Japan shakes sorrow, celebrates

Updated: July 18, 2011, 2:07 AM ET
Associated Press

TOKYO -- Japan took a welcome break from months of tragedy on Monday, basking in its unlikely victory over the United States in the Women's World Cup final.

Joyous fans decked out in the national team's dark blue uniforms hugged and sang in Tokyo as they watched their team lift the winner's trophy on live broadcasts from Germany.

It was a rare moment of joy for Japan, which is still recovering from a killer earthquake and tsunami that struck March 11 and devastated its northeast coast. The disasters left nearly 23,000 dead or missing and caused an ongoing crisis at a nuclear power plant.

"This is a chance to forget the nuclear disaster and everything else, to just to unite and celebrate," said 22-year-old Toru Komatsu.

Japan became the first Asian nation to win the Women's World Cup, beating the U.S. 3-1 in a penalty shootout after a 2-2 draw. The team, small in stature compared to the Americans, fell behind twice but battled back to tie both times, their final goal coming with just three minutes left in extra time.

Bars and restaurants that showed the game in central Tokyo were packed for the kickoff at 3:45 a.m. local time Monday -- a national holiday. At some venues dozens of fans stood outside in the street and peered in through the windows of crowded establishments.

The women's team, long an afterthought to the men's squad in Japan, had increasingly received attention from the national media as it climbed through the tournament, making up for its lack of size with pinpoint passing and a swarming team defense.

Japan's players used the disasters as motivation throughout, watching pictures of the devastation from their homeland before some matches. The team displayed a banner reading "To our Friends Around the World -- Thank You for Your Support" before the final.

After the victory, some chanting fans spilled into the Tokyo streets. In Shibuya, a neighborhood known for its youth pop culture, dozens of police kept a small group of boisterous fans from wandering out into traffic.

Special edition newspapers proclaiming the victory were printed by the national papers and handed out to pedestrians Monday morning, while scenes from the game were replayed constantly on television.

The women's side goes by the name "Nadeshiko," after a mountain flower thought to be a symbol of femininity in traditional Japanese culture. But some said the players defied traditional roles with their playing style.

"This shows that Japanese women are strong," said 32-year-old Rui Hayashi, who works at a men's club in Tokyo.

The victory came against a backdrop of concern about the crippled nuclear power plant run by Tokyo Electric Power Co., which has leaked radiation into the sea and surrounding areas.

A major supermarket chain said it sold beef tainted with radiation in Tokyo, and the capital has implemented broad electricity-saving measures to deal with the loss of supply from the plant.

Several members of the national squad played for the former professional team sponsored by the electric company, with at least one working at the plant before it was damaged.

But Nadeshiko provided at least a brief respite from the bad news on Monday morning.

"It has been so scary with the earthquake and everything," said 22-year-old Miaki Tomiyama. "The team has given us happiness."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press