoshi Miura, who was dropped by Okada before the 1998 World Cup despite being Japan’s most recognisable face, would probably disagree….)

Q. Who could be regarded as a ‘cult hero’ in terms of the national team both in the past and present?

Shinji Okazaki

Cult hero is a difficult one because I don’t think it is something that really fits the Japanese style of supporting football. Especially for the national team, once players put on that Samurai Blue top, they get instant respect from all supporters. I’d say the closest to a cult hero is probably Shinji Okazaki. Not the most talented forward, not the fastest, not the strongest, not the most….shall we say, photogenic of Japanese players. But he exceeded all expectations and was invaluable in his 10 year international career, a career which produced 50 goals.

Q. Of the current team, who would you say is the best player from Japan currently?

Takumi Minamino

Currently I think purely in terms of where he finds himself in the football world, it would be Takumi Minamino (currently on loan at Southampton from Liverpool) but in my opinion his performances for the national team have yet to really hit the heights of his club career. I’ll throw in another for discussion – Bologna defender Takehiro Tomiyasu. Only 22, he’s already the best defender and looks set be the rock upon which the Japanese defence is built for the next ten years. He’s a really good talent.

Q. How would you describe the current state/performance of the national team?

Hajime Moriyasu

I think there’s potential, especially going forward with Minamino, Shoya Nakajima, Ritsu Doan and Takefusa Kubo, but I’m unsure whether current coach Hajime Moriyasu is the man to bring it through. Moriyasu had silverware laden time in charge at Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the mid 2010’s, but I’m yet to see any results of that coming through to the national team.

There are more good Japanese players than ever before. Tomiyasu at the back, Wataru Endo in midfield, and the forward three I mentioned before, but I wonder how much focus has been put on the Olympics (slated, of course, to be last year) and how that might have taken Moriyasu’s eye off the national team ball.

Q. Are there any Japanese players who you think we should be focusing on for the future – who would you say is the most exciting up & coming talent from the country?

Real Madrid’s Takefusa Kubo gets the headline attention from the football hipsters, but to delve a little deeper there are a couple of players currently in Japan that could do big things in the very near future.

Kaoru Mitoma

Kawasaki Frontale forward Kaoru Mitoma just finished a most outrageous season, a season where he scored 13 league goals, and assisted 12 others…..in his debut season after graduating university. Kawasaki won the league easily and were one of the best ever sides the J.League has ever seen in 2020, and Mitoma was a huge part of it. I won’t be long before he is plying his trade elsewhere.

Jun Nishikawa from Cerezo Osaka (the same team that produced Minamino, Shinji Kagawa and Taksahi Inui) has been drawing rave reviews for a long time, and was rumoured to be on Barcelona’s radar. I’m not sure how true that was, but there are definitely hints of stardom to his play and those in the know are looking forward to his progression.

Q. Looking at Japan’s long international history, what would you say has been the best game, result or performance for the national team in your opinion?

There are a few possibilities. The 2011 Asian Cup semi-final win against Korea in Doha, where the teams drew 2-2 after extra time, but Japanese ‘keeper Eiji Kawashima saved two penalties to lead Japan to the win. The final of that tournament is also a moment of triumph in Japanese football history as Tadanari Lee’s extra time winner against Australia – and subsequent archer celebration – sealed the tournament win. The 2010 World Cup win against Denmark, with two world class free-kicks from Yasuhito Endo and Keisuke Honda should rank pretty highly.

Then there was Japan’s first ever World Cup win, the 1-0 win on home soil against Russia in 2002 – with Junichi Inamoto’s ultra cool finish sealing the deal.

But, if the “Agony of Doha” was the lowest point, then I think the best result has to be the game that finally did clinch Japan’s first ever World Cup berth – the famous extra time win against Iran in 1997. It was the Asian qualifiers play-off with the winner taking Asia’s final automatic qualification spot and, after it looked the game would go to penalties with it being 2-2 in the final minute of extra time, Masayuki Okano popped up to poke the ball in and spark wild celebrations both in the stadium, outside the stadium and in Japan. Japan would go on to lose all three group games in France, but that night in Kuala Lumpur (as it was a playoff it was played at a neutral venue) with live forever in Japan football history.

Q. Likewise, is there a performance or result which is regarded as the team’s lowest point?

The lowest point precedes the highest point by four years, and mention the word “Doha” to any Japanese football supporter, and they’ll look at you with glazed eyes and mumble the word “higeki” – the simplest translation for ‘higeki’ is agony, and “The agony of Doha” is seared into the Samurai Blue folklore. In October 1993, Japan needed a win against Iraq to seal qualification for the 1994 World Cup, and it would have marked their first ever qualification. Leading 2-1 in stoppage time, and only two minutes away from the World Cup, Iraq equalised from a corner, and Japan were eliminated – the sour icing on this particularly horrible cake was that South Korea, Japan’s traditional rivals, were the ones to benefit from that stoppage time equalizer.

Q. What are the best and worst things about being a fan of the Japanese national team?

Worst, in my opinion, is the sense of sycophancy in the local media when it comes to games, and the cheerleading commentary that are seriously difficult to listen to.

Best? I don’t really consider myself a fan of the national team so it is a little hard to say. I would guess that the atmosphere for big games at Saitama Stadium when 50k+ are in full voice would be a sight & sound to behold. That and the awesome clobber that Japan football produces.

Q. Have the fans adopted some kind of unofficial anthem to sing along to before/during/after matches?

If you’ve ever seen a Japan home game, you’ll know that the crowd noise never stops – and one song you’ll hear almost constantly is “Vamos Nippon” to the tune of…..well, I’m not actually sure what it is to the tune of (if it even is based on anything) but it suits the supporters and allows them to sing for a loooooong time during games.

Q. Do you have a favourite or iconic shirt from the whole time of the national team?

Japan has been blessed with a number of iconic shirt designs, but they simply don’t come much better than the 1998 World Cup shirt made by Asics with the flames down the sleeves. The goalkeeper shirt is quite frankly one of the best designed shirts in the history of football. Prove me wrong…..

Q. Finally, what are your hopes for the future of the Japanese national team?

I hope they can go toe-to-toe with the big European nations & South America. The 2018 World Cup win against Colombia was huge for the mentality of football in Japan, and it showed that they can match up against traditionally stronger powers. Given that more Japanese players are heading to Europe earlier in their career to develop physically & mentally, it shouldn’t be a pipe dream to see Japan compete at the very highest level.

A massive どうもありがとうございました to Sushi Football for answering our questions on the Samurai Blue. Remember you can find their excellent account and podcast in the links at the top of the blogpage.

If you have any comments, suggestions, reactions, or even your own answers to the above questions, please write them in the comments box below. Likewise, you can either email us at the94thmin@gmail.com or send a message at @The94thMin on Twitter.

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