Japan will enter their FIFA World Cup™ opener against Cameroon on Monday on the back of four straight defeats but there is no danger of them retreating into their defensive shells.
This is the view of playmaker Keisuke Honda, who insists that attack remains the best form of defence for a Japan side who, as the lowest-ranked team, can be considered outsiders to advance from Group E, which also contains the Netherlands and Denmark. Speaking to FIFA from Japan's base in George in the Western Cape, the CSKA Moscow midfielder said: "If you want to survive in the world of football, attack is the best strategy. Our coach says he really wants to bring in an offensive style of football."
Coach Takeshi Okada rammed home that message after the 2-0 loss to Côte d'Ivoire in Japan's final pre-tournament friendly in Sion, Switzerland last Friday, telling his players they were "not aggressive enough" in the final phase. Okada, who felt Japan needed the tough test the Ivorians provided, is hoping for a positive reaction. "Now we're at this stage, it would be better if they took a defiant attitude and were spurred on by the situation," he said of his squad.
When Japan qualified for these finals, Okada cited the semi-finals as his target in South Africa. This is the Asian side's fourth consecutive FIFA World Cup appearance but while they reached the Round of 16 as hosts in 2002, they are still seeking a first victory beyond their own shores. Moreover, Okada, who was in charge for Japan's first finals appearance in 1998, has not seen his team win since a 2-0 AFC Asian Cup qualifying victory over Bahrain in March. Since then they have suffered defeats against Serbia, Korea Republic, England and Côte d’Ivoire.
Those results have provided cause for concern – the fact they scored jus once in the four games suggests the traditional problem of scoring goals remains, despite Okada's good intentions. Yet there have been some positives, notably the display in the narrow 2-1 loss to England last month. Japan pressed from the outset in the friendly in Graz, Austria and took an early lead through Marcus Tulio Tanaka. After losing to two second-half own goals – one of them from Tanaka, who also put into his own net against the Ivorians – they received praise from former national coach Ivica Osim.
"That's how Japan ought to and are able to play," Osim said. "The players were not in awe or scared of their opponents, and I don't think I've ever seen that from a Japanese team." Okada also sounded an upbeat note, saying: "We created good chances and our players worked well. I think we can see a path to our first game."
Okada recognises that Japan do not have the star quality of other teams in the competition but is glad for the European experience of Honda and his fellow midfielder Makoto Hasebe, who plays for Wolfsburg in Germany. Both played UEFA Champions League football in 2009/10, with Honda striking a free-kick winner against Spanish side Sevilla in the last 16. The coach said: "In our football there is not necessarily one individual who excels. We are all in the game together, that's our characteristic. Within this concept, the central players are the young Hasebe and Honda.
"He plays for CSKA Moscow now so I think his name is quite known in Europe. He is one of the Japanese players who can use their international experience." Honda himself is eager to put that experience to good use in the first Group E test against Cameroon in Mangaung/Bloemfontein. He turns 24 the day before the game but does not expect any favours from the crowd inside the Free State Stadium, whom he believes will get right behind their fellow Africans. Yet he is not daunted. "I suppose the atmosphere will be like an away game but we'll just have to play our own game and I want to show them that the Japanese are strong."
The right noises are coming out of the camp and we will know soon enough whether Okada's men can put their losing sequence behind them and convert words into action.