Why Japan is winning at World Cup in South Africa

World Cup 2010 Blue Samurai
At 5am Japanese fans flood Shibuya to cheer a well-deserved victory over Denmark.

To understand why Japan is winning in the World Cup, go to any schoolyard and you will see kids playing soccer — or a hybrid game called “kick-base” (like playing baseball with the feet). Just as Japan fervently embraced baseball and eventually became world champions, so the take-up of soccer at a young age is paying dividends in the biggest sporting tournament on earth.

Many Japanese players were schoolboys when Japan hosted the World Cup in 2002 — just three years after Japan reached the final of the Youth World Cup in Lagos, Nigera — and it shows in their passion for the game and willingness to battle for the ball. As a team, 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 Phliippe Troussier, Zico and Ivica Osim — good teachers who couldn’t understand their Japanese-speaking pupils.

Led by coach Takeshi Okada, who dresses like a 1980s Japanese salaryman, Japan are playing with the teamwork and disciplined organization of their corporatist culture. Instead of trying to be French artists or Brazilian samba dancers, the Samurai Blue are being careful, conservative and defense-minded, building a castle wall behind the ball to keep foreign intruders away from their excellent keeper Eiji Kawashima.

The Daily Mainichi in Japan reported that Japan’s oneness – something other teams like England have spectacularly failed to achieve – was the key to success. Okada commented; “We have a unique power that other teams do not possess. Our team of 27 can become one. We’ve been able to demonstrate that football is a team sport”. The Asahi newspaper meanwhile, reported that initial plans for the team to chase the ball “like swarming flies” in their opponents’ territory had been replaced in the group stages by an orderly approach where the team works hard on defense in its own end, and then links up with the offense.

These Samurai have proven they are tough risk-taking men who won’t shed tears on the field as Japan did four years ago after losing 4-1 to Brazil. Yuji Nakazawa, the 187-cm tall central defender, saved up cash from part-time jobs and went to Brazil to struggle on his own before returning to play in Japan. Instead of being polite and subservient, scrappers such as Yoshito Okubo are kicking the shins of bigger Africans and Europeans, while CSKA Moscow striker Keisuke Honda has a cockiness and self-assurance usually attributed to prima donnas like Ronaldo.

Okada says his hard-running players actually favor the cold wet weather of South Africa, which has troubled overpaid European stars missing their summer vacations. And let’s also consider that Japan’s success is no fluke. In the past three World Cups, Japan has defeated Russia, Tunisia, Cameroon and Denmark, drawn with Belgium and Croatia, and had close calls with Turkey, Australia and Holland.

If Japan beats Paraguay on Tuesday to reach the Quarter finals, other teams might just start emulating Japan’s corporate teamwork approach.

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