Around the World in Women's Soccer is a series that explores women's soccer in other countries. Each country will get two stories: the first will explore the country's national team, while the second will explore the country's domestic league.
Most Americans have two distinct memories of the Japanese Women's National Team.
One is a memory of loss. The other, a memory of revenge.
In 2011, the Japanese WNT was at the peak of their power. Under manager Norio Sasaki, who took over the team in 2008, the team made it out of the group stage at the Women's World Cup for the first time since 1995. Their talents carried them all the way to the Final, and ultimately, a penalty shootout with the United States.
Japan won that shootout and their only FIFA Women's World Cup title. Homare Sawa, Japan's most-capped player with over 200 appearances for the national team, won the Golden Boot. The team was ranked No. 3 in the world, behind only the United States and Germany. And their success wasn't over.
In 2012, they faced the United States again, this time in the gold medal match at the 2012 London Olympics. Two goals from Carli Lloyd solidified the win for the United States, but Japan still went home with a silver medal. In 2014, Japan defeated Australia and earned their first Asian Cup title. And in 2015, they were back in the Women's World Cup Final, but this time the United States came out swinging. The Americans extracted their revenge and they made it hurt.
Things changed for Japan after the 2015 Women's World Cup. They failed to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics. And at the 2019 Women's World Cup in France, Japan scored just three goals in four games and went out in the Round of 16.
After their 2016 Olympic qualifying failure, Norio Sasaki stepped down as the manager of Nadeshiko Japan. Asako Takakura took over and became the team's first-ever female manager. She's a former midfielder with national team experience, who played on the 1991 and 1995 World Cup squads for Nadeshiko Japan. As manager, she led the team to an Asian Cup title in 2018 and has won AFC Women's Coach of the Year seven times.
But the manager isn't the only thing that changed for Japan after the 2015 Women's World Cup. There are only two players for Japan who played in the 2015 Women's World Cup Final and appeared on the 2020 SheBelieves Cup roster compared to seven players for the U.S. (and two additional U.S. players, Alex Morgan and Morgan Gautrat, who didn't play in the SheBelieves Cup but are still in the national team picture).
So, what does the Nadeshiko Japan look like today?
The team captain is Defender Saki Kumagi, who has 112 caps for the national team since 2008. She plays her club soccer at Olympique Lyonnais, and is one of just two players from the SheBelieves Cup roster who plays her club soccer outside of Japan (the other player is Yuka Momiki, who plays for OL Reign). Nippon TV Beleza is the most represented club on Japan's national team, with eight players coming from the championship side on the most-recent roster.
The team is still transitioning into a new generation of players. Of the 23 players who featured in the 2020 SheBelieves Cup, six players had less than 10 caps and 14 players had less than 20 caps. Some of the young talent includes Rikako Kobayashi, who has scored four goals in 12 caps with the national team, and Rika Masuya, who has six goals in 27 caps. Mana Iwabuchi, who scored both goals for Japan at the 2020 SheBelieves Cup, has the most goals (29) of any player on the most-recent roster.
Japan is currently ranked No. 11 in the FIFA Women's World Ranking. They are behind two other Asian Football Confederation teams: Korea DPR (10) and Australia (7). They automatically qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics because they are the host nation. But how much of a threat are they?
It's still not clear. Japan has a lot of talent on their roster. But they haven't always been able to translate that into wins. In a tight competition like the Olympics, which features only 12 teams, there is little room for error.
But you can never count out Nadeshiko Japan.
NEXT WEEK: A look at the Nadeshiko League, Japan's domestic women's soccer league.