That’s how the ESPN announcers described Japan’s stunning upset of the United States in the FIFA World Cup Women’s Championship. Not only was this the first finals appearance for the Japanese women, they were up against the top-ranked, and physically larger, American team. The Japanese players never gave up, coming from behind twice to tie it and then win in an overtime shoot-out. Their victory marks the first for an Asian team in a World Cup final, but far more importantly for Japan, it is the first bit of good news in months. The country has been hammered not only by the devastating March earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis, but by continuing economic lethargy and political leadership that veers from incompetent to irrelevant.
I’m no great believer that national sports teams are somehow embodied representatives of a country, even less that any victories they have change anything in a nation’s social or political reality. But in Japan’s case, this victory may well provide a much needed dose of national confidence to a society that lately has few reasons to celebrate. It’s too easy to chalk the victory up to Japan’s “fighting spirit,” but the women’s team’s perseverance and refusal to be daunted is a great lesson for younger Japanese who have grown up in an atmosphere of deepening cultural and social doubt. As someone who lived in Japan for several years, and has both family and friends there, I’m often surprised at how often Japanese and foreigners alike forget about how much remains to admire in Japan, from its stable political system to vibrant civil society. If a World Cup championship can help spark a minor recovery of pride in a great nation, then it indeed will be a victory for the ages.
— Michael Auslin is the director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations (Harvard, 2011).