Jul 4, 2010
Japan's soccer team scores in reviving the spirit of the nation
Soccer fans in Tokyo could not contain their jubilation when Japan scored a second goal against Denmark in a World Cup match on June 25. -- PHOTO: AP
Tokyo: Japanese soccer players may have failed to get into the World Cup quarter-finals, but thanks to them, Japan appears finally to have won back its confidence.
Putting the bounce back in the national mood is not an easy task. The country had recently witnessed yet another prime minister throwing in the towel, the fourth in four years. With each departure goes a bit more of Japan's clout in the international community.
On the industrial front, Toyota, a mighty icon, was hit by reports of design flaws in its vehicles. Jobs are scarce and the national debt is high. Observers and foreign media are questioning anew if a rudderless, dispirited Japan has lost it.
It was unsurprising then that people scoffed when 53-year-old Takeshi Okada, manager of the national soccer team, declared some months back that his goal was to bring his players to the semi-finals of the World Cup.
The man's daft, said his critics. Brickbats were hurled at Okada when the team - nicknamed Samurai Blue after the colour of their home jersey - lost four friendly matches in a row, including one to archrival South Korea, before heading to South Africa.
Perhaps because the Japanese had expected the worst, they were completely unprepared when the team played several spirited matches, their self-assurance improving palpably after each one, to reach the last 16.
Even though Samurai Blue finally bowed out to Paraguay in a penalty shootout, the boys were mobbed upon their return to Japanese soil last Thursday and greeted with repeated cries of arigato (thank you) from fans.
It is an understatement to say that the nation was ecstatic.
Manager Okada spoke of how proud he was that his boys had fought with the 'spirit of the Japanese that they have inherited'.
'People who continued to cheer for the team must have empathised with the players who battled relentlessly and believed in themselves despite the odds against them,' waxed influential Asahi Shimbun daily.
'For a long time, Japan has not had such an event in which the entire nation, regardless of age or gender, felt a sense of solidarity,' it added.
For once, the Japanese team did not wilt under pressure. Indeed, Samurai Blue could hold their heads high, given the collapse of soccer powerhouses like France and Italy at the World Cup.
Viewer ratings for the Japan-Paraguay match peaked at 65 per cent. The thunderous roars - whenever Japan missed a chance to score - echoed through the streets.
The Japanese felt good even though their team failed to make it to the last eight.
'It was too bad that the team lost,' said Mr Shuichi Nagayama, who had flown to South Africa for Samurai Blue's first two matches. 'Though it was only for a brief time, they gave us something to dream about,' he told the Yomiuri Shimbun daily.
Young Japanese interviewed on television said the team's performance had 'changed their lives'.
And so it must have, for Japan's unexpectedly splendid showing at the World Cup comes at a time when many young people here cannot find jobs after graduating from university, or have been thrown out of work due to staff cuts.
The Japanese economy is also still sputtering after more than a decade in recession, and the country has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.
Undoubtedly, good vibes pervaded the nation last week.
But Japan's return to world prominence had actually begun in March in Turin, Italy, when figure skaters Daisuke Takahashi and Mao Asada were crowned male and female world champions.
A month earlier, at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, they had won bronze and silver medals respectively.
In May, teenage golf sensation 18-year-old Ryo Ishikawa, who already holds several youngest-ever records, did the Japanese proud when he shot a 12-under-par 58, the lowest-ever score on a major tour.
'Tom said to me that I will have a good future,' said Ishikawa after partnering United States champion golfer Tom Watson at the recent US Open at Pebble Beach, where he tied for second place after two rounds.
Not to be outdone, female Japanese golfer Ai Miyazato, who already has four wins on the US tour this season, made a brief one-week stay at the top of the world money rankings and established herself firmly as a golfer to beat.
Japan's performance at the World Cup has one important lesson for the country - that not only do the players have to believe in themselves to do well, but also that the people must have faith in the team and its manager.
It will be good to see some of this rub off on Japanese politics.
Japan's last few prime ministers were arguably unwitting victims of the Japanese media, which refused to trust the nation's leaders.
But there may be a glimmer of hope for newly elected Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
Speaking to Japanese reporters last month in Toronto, where he attended a G-20 meeting, Mr Kan committed a series of verbal gaffes. He said 'emergency company' when he meant 'emerging country', mixed up G-8 and G-7, and got the names of several foreign leaders wrong.
The Japanese media apparently considers these flubs less of a crime than former prime minister Taro Aso's inability to read certain Chinese characters, for they have not made a big issue out of it.
Neither has the media made a fuss over Mr Kan's backtracking on statements on raising the sales tax and other issues.
It looks like the Japanese media, after running several prime ministers to the ground, is finally realising that the country will not get things done if it keeps complaining about their leader.