Japan established its presence in the baseball universe after winning the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006 and repeating the feat in 2009. But when it comes to soccer, the national squad is seen by many as a nonfactor heading into June’s World Cup in South Africa.

Yet with many predicting Japan’s early exit from the tournament, national team manager Takeshi Okada has repeatedly said his goal is not only to go beyond the first round matches but to reach the semifinals.

Is Okada just whistling in the dark or will Japan stage a historic upset in Africa? Following are questions and answers regarding the history of soccer in Japan and the national team:

Does Japan really have a shot at the semifinals?

Japan is 40th on the FIFA (International Federation of Football Association) official ranking list and will play against third-ranked Netherlands, 20th-ranked Cameroon and 26th-ranked Denmark in the World Cup’s first-round group. Out of those opponents, Japan most recently played the Netherlands team last September and lost 3-nil.

After the draw that put Blue Samurai against higher-ranked countries, Okada said he can “deal with” the Oranje, the Indomitable Lions and the Danes. Soccer critic and coach Naoto Muramatsu told The Japan Times that while the team may be ranked lower than its opponents, Okada’s ambitions are not necessarily unwarranted.

“Upsets are a part of the game because a soccer match can be won by a single score,” said Muramatsu, author of “Technique wa Aruga Soccer ga Hetana Nihonjin” (“Japanese Have the Technique but Don’t Play Soccer Well”).

But the expert acknowledged that Japan ranks lower than its opponents for a reason, and Okada’s chances of getting his team to advance in the tournament are low compared with the powerhouses.

How has Japan performed in past World Cups?

Japan has won three of the last five Asian Cup championships but has disappointed fans on the global stage. The team’s first appearance in the World Cup, in 1998 in France, ended with three straight losses, to Argentina, Croatia and Jamaica.

As cohost in 2002, Japan gained its first win in the World Cup against Russia and also defeated Tunisia. A tie against Belgium meant the team advanced to the next stage of the tournament, where they lost to Turkey 1-0.

Despite high expectations, Japan, managed by the Brazilian legend Zico, was quickly eliminated at the 2006 World Cup in Germany after losses to Australia and Brazil and a scoreless draw with Croatia.

South Africa will be Japan’s fourth appearance in the World Cup.

Who are some of the key players in Japanese soccer history?

Kunishige Kamamoto is considered one of the first soccer stars in Japan, helping the country win the bronze medal at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Kamamoto later served as an Upper House lawmaker in the Liberal Democratic Party and is honorary vice chairman of the Japan Football Association.

The 1993 launch of the professional J. League introduced superstars, including Kazuyoshi Miura and Ruy Ramos. Striker Miura, often referred to as “King Kazu,” started his career in Brazil and in 1993 became the first Japanese to win the Asian Player of the Year award. He played briefly in Italy and his sambalike movements after scoring a goal became known as the “Kazu-dance” in Japan.

Brazil-born Ramos, who became a naturalized Japanese citizen in 1989, fascinated early soccer fans with his technique. Known to many by his nickname Carioca, Ramos and Miura were both members of the national squad in the October 1993 World Cup qualification match against Iraq. Japan led the game but allowed a goal in the final minute, dashing the team’s hope of making its first World Cup appearance, in 1994 in the United States. That fateful game is known as the “Doha no Higeki” (The Agony of Doha) by fans today.

Brazil-born players, including Tulio and Santos, followed in Ramos’ steps, becoming a naturalized Japanese and playing for the national team.

Midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata pushed the envelope in the late 1990s when he joined Italy’s Serie A soccer league and contributed to A.S. Roma winning the Scudetto in 2001. Despite his popularity on and off the field and reputation as a fashion icon, the star called it quits after the 2006 World Cup at age 29.

Japan’s squad today is led by left-footed midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura, who joined the Spanish league with Espanyol after successful seasons in the Scottish league.

Why does the national team sport blue uniforms?

Although it is widely believed the color represents the ocean and sky that surround the Japanese archipelago, the JFA said no official documents give specific reasons. The blue uniform precedes the war and has been used by the squad except for a brief period around 1988, when red was the color.

How does Japan’s uniform match up against others design-wise?

Brazil’s major TV network, Globo, in November ranked it the ugliest out of recently redesigned national team uniforms, while favoring Russia’s.

The three-legged crow that appears on JFA emblems comes from Shinto mythology. Legend has it the mystic bird guided Emperor Jimmu, the mythical founder of Japan.

When was soccer introduced to Japan?

Records show that sometime in the seventh century, during the Heian Period, people engaged in the game of Kemari, in which players used their feet to keep a ball from touching the ground.

The sport of soccer is believed to have been introduced to Japan in 1873 by Royal Navy officer Sir Archibald Lucius Douglas during his mission to Tokyo. According to the JFA, soccer spread to other parts of the country after it was added to school physical education curricula. Matches between universities had become common by 1907.

Sumo is the national sport while baseball may be Japan’s forte, but soccer has grown since the early 20th century into a national pastime at least in numbers. According to a 2006 survey of 1,594 people between the ages of 10 and 19 conducted by the Sasagawa Sports Foundation, 20.3 percent said they played soccer in the past, while 17.0 percent partook in basketball and 14.5 percent in baseball.

How did the J. League affect soccer in Japan?

The launch of a pro league instigated a major change in how the country developed the sport. Led by stars such as Miura, corporate sponsors backed the league’s runaway success while matches were broadcast on TV. The flow of international players to Japan later on, including Brazil’s Leonardo and Dunga, became an inspiration for younger players and fans. Such factors ultimately led to Japan making it to the World Cup in 1998, analysts say.

According to the JFA, a June 1999 match between Japan and Peru held in Yokohama still holds the attendance record — a whopping 67,354 fans. Soccer’s popularity continued well into 2002, when Japan cohosted the World Cup with South Korea.

But some fear soccer is beginning to lose its appeal, with recent news of various corporate sponsors dropping teams amid the economic downturn. Empty front-row seats were visible at a match between Japan’s national team and Venezuela earlier this month, while J. League games are seldom televised anymore.

“This is partly rooted in a decision by the league to sell broadcast rights to satellite TV” in 2007, soccer analyst Muramatsu said. The five-year deal provided a hefty income for the J. League, but in return limited the audience to only those willing to pay the satellite fee. The shift prompted casual fans and young players to walk away, taking along with them corporate sponsorships.

“The decision is questionable in the long term. It is time for us to reconsider how the league should be managed,” Muramatsu said.

How can the Japanese improve their skills?

Muramatsu, who holds a coaching license from the Spanish soccer association and is currently teaching at the Barcelona-affiliated FCB Escola Fukuoka soccer school, said the key is in practice methods.

“Soccer is about making quick judgments in ever-changing circumstances on the field,” he said, explaining that each individual must be proactive but at the same time harmonize with the rest of the team. That is the largest difference between soccer and baseball, which involves less speed in the game’s progress. Techniques for soccer are hard to master through repeated practice of simple movements, or by following the coach’s instructions — which unfortunately is the way soccer is often taught at many junior soccer clubs, Muramatsu said.

But he is confident that Japan has the potential to improve, because unlike basketball or volleyball, soccer is less dependent on each player’s physique.

In facing the Netherlands, Cameroon and Denmark in June, Muramatsu said Japan must thoroughly research its opponents and understand their strengths and weaknesses. Netherlands may outrank Japan, but there is a chance this will put them off guard, he said.

“Instead of trying to force their style of play, the important thing will be properly adapting to each opponent,” Muramatsu said, suggesting Keisuke Honda, a quick midfielder who plays for CSKA Moscow in the Russian league, may be a key player in the World Cup.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.