Japan’s women football team is one of the sides worth watching at the Women’s World Cup 2023. The team are nicknamed “Nadeshiko“, named after a pretty, pink flower that grows in Japan’s mountains. This name represents how people see Japanese women as strong and graceful, willing to endure and make sacrifices for their country without complaining. This name is actually perfect for the Japanese female footballers.
Source: The Guardian
Table of Contents
The History of Japan’s Women Football
According National Football Museum, women’s football in Japan was not widely played until the 1960s. Prior to that, girls participated in the sport mainly as part of their physical education in schools, but there were no organized matches. The interest in women’s football began to grow after the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, even though there was no women’s football tournament at the Olympics until 1996. Three regions, in particular, witnessed this growth: Tokyo, Shimizu, and the Kansai region.
The Kansai region, which includes cities like Kobe, Kyoto, and Osaka, saw early activity at Kobe College. The college had a large grassy area where girls could play, unlike many other schools. In the autumn of 1966, fifteen students from Kobe College Junior High School began training. Around the same time, girls from Fukuzumi Elementary School also started playing. On March 19, 1967, the two teams played against each other in a well-publicized match, with the younger girls winning 1-0.
Football started to spread across the rest of the Kansai region. In 1975, there were enough clubs to establish the Kansai League, with matches held at Kobe College. Apart from Kobe College, the other teams included private girls’ schools, a public junior high school, and a team of women from a mothers’ center. The establishment of clubs in Kansai followed a similar pattern seen throughout Japan, with teachers, mothers, and schoolgirls forming teams.
Source: National Football Museum
In Tokyo and Yokohama, a league called the Keihin League was formed, involving independent club teams as well. The first club in Japan, FC Jinnan, was founded by Chihiro Itami in 1972 and participated in the league. Jinnan won the league and faced Kansai League champions Nishiyama High School in the first unofficial national final, which the schoolgirls won. The Keihin League lasted for one season before a new league sponsored by Mitsubishi, called the Chicken League, started in 1976. This league ran for five seasons until the Tokyo Football Association formed its own league in 1981, playing on full-size natural pitches.
Source: National Football Museum
In Shimizu, the number of clubs grew during the late 1970s. Although the main centers were still Kobe and Tokyo, Shimizu City had made significant progress. Girls’ teams were formed in elementary schools as early as 1959, with Tetsuji Hotta leading the way. Among the elementary schools, Irie Elementary School’s club stood out in the late 1970s. In May 1978, they became Shimizu Daihachi Sports Club, which eventually became one of the strongest clubs in Japan.
In April 1979, the Japan Women’s Football Federation was established, introducing the All-Japan Championship. The first tournament was held in March 1980 on Mitsubishi’s artificial pitch. In 1981, there were three major developments. First, the Tokyo League was formed, and matches started to be played on grass pitches. Second, the Japanese Football Association officially supported a national team. FC Jinnan had unofficially represented Japan in the Asian Ladies Football Confederation’s Asian Cup tournaments, but in 1981, Japan fielded an official national team for the first time. Finally, England, Italy, and Denmark were invited to Japan in September of that year to play matches, which were part of the Portopia ’81 festivities in Kobe.
Source: Tokyo Web
2011 Women’s World Cup: The Greatest Miracle
The championship title of Japan’s women’s national team in the 2011 World Cup remains one of the greatest miracles in football history.
Before the 2011 World Cup final, the team had only won 3 out of 16 matches in the tournament. Even the most hopeful couldn’t imagine that Homare Sawa and her teammates would achieve such a feat in the World Cup held in Germany.
Just three months before the World Cup, this country was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami that claimed the lives of over 20,000 people and left 200,000 homeless. Over 2,500 people are still missing, and it is estimated that it will take 40 years to clean up the wreckage. Only in 2021, ten years after the tragedy, did a few families return to the area to rebuild their lives.
That’s why the significance of Japanese women’s national team’s victory 11 years ago lies in its ability to heal the deep wounds of the country. FIFA described the achievement of these amazing girls as “bringing smiles to the sad face of the nation.”
Before each match in the 2011 World Cup, head coach Norio Sasaki showed the players pictures of their homeland, where people were struggling against the devastating effects of natural disasters. “These images gave us great motivation to win,” admitted former defender Aya Sameshima. “But I couldn’t bear to look at them directly.” Before they even set foot in Germany, the whole team sent a message to the world with a banner.
