Japan has this eerily consistent habit of making observers feel as though they’ve fallen down a rabbit hole and landed in, if not Wonderland, then at least a pretty good knock-off of it. To American eyes, accustomed as they are to unforeseen snafus and unmet expectations, everything in Japan just seems to work. Consider: everything–for better or for worse–occurs exactly on time; lost wallets get returned untouched nine times out of ten; convenience stores not only sell food you’d actually want to ingest, but just about anything else you could conceivably want; and no matter where you go, there are friendly, vocal, vending machines to offer you hot coffee in a can. Any long term resident can tell you that the feeling fades as you discover the maddening inconsistencies and staunch resistance to change that hamstring this society in more than a few places. But even then, Japan keeps coming up with new ways to keep your jaw scraping asphalt.
As the daylight faded over Sendai this past Sunday, Yurtec Stadium served up a doozy for followers of the women’s game. We know, by now, that captivating World Cups can give us a dream summer. But a scene like this, in 46 degree weather on a Sunday night, for a glorified friendly?
This is to say nothing of the journalists encircling the pitch, the Japan Air Self-Defense Forces marching band warming up near the bench, or the souvenir stands emptied of the newly-released Nadeshiko Japan scarves by half-time. The fitting cap on the evening, of course, were the over 15,000 spectators–many of whom had begun lining up hours before the gates even opened–singing, screaming, and chanting “Mi-Ya-Ma, Mi-Ya-Ma” before each corner. In fact, save for a complete sell-out and Dan Borislow being shipped over freight class to take a Miyama free kick to the groin, few dreams weren’t at least fleetingly glimpsed on Sunday.
Maybe it’s only mildly surprising that the Nadeshiko’s first domestic match in ten months would be on such a grand stage. Since Frankfurt, Sawa and her teammates have become permanent fixtures on those fabled, diabolical Japanese game shows, graced convenience stores nation-wide with their endorsement of prepackaged deli foods, and hosted numerous clinics for displaced kids throughout the quake-stricken Tohoku area. Rural newspapers now have a small column devoted to covering Nadeshiko League results, and Miyama’s smiling face is sometimes the one to inform you “You’re Watching NHK” before the nightly news. The Nadeshiko’s stature here is currently pegged at “Rock Star”, and the team is getting the treatment fans have long felt their own country’s stars deserve. Yet again, and in a manner few countries can manage, things in Japan seem to work exactly the way they should.
It’s easy to fantasize that if Rachel Buehler’s foot had extended just a few inches further, or Shannon Boxx had sent her spot kick a few degrees more toward the post, the above photograph could have been taken in Seattle rather than Sendai. After all, we’ve assumed the existence of a magic, missing ingredient for so long that the World Cup naturally becomes the “what-if” of the moment. But if Japan is women’s soccer’s soup du jour, its secret sauce may not be easily copied.