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.
Nationalism runs deep and strong here when it comes to international sports–badminton, volleyball, and curling matches are nationally televised–and people consider themselves ‘fans’ of all sorts of sports as long as Japan is playing. This is only compounded by a unique celebrity culture in which so-called tarento (talents) are anointed by the national media as celebrities with no discernible reason besides charisma and presumed marketability. Becoming a star in Japan isn’t usually a matter of clawing your way to the top, but being noticed at the bottom and taken straight up in a limo.
The fact that the Nadeshiko’s game peaked in the bleak months following the quake only sealed the deal. Americans will remember the months after 9/11, when you could scarcely go five minutes without being bombarded by images of destruction and grief. It was a similar sort of collective malaise, only prolonged by the uncertainty and fear that accompanies the mere word ‘radiation’. Ordinary folks, desperately wanting both a national triumph and a reason to watch something other than live-feeds from Fukushima Daiichi on TV, didn’t need much convincing to get on the Nadeshiko band-wagon.
None of this takes anything away from the Nadeshiko’s nascent accomplishments or their rightfully received hero’s welcome. After a string of upsets, heroics, and all-around mesmerizing play such as theirs, what could? But after the team’s meteoric rise, all these threads can be seen keeping them aloft. Most fans that I talked to at Yurtec Stadium had never been to see a women’s soccer match for club or country, and some had never been to a match of any sort–but they did for the Nadeshiko. And outside of tournament coverage, most Nadeshiko media appearances focus less on soccer and more on personalizing them to the public with chats about their lives, silly quiz games–and, of course, films of their regular visits to to the Tohoku coast.
Indeed, the shared minute of silence before kickoff, and the banner parade around the pitch after the final whistle only underscored just how much the timing of their triumph has become part and parcel of their success. Few would have chosen such a setting, but it is what it is. And the awkward reality is that the JFA owes a portion of this revolution to it.
It’s beautiful, really, seeing the perseverance of these players rewarded so grandly, and in front of millions of girls who–one hopes–will push just a little harder to have the opportunity to play. But it also begs the question of what this brand of success promotes: celebrated athletes, or athletic celebrities? When players are referred to in casual conversation not by name but by monikers like “the short one”, “the hot one”, or “the one who was on TV the other night”, and it’s Nahomi Kawasumi rather than Miyama or Sawa who is chosen as the subject of a comic book series, the distinction between an elite soccer team and yet another pop group seems in danger of being lost. Suddenly, saying that the opener of the Kirin Challenge Cup was like a rock concert becomes just a touch more than a convenient simile.
This, of course, isn’t exactly a new bind in sports–particularly for women–and the line between the two has always been thinner in Japan than elsewhere around the world. The Nadeshiko’s route may yet prove to be unsustainable, or to have implications for the perception and growth of their game that will not be realized for years. At any rate, it’s likely to be an experiment with little replicability for other nations. But such is the business of building a following: you ride the current you’re given, and hope you wind up somewhere better than you started. It’s the same old story. For now, at least, that plan seems to be working out quite nicely for the Nadeshiko. And maybe just a little better than it does anywhere else.