- Historic Achievement
On their path to the historic World Cup victory, Japan’s women’s team didn’t need any assistance or support. After finishing second in the group stage, they faced the challenge of playing against Germany, the reigning World Cup champions, in the quarterfinals. Facing the legendary Birgit Prinz, the team remained resilient and took the game to extra time before Karina Maruyama scored the winning goal in the 108th minute. The seismic shock continued in the semifinals as Japan defeated the 2003 World Cup runners-up, Sweden, with a 3-1 scoreline.
The final challenge came from the United States, the reigning Olympic gold medalists. The tense and explosive final match reached its climax in the second half. After a series of unsuccessful attempts, Alex Morgan scored the opening goal for the United States with a left-footed shot from 16 meters. In the 81st minute, Japan equalized with a lightning-fast opportunity seized by Aya Miyama.
Source: The Guardian
As the game progressed, Japan grew stronger and shocked the United States by forcing the match into extra time. Once again, the script of the regular time was repeated. Wambach put the United States ahead in the 104th minute, but Japan’s captain Sawa created jubilation in Japan with a heel flick equalizer in the 117th minute.
In the penalty shootout, the United States missed three consecutive shots, while Japan only failed once. With a 3-1 victory in the shootout, Japan’s women’s team became the World Cup champions for the first time in history. In the football world, regardless of gender, no Asian representative had achieved what Sawa and her teammates accomplished.
- Motivated by their homeland
After witnessing Japan’s resilience, refusal to give up, and victory against the United States in the final, Hope Solo, the American goalkeeper, admitted: “I truly believed that there was something guiding the team to become the champions.”
“We kept running and running. Even when exhausted, we kept going,” Sawa recalled the journey to conquer the World Cup in Germany. The girls achieved one of the greatest miracles in the history of world sports through their never-give-up spirit.
Head coach Norio Sasaki couldn’t hide his pride when he shared with the press after the final: “Our girls played with their whole hearts. We felt the energy from the entire Japanese population. I was shocked.”
The mother of captain Sawa, the best player of the 2011 World Cup, emphasized: “Japan is smiling.”
“I don’t think anyone in the world believed that Japan would win the World Cup,” admitted Asako Takakura, a former Japanese coach in the 90s, to CNN. “Many Japanese people saw the women’s team become World Cup champions, and that gave them strength. It felt like the whole of the country won.”
After winning the 2011 World Cup, Japan rose to become one of the strongest nations in women’s football. Homare Sawa and her teammates won the silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics and finished second at the 2015 World Cup.
Rise To Prominence
After winning the 2011 World Cup, Japan became the champions of women’s football in Asia for the first time at the 2014 AFC Women’s Asian Cup by defeating Australia with a score of 1-0.
The final was considered an exciting match between two teams representing different styles of football: Japan focused on technique, while Australia was a physically strong team with good long-ball skills.
However, surprisingly, the only goal of the match came from an aerial play by the Japanese girls. It happened in the 28th minute when Iwashimizu, with a beautiful header from Narumi’s cross, beat goalkeeper Lydia Williams of Australia, scoring the opening goal and giving Japan a 1-0 lead. By defeating Australia 1-0, Japan officially claimed the title of Asian champions against the team from Down Under, and it was their first time becoming champions of the continent. In 2018, after defeating Australia once again in the final, Japan won their second Asian championship.
With the Asian women’s football championship, Japan now holds both of the most coveted titles in women’s football, which every football nation dreams of: the World Cup and the Asian championship.
Way To 2023 Women’s World Cup
In the 2023 World Cup, Japan is in the same group as Spain, Costa Rica, and Zambia.
The team’s performance in 2023 hasn’t been the best, with three losses and two wins in their five matches. However, they managed to defeat strong opponents like the Olympic Champions, Canada, at the She Believes tournament. They also had a close 1-0 loss against the current World Cup Champions, the United States.
Who are the key players for the whole team in this tournament? One important player is Hasegawa Yui. She has been a regular member of the Japanese squad since her debut in 2017, earning 63 caps and scoring 14 goals. Hasegawa is an attacking midfielder who can play in the center or on the left side, and her versatility in the midfield is highly valued.
Source: Kyodo News
Captain Kumagai Saki will play a crucial role in Japan’s World Cup campaign. As one of the few players who were part of the victory in 2011, Kumagai is likely to anchor the defense in the center back position. She can also step up and contribute as a defensive midfielder when needed.
Source: Times of India
In 2011, the energy that emerged from the epicenter of the earthquake was estimated to be 600 million times stronger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. However, just like the devastating disaster of more than six decades before, Japan rose up strongly. And let’s see, what Japan can even do in the upcoming Women’s World Cup.