The earthquake triggered a tsunami causing a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima power plant, a disaster that’s still being felt to this day.
The incident left more than 22,000 dead or missing, from the initial earthquake, tsunami and post-disaster health conditions. The cleanup is expected to last decades and cost billions of dollars.
The nuclear meltdown also ensured that the Japanese national team’s training facility based in Fukishima became a place of refuge in the aftermath of the tsunami.
This all contributed to make what happened in July 2011 in Germany even more special, though before the 2011 tournament, Japan’s players weren’t sure about competing.
“Should we really be playing football?” former Japan captain Aya Miyama told a FIFA+ documentary last year. “Aren’t there more important things that we should be doing now?”
Having entered the Women’s World Cup as an unfancied outsider, Japan proceeded to topple the US on penalties in the final, becoming the first Asian nation to win an international soccer tournament and bringing some joy to a nation in its time of need.
Twelve years later and Japan is once again unifying the country behind one common cause: supporting the Nadeshiko – a reference to the pink flower that symbolizes Japanese beauty – as it once again makes an unexpected run through the Women’s World Cup.
This time though, the team has a different task at hand: the job of revitalizing women’s soccer in Japan after some lean years for the sport in the country.
And the squad is going about it in the best way possible. Its performances so far transforming Japan into arguably the favorite for the World Cup title with the impressive nature of qualification from its group – the Nadeshiko was the tournament’s top scoring team in the group stage – and strong victory over Norway in the last 16.
But outside of the fanfare that is building up around the team, the potential impact of their success back home remains at the forefront of the Japan players’ minds.
“We want to use this World Cup as an opportunity to reinvigorate women’s football in Japan,” defender Moeka Minami said after the team’s impressive 3-1 victory over Norway.
“I hope that the girls who started playing soccer after seeing this World Cup will not stop because there are not many girls around them playing soccer, but will continue to play and pursue their dreams with a strong feeling of ‘I won’t lose to the boys.’”
There are similarities between Japan this year and the 2011 World Cup-winning team.
Both entered the tournament overlooked in favor of their European and North American counterparts, way down the pecking order of the teams expected to challenge for the World Cup title.
Japan might have been unfancied by many before the tournament, but the squad didn’t travel to the 2023 tournament thinking it was just making up the numbers.
“Of course, we have come here to win the world’s top prize,” Japan midfielder Yui Hasegawa said ahead of the World Cup. “For the future of women’s soccer, results are important. We have a lot of responsibilities, and I want to focus on the results.”
Following the 2011 World Cup triumph, Japanese women’s soccer had mixed success in building on that achievement.
Although it finished runner-up at the 2015 Women’s World Cup, Japan was knocked out in the round-of-16 in 2019 before losing in the quarterfinals of the 2020 Olympics played on home soil.
The game at club level has struggled too, and in an attempt to bridge that gap, the Women’s Empowerment (WE) League was formed in 2021, becoming Japan’s first fully-professional women’s league.
Organized by the Japan Football Association (JFA) with 11 teams, it was founded to “pave paths for young girls who aspire to become professional football players and contribute to the growth of women’s football in Japan.”
WE League chairperson Haruna Takata says success at the World Cup can go a long way to improving the sport’s standing in Japan.
“In 2011, the whole nation was so excited about winning the World Cup, so there is a sense of, ‘Why aren’t we popular?’” Takata said ahead of the 2023 Women’s World Cup.