I remember watching Japan play in the 2018 Football World Cup, at first out of pure interest in Japan itself, but very quickly became out of enjoyment. Although they only made it through to the round of 16 I remember them surprising a lot of other teams they came up against as well as international football as a whole.
Yet in recent years the same can be said for a number of different sports competitions that Japan has participated in, both in team sports such as rugby, as well as individual challenges such as those in athletics meet-ups.
In short, Japan has emerged as a worthy contender in many international sports competitions where until recently have fallen very much under the radar.
So what has happened? And why has it happened now? Read on to find out all this and more.
Recent Japanese successes
To put into perspective how Japan is becoming a major player (so to speak), I want to highlight some examples of where Japan has had some improvement and successes in recent years.
Football World Cups
Japan as a nation doesn’t have a long history of footballing endeavours or even appearances; their first ever appearance was in 1998 where they lost all their games. However, since then there has been constant improvement.
Aside from the 2018 World Cup as mentioned in my intro, the following competition in 2022 saw Japan beat both Germany and Spain in what was considered one of the hardest groups that year. They even pushed Croatia in the last 16 but ultimately lost on penalties. Challenging, and even beating, some of the major footballing powers shocked the football world, and even though they didn’t win the competition they returned to Japan as heroes and firmly established themselves as contenders in the future.
There is a similar story in the Women’s World Cup which saw their first appearance in 1991. In fact compared to the men, they have made it to the final twice and even won overall in the 2011 competition. They are even considered to be one of the top international teams in the sport.
Athletics World Championships
Once again here, Japanese athletes have seen some vast improvements in recent times. In the last ten years there has been a steady increase in the number of athletes participating in the championships with finishing positions and even medals also on the rise.
Starting in the 2019 championships in Doha, Japan won 2 gold medals in the 20km and 50km walk, won by Toshikazu Yamanishi and Yusuke Suzuki respectively. Alongside that the men’s 4×100 relay also achieved a bronze medal.
2022 built upon this by competing successfully again in the 20 and 35 metre walk, as well as introducing future star Haruka Kitaguchi who achieved a bronze in the Javelin; she would later win gold a year in the 2023 championship in Budapest to much fanfare.
The number of athletes progressing into finals are also a sign of Japan’s continued progression in the sport.
Rugby World Cup
With rugby, Japan has participated in the Rugby World Cup since the beginning, however, until 2015 they had very little success winning just one game in the 1991 tournament.
In the 2015 tournament they shocked the rugby world by beating heavyweights South Africa as well as the United States and Samoa but still narrowly missing out going further. 2019 was their best year where they progressed to the quarter-finals for the first time coming top of their group above Ireland and Scotland.
Basketball for example is one that may surprise a lot of people. Whilst as of yet they are not competing at the same level as the likes of the USA, in this year’s 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup Japan finished 19th out of 32 teams. This result may look to be somewhat average, yet it is fact one of their best results in the international competition. They managed to finish top of their table during the classification round and successfully qualified for the Paris 2024 Olympics.
The fact that it was jointly hosted by Japan and Indonesia also says a lot about the countries ambitions in the sport.
The four sports above are just a handful of some of the most well-documented improvements made by Japan in recent years. There are many others that Japan already excels at such as baseball, table tennis, gymnastics, and many of the martial arts disciplines and competitions.
In truth there are a number of components that fit together and form a larger picture of how and why Japan has become successful in international sport within the last ten years.
In some sports such as basketball and football, Japan was an early adopter; sometimes even being a founding member of continental sports bodies such as FIBA Asia, however they remained incredibly fringe sports until much later in the century.
It was around the 1990’s that Japan began establishing its own leagues in various sports such as the J-league in football and the B-league in basketball which in turn prompted a larger interest amongst the population as well as becoming a popular activity in after school clubs.
Despite this, success didn’t appear overnight.
The inception of Japanese leagues created opportunity at home and allowed growth in the sport, but when it came to transferring their skills into already well-established international competitions, they often fell short. It would take many years to adapt and learn from these experiences before they were able to become competitive.
The economy has also likely played a significant part in sport development within the country, as around the same time (1990’s) Japan would enter a state of major economic slowdown which is known as the ‘lost decade(s)’. Originally defined as a ten year period, moments such as the Great Hanshin Earthquake and the financial crash in 2008 hampered recovery. As such sports investment and opportunities were not a priority.
Entering into the 2010’s is when both the Japan economy begins to settle but also the experience of international sport begins to take effect. With a period of stability, greater enthusiasm and interest also becomes a big factor — and with it comes investment.
Looking to the future
Following on from Japan’s recent achievements means there is a lot to look forward to in the future. In the next couple of years we have both the 2024 Paris Olympics as well as the 2025 World Athletics Championships which is being hosted by Japan. If trends continue, the world may get used to seeing a bit more of Japan as a competitive nation.