Japan’s World Cup: Success Without Question?
Japan can be proud of its World Cup team’s best effort since English teachers started playing football with students in Kobe in 1871. But Japanese media, who treated the team like astronauts returning from the moon, failed to ask critical questions and raise important issues.
Although he fell short of reaching his semifinal target, Japanese coach Takeshi Okada won praise for organizing and motivating his relatively unsung players, and by all accounts the Samurai Blue were worthy of the name. But after getting knocked out by Paraguay, journalists failed to challenge “Oka-chan” over decisions that may have cost Japan a place in the quarterfinals.
They didn’t ask him why he took out midfielder Daisuke Matsui, who hit the crossbar early in the game, after only 60 minutes; nor why he inserted Kengo Nakamura instead of the other Nakamura -- Shunsuke -- who has been Japan’s most creative player for most of the past decade, and a proven penalty taker; nor why he chose Yuichi Komano, a primitive defender not used to taking shots at goal, to take a penalty kick.
Not surprisingly, the overworked Komano blasted the ball off the top of the bar, instead of calmly guiding it into the corner as a striker might. While Komano later admitted on TV that people would never forget his miss, it really wasn’t his fault; he never should have been put in that position. Okada, who did take “responsibility” for the loss, should have owned up to his mistake.
Instead of a critical post-mortem, which would have helped Japan learn from their mistakes, Kyodo reported that Okada was “presented with flowers and given a warm sendoff by a throng of reporters and supporters gathered at the (Johannesburg) airport.” They repeated rumors that Okada will become a “farmer who reads books when it rains and toils on the land when the sun shines, a lifestyle idealized by intellectual recluses in Japan.”
The Yomiuri reported that Japan’s “bravery will be remembered,” while the Asahi Shimbun’s headline read: “Surprised the world; endured a grueling 120 minutes,” as if that was an achievement in itself. TV networks aired interviews with the mothers and classmates of heroic players, and reported that Wakayama’s governor was going to give poor little Komano an award for being “kawaii-so.”
Mainichi’s post-tournament analysis mentioned nothing of Okada’s decisions regarding Nakamura or Komano. Instead, they printed another of Okada’s endless stream of bewilderingly vague comments: “When asked if the level of soccer has definitely risen, that’s something I would have to think carefully about.”
The foreign press in South Africa, obsessed with vuvuzelas, Diego Maradona and the collapse of France, Italy and England, generally overlooked Japan. One wire service got Yasuhito Endo’s name wrong after his brilliant free kick against Denmark, and many announcers couldn’t pronounce the name of rising star Keisuke Honda -- or, indeed, most of the other Japanese players.
Perhaps next time they’ll take Japan more seriously. In the past three World Cups, Japan has defeated Russia, Tunisia, Cameroon and Denmark, and drawn with Belgium and Croatia. With talented newcomers such as Honda, Japan might be able to reach the final 16 again at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, home to more than a million Japanese immigrants.
Many domestic commentators observed that Japan has finally discovered its own brand of football, instead of trying to emulate the foreign ways of their French, Brazilian and Bosnian former coaches: Philippe Troussier, Zico and Ivica Osim -- good teachers who couldn’t understand their Japanese-speaking pupils. Led by Okada in his salaryman uniform, Japan played with the disciplined organization of its corporatist culture. Instead of trying to be French artists or Brazilian samba dancers, the Samurai Blue built a castle wall behind the ball to keep intruders away from ’keeper Eiji Kawashima. Led by a stalwart central core of Yuji Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka, Japan gave up only two goals in four matches -- a tremendous feat.
But the media have been slow in reminding their readers and viewers that Japan suffers a fatal flaw, one that goes back for decades.
Since the era of Kunishige Kamamoto, who helped Japan win bronze at the Mexico Olympics and scored 200 career goals before going into politics, Japan has lacked a definitive striker. Japan’s education system is not geared to producing a cocky individualist who can leap over or run around defenders and strike with lethal precision. Honda, Endo and Matsui are midfielders, not natural strikers, and Shinji Okazaki, 24, lacks a striker’s arrogance.
Clearly, Japan needs to think outside the box and look beyond the archipelago.
But Japanese journalists, brimming with national pride, wouldn’t dare suggest Japan follow the example of Germany, whose stars have roots in other countries. Japan could have used an athletic striker like Germany’s Miroslav Klose (born in Poland) or the midfield creativity of Germany’s Ozil and Khedira (of Turkish ancestry). The Japanese networks, who showed hundreds of foreigners cheering on Japan in Tokyo pubs failed to mention that football supremacy increasingly belongs to multi-ethnic superpowers such as Germany and Holland, whose immigration policies give them a wider pool of talent to choose from than closed, mono-cultural nations. Japan has fielded some Brazilian-Japanese such as Tulio and Ruy Ramos, but the media still focuses on Japan’s “unique” qualities.
The Mainichi, for example, said Okada’s boys whipped Denmark because “Japan exceeded in terms of the total running distance for the 11 players on the pitch in all of the three games. That’s something very ‘Japanese,’ that is unswerving and led them on to the second round.” They also quoted Okada as saying: “We have a unique power that other teams do not possess. Our team of 27, including support members, can become one. We’ve been able to demonstrate that football is a team sport.”
In the future, Japan -- with its declining population -- might need more than its samurai spirit to keep pace with up-and-coming rainbow teams from places such as South Africa, Australia and even China. At the World Cup, Japan proved it now has a strong football culture; sustaining it might need a very different long-term approach.
But that’s something the media in Japan will obviously take time to understand. ❶
Author of Siamese Dreams, Christopher Johnson (www.globalite.posterous.com) began his journalism career as a soccer reporter at age 19 for the Ottawa Citizen newspaper. He attended the World Cup final in 1990 in Rome, and worked with BBC-TV at the 2002 World Cup in Japan.