At perhaps the most tense time in Sunday’s FIFA Women's World Cup final - preparations for the penalty kick shootout - TV cameras showed Japanese coach Norio Sasaki smiling and laughing with his players. Cameras focused on the U.S. women showed a different mood, with expressions of grit, focus and determination.
The contrast was stark, and that wasn’t a surprise to Sasaki.
"It seemed to me there was more pressure on the Americans," he said.
It was a remarkable moment for Japan, a country that has had little to smile about this year, and a keen insight from the coach of a team that had not beaten the Americans in 25 games.
But Sasaki’s assessment was spot-on.
The Japanese women made three of the four shots they took in the penalty shootout, while the Americans could find the net on only one.
"We had made it all the way to the final, extra time and penalties. We had come a long way, so maybe we handled the pressure better. We had twice come back, and that eased the psychological pressure," he said in an Agence France-Presse story on NDTV.com.
The Japanese team lifted the trophy as world champions. They also lifted the spirits of a nation struggling to recover from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that left more than 20,000 people dead or missing, destroyed miles and miles of cities and farmland, and caused a leak from a nuclear power plant that has turned of a 25-mile radius around the plant into a virtual no-man’s land.
For all the smiles and laughs in Japan’s pre-shootout huddle in Frankfurt, Germany, on Sunday, it was a different tack from the one Sasaki took before his team’s quarterfinal against defending champion Germany, when he showed them pictures of the March 11 devastation as inspiration.
Those images gave the Japanese women something to fight for and made them want to be an example.
“Japan has been hurt, and so many lives have been affected,” captain and leading scorer Homare Sawa said in a New York Times report. “We cannot change that. But Japan is coming back, and this was our chance to represent our nation and show that we never stopped working.”
Sawa was right about that. Twice, Japan fell behind by a goal against the Americans, once in regulation and once in overtime, and twice they got tying goals as the clocked ticked into the final minutes.
"Not one of the players gave up," Sasaki said, according to ESPN.com.
Merry White, a professor of anthropology at Boston University and an expert on Japanese culture, said the women’s performance illustrated some key qualities of Japanese society: hard work and resilience.
“It wasn’t only skills that got them close. … It’s the effort that counts,” White said.
They’d certainly put in an historic effort taking down Germany and then favored Sweden in a semifinal, and then tying the top-ranked U.S. team through 120 minutes. And White says that could account for the light mood as the Japanese team prepared for the penalty shootout.
“The women were jubilant that they’d gotten that far,” she said, but they probably thought they had an edge, too.
“They believe in will,” she said, showing “when we put our minds to something we can do it.”
Add one more quality that brought confidence: teamwork.
White said Sasaki’s smiles showed that.
“It sure looked like he was at one with the women, working with them instead of above them,” White said.
The team was nicknamed the nadeshiko, a floral metaphor for an ideal Japanese woman with virtues including loyalty, domestic ability, wisdom and humility. Not mentioned is leadership, but that’s a quality the team took Sunday.
The nation’s defense minister, Toshimi Kitazawa, said he hopes its politicians can learn from the women’s spirit and teamwork as officials try to solve the nuclear crisis at the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant.
“I am delighted. The team showed great perseverance and sent a good message toward recovery from the major disaster,” he said, according to a report on JapanToday.com.
In Tokyo’s sports bars in the early morning hours Monday, average citizens, at least, were buying in.
"At a time when things are going so bad for Japan, this news makes me so happy," Saori Shiratori was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times.
"When we won, I went crazy and hugged everyone I could," Yuri Itoga told the Times. "This ecstatic feeling is a lot more intense because we suffered the disaster in March. It makes me feel like I can't just sit around and do nothing."