One of the first things that struck many Japanese about サッカー日本代表 (sakkā Nippon daihyō, Japan’s national soccer team), at the World Cup in Russia was the uniform.

The shirts of the 代表ユニフォーム (daihyō yunifōmu, national team kit) had traditionally been blue (hence the nickname Samurai Blue), but this year it was a darker shade of 藍色 (ai’iro, indigo). Adidas named this color 勝色 (kachi’iro, victory color), repurposing the name of an off-black color worn by the 武士 (bushi, warriors) of 戦国時代 (Sengoku Jidai, Warring States Period) Japan. Kachi’iro garments are worn under the 鎧 (yoroi, armor), and “kachi” has the double meaning of 勝つ (katsu, winning) and 喝を入れる (katsu o ireru, fusing the body with energy).

The shirt’s V neckline with its streak of red represented the kimono as well as the 日の丸 (Hinomaru, Japanese flag). Another salient feature of the shirt were the vertical 刺し子 (sashiko, stiches) on the front, which many Japanese associated with the 千人針 (senninbari). The senninbari, or “stitches of 1,000 people,” were belts carried by soldiers during World War II that were meant to ward off disaster and ensure the soldiers’ safe return. The senninbari went out of style with the end of Japanese militarism, but sashiko stitching has remained in traditional Japanese textiles and garments. That they showed up on the daihyō uniform at the 2018 World Cup is notable, since the rhetoric surrounding the Japan team has been openly nationalistic ever since manager Vahid Halilhodzic was ousted in April and replaced by Akira Nishino.

戦いの狼煙をあげろ(Tatakai no noroshi o agero, Light the fire of war) was the phrase most often seen in the media and in public viewing venues after Japan achieved a historic win against Colombia in the first round. These words, combined with the frenzied crowds in Shibuya, contrasted nicely with the restrained, well-mannered fans who had flown to Russia for the games.

This is only the sixth time Japan has qualified for the World Cup and the second time that the team has consisted entirely of Japanese nationals, both on the pitch and at the helm. The backroom staff are also all Japanese, a move that Nishino engineered when he took over from Halilhodzic in the hopes that an all-Japan team would enhance solidarity and smooth out communication problems. The media milked that for all it was worth, especially after the Colombia game: 西野ジャパンはオールジャパン (Nishino Japan wa ōru Japan, Nishino-led Japan is all-Japanese) read the headlines of more than one スポーツ新聞 (supōtsu shinbun, sports tabloid).

At the same time, some in the Japanese media cautiously suggested that the team might be too insular to make it past the group stage. That was countered with the argument that almost every one of the players had left Japan years ago to play in clubs overseas (mainly Germany), only returning home at intervals for 親善試合 (shinzenjiai, friendly matches) and 合宿 (gasshuku, training camp), so they were in effect quite 国際的 (kokusaiteki, international). Daihyō team captain Makoto Hasebe gave reassuring comments to this effect, and said that more than anything else, the team had to work on communication between themselves.

There has always been a sense of inadequacy in the Japanese soccer world in general, and the 日本サッカー協会 (Nihon Sakkā Kyōkai, Japan Football Association) in particular, about this subject. Internationalization and communication are the twin アキレス腱 (Akiresu ken, Achilles heels) of Japanese soccer, and Halilhodzic had apparently said as much. Stories also leaked out that the former manager had no real plan of action, and had said Japan should be thankful for having qualified at all.

Whether Halilhodzic actually said those things or not, a wave of resentment rippled through the Japanese public and soccer サポーター (sapōtā, supporters). The JFA played that out to their advantage by neglecting to give any coherent reason for Halilhodzic’s exit. The whole thing remains a mystery, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the JFA is in many ways a mirror image of Japanese politics in that 人事決定は闇の中で行われる (jinji kettei wa yami no naka de okonawareru, Personnel decisions are made in the dark).

And within a week of the daihyō team coming home, the JFA announced the 退任 (tainin, stepping down) of Akira Nishino as manager, even though he had led the team as far as the knock-out stage. This is a pattern familiar from 2010, the year that Takeshi Okada took over as manager from Ivan Osim after the latter suffered a stroke, with Okada pushing the team past the first stage to defeat in a heart-stopping penalty showdown with Paraguay. He was then replaced by Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni. After Nishino’s departure, the JFA is said to be looking for a 外国人(gaikokujin, foreign national) to lead the daihyō team again, and will make its final announcement on Friday.

In the meantime, regardless of the musical chairs with the manager job, the Japanese are basking in the afterglow of having made it to the ベスト16 (besuto 16, round of 16) when few people had thought they could pull it off. Ever since Japan beat Colombia, サッカー熱 (sakkā netsu, soccer fever) had the archipelago in its grip, fueled by the notion that the team, despite a deficit in communication skills, was still pretty special.

Check out the photo of the daihyō team’s locker room right after they lost to Belgium and exited the tournament. It was taken by Russian stadium staff and went viral. Incredibly, the place sparkled with a kind of clean orderliness you would normally associate with an operating theater, not the aftermath of a crushing defeat.

So may I say, in the words of forward player Yuya Osako: ありがとう日本代表 ハンパなかったよ (Arigatō, Nippon daihyō, hanpa nakatta yo, “Thank you, Japan team, you were so great”).

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