It’s easy to be wise after the fact. Yet even before Japan’s national soccer side fought back to humble four-time winner Germany in its thrilling World Cup opener, the ingredients for one of the tournament’s headline results were in place.
At least, that’s from a pro-Japan standpoint. Samurai Blue, as it’s also known, makes for attractive viewing. The team, led by former player Hajime Moriyasu, is technically sound and calculated in possession of the ball. And, as evidenced by the Germany result—in which it overturned a goal deficit to come out the narrow winner—there is lots of self-belief, a good mix if you aspire to achieve success at the top level.
“A historic moment” was how coach Moriyasu reflected on his squad’s dream start, and it’s easy to see why. Japan’s exploits in Qatar are the product of a dynamic soccer climb—30 years after the country’s professional J-League thrust into life. Over the last two decades, its players have increasingly announced themselves in Europe’s top clubs, especially in the Bundesliga in Germany, where much of the squad features. All this has helped Japan go from the soccer fringes to center stage, with the sport more popular amongst this generation.
Beyond that, there is more to dissect. The national side also represents Japan’s unique approach to businesses and organizations. Broadly, many recognize its distinct corporate formality—from greetings to dress codes and punctuality. And other elements are seemingly translating directly to its soccer methods—from obediently obeying orders to selflessness on the field.
A conversation with Ulrike Schaede helps bring this to light. The professor of Japanese business at the University of California San Diego and the author of The Business Reinvention Of Japan, she points out that Japan is typically more “tight” rather than “loose” as a culture. That means employees or soccer players follow instructions closely, whether that’s in an office, factory or even stadium packed with passionate supporters.
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“In the Japanese workplace, traditionally, there have been strict prescriptions on correct behavior—how many hours you work and how you do it. And then on the manufacturing side, there’s this huge attention to detail,” Schaede says.
Precision is one key component in Japanese work and culture.
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“If you were to have an internship at a place like Toyota, you would do as such—no variation, individualism, or anything. Because there cannot be any variants.”
Schaede relates this to the Suzuki method for learning musical instruments, which emphasizes accuracy over self-expression. And it seems to embody much of Japanese artistic culture.
“The pianists they produce are a cut above the rest,” she continues. “It’s like a Sony television, which is still a cut above the rest. So, the Japanese expression of art is also about just doing as you’re told. Completely scripted. And only after you’ve become the world champion can you make the individual adjustments to it.
“Even if you look at Japanese fashion, it’s not loud. The jeans are a little bit shorter, or the hair’s cut just a little diagonally. It’s playing with the existing norms. Japanese cuisine is the same. It’s not loud or in your face. It’s subtle.”
So, how does this match up to a group of sportsmen in Qatar? Firstly, it says Japanese soccer setups, like businesses and workforces, are typically about individuals doing their jobs diligently and subtly. If there are any Ronaldo-like egos, you don’t see them, despite the squad containing some well-known talents, such as the Arsenal defender Takehiro Tomiyasi, Monaco midfielder Takumi Minamino and Real Sociedad playmaker Takefusa Kubo.
The team is neat all-round, knowing where to move and creating passing angles while defending with discipline. Indeed, it prioritizes the basics before allowing individual flair to make the attacking difference, as it did against the Germans. But there is more required for Japan to do well. Coach Moriyasu—a former international—has already acknowledged the need to marry soccer ability with mental fortitude. In the last World Cup, Japan threw away a two-goal lead to go out against Belgium.
There is a sense, however, that Japan has learned its lessons. It takes a generation to build a soccer culture, and that seems to be finally coming to fruition. With a selfless group of players and management with clear guidelines, it will be interesting to track. Advancing from a group including Spain and Germany represents progress for a side not used to going far in World Cups.