Today it is raining in Tokyo. Nothing heavy, but enough to prompt every man, woman and child venturing out onto the muggy streets to grab an umbrella. And this is why I am not overly hopeful for tonight’s game with Cameroon. I don’t think the adverse weather is an omen, but instead see Japan’s biggest problem encapsulated in the assumed necessity of a shield from even the lightest of drizzle.
Convenience stores are open 24 hours a day here; there are police boxes on every street corner; bus drivers commentate throughout every journey, warning of each stop, start and turn. In short, we in Japan are spoilt and sheltered from even the slightest inconvenience. The clichés of ‘kamikaze’ and ‘samurai spirit’ are from a long and distant past and are unlikely to be on display in Bloemfontein this evening.
Japan coach Takeshi Okada is in agreement of this fact, but has struggled to do much about it. At a press conference in December last year he spoke at length about the smothering culture of Japan, insisting that it was something that needed to be addressed.
“If you look back on Japan’s long history, even before the era of bushido or the samurai warrior way, there has always been, within the Japanese, the ability to fight, the ability to compete. It’s just that these abilities have been dimmed somewhat in recent times because now we live in a very safe and convenient society. I can say that, in a sense, this fundamental fighting spirit of ours, the switch has been turned off and therefore it’s only a matter of turning on this switch again.”
Unfortunately it is not quite that simple though, and I think seasoned sportswriter Fred Varcoe put it best when he opined that, “when you’ve had a light kick-around, then taken a relaxing bath before popping off for a quick trip to the hairdresser, is it really easy to unlock your inner samurai warrior? “
Outside of Asia, Japan and South Korea are often lumped together as having the same style of play when, actually, nothing could be further from the truth. This has been most brutally evident in the last two meetings between the teams, both of which have ended in demoralising home defeats for Japan. South Korea have a steely resolve at the core of their play, and whereas Japan crumble when conceding first (as they did to Ji Sung Park’s goal in Saitama Stadium three weeks ago), their Korean counterparts redouble their efforts and pull together to come back (as they did at Tokyo National Stadium in their 3-1 victory over Japan in the East Asian Championships in February).
Korea impressed against Greece (who, granted, were dismal) on Saturday and look more than capable of progressing to the knockout stages of this year’s competition. While Mr. Okada should be commended for setting his sights high (semi-finals, for anyone who hadn’t heard yet), the same cannot be said for Japan.
Although I believe the Japanese players are technically (and physically – the size and strength excuse is often used to defend their lack of success but I’m not having any of that, see here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zrao0ROwpAM) for why) capable of competing with the best in the world, they seem to lack the guts in the battle when it really counts.
I do not want to join the naysayers clamouring to criticise Mr. Okada and his players before a Jabulani has been plucked from its plinth and kicked though – as my previous posts have demonstrated – and I sincerely hope that my doubts this morning prove to be nothing more than the obligatory pre-game, cover-your-back, nervous pessimism. I want nothing more than for a positive selection and performance tonight to prove me wrong.
The team showed glimpses against England in Graz recently and having seen a great deal of caution thus far in South Africa it would be nice to see Japan throw of the shackles and really play to their strengths. It is widely rumoured that Keisuke Honda will be starting in an advanced role and if anybody is going to spark the team into life and instil a little fighting spirit then surely it is the CSKA Moscow player. If Mr. Okada can also follow the courage of his convictions and grant his full-backs license to roam as well then Japan really could spring a surprise on Cameroon, who have not had a particularly smooth preparation for the tournament themselves.
If I were the man in charge my XI would look a little like this:
Uchida Tulio Nakazawa Nagatomo
Of course, I am not the man in charge (thankfully for Japan, then they really would be in trouble) and the best team on paper is not always the best team on the pitch. Japan have prepared for this tournament like never before, playing a staggering 10 games in 2010 already (if you count Thursday’s training ground exercise against Zimbabwe), largely with the same core of players. Hopefully the consistency of this gruelling schedule can reap some rewards tonight.
The time for talking (and typing) is almost over, the bars are sure to be rammed come 11pm, and I can’t wait to get out there and do my bit to get behind the team. Oh, I mustn’t forget my umbrella though.