Japan’s players are elegant on the ball. The Asian champions are exquisite at the short-passing game and they paint geometric patterns all over the pitch, but they have a fatal flaw. Small in stature and lightweight in defence, they were overpowered by hard-charging Côte d'Ivoire in their opener in Recife.
Though they started well, taking an early lead through the sumptuous attacking triangle of AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa of Manchester United and Shinji Okazaki, they were unable to handle the superior power and speed of the Ivorians. The Japanese defence folded in the face of an African storm and they were overrun. They conceded two goals in two second-half minutes and all the stimulation of their attacking football was undone.
“For four years now we have focused on attack,” Eiji Kawashima, Japan’s goalkeeper and the man with the best view of this Japanese side’s strength and weaknesses, told FIFA.com. “We want to keep the ball and move it forward, using all of our qualities and technical ability to score goals. This is how we will play,” he said defiantly. “We will attack.”
Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese concept of finding beauty in things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. It celebrates humanness and melancholy, defies perfection and embraces the inevitability of death. In their first game against the Ivorians, Japan were a team beautifully imperfect and incomplete. They mesmerised with their attack, but they wilted like a dying flower at the back.
This is the way of football that is comfortable and natural to us.
This Japan team is, unsurprisingly, influenced by traditions of collective participation and unselfish teamwork. They flirted with a defensive approach four years ago in South Africa, but they came up short and have discarded the notion. They lost in the Round of 16 on penalties to Paraguay, a team that has defending in its veins.
But now, under Italian tactician Alberto Zaccheroni, Japan are gambling on attack and playing to their strengths. They are putting all of their effort into keeping the ball and turning possession into goals, and turning those goals into wins. “This is the way Japan should play,” said Kawashima, fluent in four languages and a sturdy custodian for Belgian giants Standard Liege. He is also the last line of defence, and the man likely to suffer most for Japan’s swash-buckling approach.
“Japanese players have very good technique and the agility to play fast,” he added. “This is the way of football that is comfortable and natural to us.”
New champions of romantic football
There is something romantic about Japan’s attack-minded crusade here in Brazil and it’s bound to win over local fans predisposed to recklessly beautiful football. They are playing in a country with the largest number of Japanese residents outside of Japan and one in an undying love affair with the jogo bonito. It is the perfect venue for a quixotic charge.
“It’s my duty to support the team when we struggle,” the goalkeeper said, already preparing mentally for the second game against Greece in Natal. “My role is to stop the opponent’s shots, and I try to support from behind so the forward players can go right for goal.”
Kawashima, though a net-minder and rooted to his penalty area, considers himself a part of this attacking team concept. “It may sound strange, but I have to do my part to begin the attacks,” he said, taking pains to point out the collective approach, the all-for-one mentality, in the team.
“The biggest thing for us is not technique or experience or even goal-scoring, but it is our togetherness,” said Kawashima, the man at the heart of Japan’s inspiring imperfection. “As Japanese people, as Japanese players, we try to do everything for the team. This is the most important quality. It is our balance and our strength. We believe in ourselves.”