Gracious Losers: Japan’s Women Celebrate Silver in a Soccer Rematch with the U.S.

Despite a stream of tears in the minutes after the match ended, the Japanese team soon acted as if they had won silver, not lost the gold

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Lefteris Pitarakis / AP

From left, Japan's Karina Maruyama, Homare Sawa and Asuna Tanaka react after losing the women's soccer gold-medal match against the U.S at the Olympics in London on Aug. 9, 2012

When in doubt, bow. On Aug. 9, the Japanese women’s squad succumbed to the Americans in the Olympic soccer finals 2-1. But on the victory podium, as they collected their silver medals, the Japanese grinned, waved and bobbed their heads respectfully to the near-capacity crowd assembled at London’s hallowed Wembley Stadium. Then they raised their arms in unison and danced an impromptu jig. What else was there to do? Another bow, of course.

Despite a stream of tears in the minutes after the match ended, the Japanese team soon acted as if they had won silver, not lost the gold. Certainly, second place tops Japan’s performance four years ago in Beijing, when they came in fourth. But the Japanese are also the reigning World Cup champions, having prevailed over the Americans in a penalty-kick shootout last year. That nail-biter Japanese victory came as the country was still reeling from the physical, emotional and nuclear fallout of the March 11 tsunami, earthquake and nuclear meltdown. Two members of the World Cup (and London Olympic) squad, defender Aya Sameshima and substitute Karina Maruyama, had even worked for Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the Japanese utility firm that ran the fated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. (TEPCO owned a nonprofessional women’s football team, and some of its players earned their keep working at the plant, playing soccer during their off-hours.)

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For a country that desperately needed a lift, the World Cup performance of the women’s team, which has lived in the shadow of the male squad for so long, was massive. Even Japan’s then Prime Minister Naoto Kan was moved. “Japan’s play made me think I should not give up, but must hold out as long as there are things that need to be done,” said Kan.

That indomitable Japanese spirit shone at Wembley on Thursday night. The U.S.’s Carli Lloyd scored early on, heading the ball home in the eighth minute. She doubled her team’s lead in the 54th minute with a glorious distance shot. The Japanese had never been behind the entire tournament, and they had tended to allow their opponents to hog the ball. Not this time. The Japanese controlled the ball with precision and panache for nearly 60% of the match. But the barrage of Japanese attacks bounced off the woodwork. Finally, in the 63rd minute, Yuki Ogimi, who had scored three of Japan’s four previous goals in London, tapped the ball into the goal after the American defense was left scrambling in the penalty area. “Soccer is the kind of game when you never know what will happen until the very end,” said Japan’s captain Aya Miyama, after the match. “So we never gave up and always tried to go for the shot.” But the equalizer never materialized, and the Americans were crowned Olympic champions for the third time in a row.

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Both Japan and the U.S. enjoyed raucous support from the crowd, stars and stripes sharing space with the rising sun, as 80,203 football fans electrified the Wembley stands. It was the largest crowd to ever gather for an Olympic women’s soccer match. There was little of the kind of acrimony that had marred the U.S.-Canada semifinal. After the match, I went to talk to Japanese fans, expecting to hear expressions of disappointment or even frustration over a seeming hand ball by Tobin Heath that was not called. But I couldn’t find anyone who professed regret at the outcome. “It’s so nice to be here,” said Mirai Kudo, a Japanese fan from Aomori prefecture, who had a rising sun painted on each cheek. “There are so many Japanese here cheering, and I am really enjoying the team spirit.” The loudspeaker burst out with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” and Kudo bounced right along.

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In the postmatch press conference, Japan’s coach Norio Sasaki was asked about that hand-ball incident. It was the perfect opportunity to snipe, but he declined. “Maybe at that moment, I thought, hey, I wonder if that’s something,” he said. “But the moment passed, and I respected the judgment of the referee.”

As of the evening of Aug. 9, Japan had won just five gold medals at the London Games. Since Athens, when they scored 16 gold medals, the Japanese have been sliding down an Olympic slope. Beijing elicited nine gold medals, seven fewer than the previous Games. In London, swimming, a traditional strong suit, was a bust for the Japanese. Judo, the only Japanese-invented sport at the Games, only brought one gold medal. There are few other golden opportunities left for the Japanese in London, so it’s possible that five is as good as they’re going to get.

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Of those five gold medals, four have been courtesy of women. Earlier in the day that the Japanese female footballers won silver, Japan claimed its third women’s wrestling gold of the Olympics, when Saori Yoshida captured the 55-kg title. It was the nine-time world champion’s third-straight Olympic gold, a hat trick also accomplished a day earlier by fellow Japanese Kaori Icho in the 63-kg weight category. Given that Olympic women’s wrestling only debuted in 2004, the Japanese pair has been utterly dominant.

For a nation that perennially undervalues women in the workplace, it’s worth noting how essential Japan’s women have been in bringing gold medals home. The country has lost two decades to economic stagnation and political atrophy. Imagine if women were more involved in shaping the country’s future.

And in case you were wondering, how did the Japanese men’s soccer team do at the Games? Well, they were knocked out in the semifinals by Mexico. There’s no question that Japan’s women came into the Olympics a more successful squad. So why did the women’s team travel to London by economy class, while the men’s team flew business on the same flight? “Our women are very strong,” said a male Japanese journalist, as we waited to get postmatch impressions from the women’s soccer squad. “Sometimes we only realize it at the Olympics.”

For Sasaki, who has helmed the women’s team for four years, his squad’s strength is a given. Japan’s female footballers are known as the Nadeshiko, after a frilly but hardy alpine flower. What was the legacy of his team, the coach was asked after its silver-medal performance? “It’s teamwork,” he replied. “We have played with a bright and open attitude, with justice, with a sense of fair play, with a respect for our opponents. Even though it’s a team of small girls, they are very strong. That shows the beauty of Japanese women.”

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