On March 11, 2011, Japan was hit by the fourth most powerful earthquake in recorded history. almost 16,000 people died, many in the tsunami that devastated the northeast of the country afterwards. the footage was memorable: that eerie black water slowly fanning out across entire towns. fishing trawlers floating in front of office buildings. cars and buses lifted off the road and overturned, as if by the hand of a child. houses gently carried towards the sea.
these images were used during my college career to teach us about what the philosopher immanuel kant called “the sublime”: a feeling of being so overwhelmed by the size or power of something, particularly a natural event, that it inspires a sensation of amazement.
Reading: Usa japan world cup 2011
and it was the images used by norio sasaki, the head coach of the japan women’s national team, just four months later, to inspire them to complete the most remarkable run by any asian nation in world cup history. Before each game in Germany, Sasaki would pass the grainy images of him to the players; a reminder that her efforts had meaning beyond the borders of the sport.
japan had never made it out of a group stage before and no one expected them to now. They had stumbled into 2011 after a poor performance in the Asian Cup, but two wins against New Zealand and Mexico put them on course for their first ever quarter-final. their luck seemed to run out when they faced the hosts.
But there was a sense of destiny, almost a cosmic apology, to that game. After a tense 90 minutes, it was Karina Maruyama, one of two players who had worked at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant before the collapse, who scored the winning goal. a semi-final against 2003 runners-up sweden followed, and again japan advanced thanks to a sweden own goal and two errors by hedvig lindahl. you felt that something was on their side.
that something, for me, was personified by homare sawa. 2011 was Sawa’s fifth World Cup, tied with Brazil’s Formiga for the most appearances in history, though you wouldn’t know that from the amount of ground he covered. She wore the bracelet at the age of 32, and in a harbinger of Megan Rapinoe in 2019, she won the Golden Boot and Ballon d’Or. As a rapinoe, he had as much to do with what was happening off the field as what was happening on it.
the final in frankfurt was where everything crystallized. The United States were powerhouses in women’s soccer and many thought they would sail to the title. But as Goalkeeper Hope Solo later said, “I really think something bigger was drawing [Japan].” The Americans charged from the opening whistle: Lauren Cheney’s strike was swept away in 30 seconds. heather o’reilly wreaked havoc on the right, rapinoe on the left. Abby Wambach hit the crossbar. but japan stood its ground, a wall against those thunderous waves.
it took a young alex morgan to open the scoring: a galloping counterattack from behind. but another moment of fortune tied japan, a panicked clearance found aya miyama in the box to make it 1-1.
The momentum was in Japan’s favor when overtime began. Just before the break, the United States took the lead. Morgan danced to the baseline and threw a cross to Wambach. header. goal. exhaustion. elation. and a possible winner of the game.
But Japan, whose resilience was built on something bigger than football, kept fighting. And with six minutes to go, Homare Sawa scored that goal. Against this force of nature that was the United States Women’s National Team, the 5-foot-5 midfielder finished off a corner kick with a heel strike. it was miraculous. it was sublime. However, my astonishment then was not like Kant’s: it was not directed at the wave, but at the woman who never gave in to it.
The United States would lose the resulting shootout 3-1, bringing the World Cup to Asia for the first time. and the japan women’s team became for their devastated nation what sawa became for me: a symbol of perseverance and heart, a triumph of hope against all odds.