Although kick off for Sunday night’s final in Germany will be 3:45 a.m. local time, Monday is a national holiday in Japan so bars and restaurants across the country are staying open to show the game live.
Grateful for some good news after slow months of painful recovery from the March mega-quake and tsunami – not to mention the ongoing nuclear crisis and political deadlock – the women’s team unexpected run to the final has lifted morale in Japan.
“I didn't think they'd get this far, and I really started to get into it after they beat Germany, and then watched the semi-final against Sweden on Thursday morning,” said Yukari Taraguchi.
“I think it's going to be a tough game but I'm hoping Japan can win – my prediction is 2-1,” says Ms. Taraguchi who is hoping that the underdog national team can emulate Kawasaki Frontale who had just beaten league-topping Reysol 3-2 with a late goal.
“It's also good to hear the players dedicating their victories to the disaster victims,” says Ms. Taraguchi.
Ms. Ishikawa's boyfriend, Akihiro Ishikawa, says he became more interested as Japan progressed in impressive style through the tournament, though he is not sure how the team will fare in the final.
“America is ranked No. 1 in the world, so I don't know if Japan can beat them,” sys Mr. Ishikawa.
Soccer's rise in popularity
Although baseball remains the de facto national sport – scandal-tainted sumo is still the official one – soccer has been gradually gaining popularity. Its profile was boosted when Japan co-hosted the men’s 2002 World Cup with Korea, followed by the strong performance at last year’s tournament in South Africa, and now the women’s team making it to the final.
Japan has been winning plaudits during the tournament, not just for its well-organized and tireless teamwork – characteristics many expect from Japanese teams – but also for its flowing attacking play. Nadeshiko Japan – as the team is known – got generous praise from the German media after defeating the highly-fancied home team in last weekend's semifinal.
Japan has even been compared to the current Barcelona professional Spanish league men's team – widely-regarded as one of the best examples of attacking soccer ever to have graced the beautiful game.
“The Nadeshiko team is really cool with its fast passing and teamwork; the way all the players work together to get goals. It's inspiring as a Japanese woman to see them doing so well,” says Yuri Deiai, a karate black belt on her way to practice the Japanese martial art.
The 'Nadeshiko' nickname and Japanese womanhood
The Nadeshiko moniker comes from a flower which is said to represent the traditional ideal of a Japanese woman – Yamator Nadeshiko – though opinion is divided on how appropriate it is for 21st century world-class female athletes.
“The Nadeshiko is a strong but beautiful flower – I think it suits Japanese womanhood perfectly,” says Ms. Deiai.
Mother-of-two, Nobuko Nihei, is less convinced.
“Yamato Nadeshiko is the old ideal of a graceful Japanese woman, but the image is also of a wife walking three steps behind her husband. The women in the national team aren't like that. They're very brave, more like Joan of Arc.”
Ms. Nihei is more sure of the result in tonight’s game.
“In previous World Cups, the team didn't say they were aiming to reach the final, but this time they said from the start they were aiming to be champions," she points out. "They'll win.”