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Hopes and Dreams: Japan at the World Cup 2018

As Japan's Samurai Blue head to the FIFA World Cup once again, here's how you, your school and your community can use its teaching moments and be a part of the action.

By 8 min read

We are only 10 days away from the start of what I consider to be the greatest show on earth. Sure, the Olympics has its moments but nothing beats the drama, exhilaration and (for Scots like me) inevitable heartbreak of the World Cup. And for the fifth consecutive tournament, Japan qualified without any major worries.

With the  2018 FIFA World Cup taking place across a number of time zones in Russia, kick-off times aren’t the most convenient for Japanese fans and viewers, but they are certainly an improvement on those of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

World Cup in the classroom

The World Cup has a massive following in Japan. During the the previous contest, one of my schools actually canceled morning classes so we could watch the end of the Japan versus Greece match.

It’s very heartening to see just how heavily schools in Japan embrace the tournament and really make it part of the school day. Although, this time around, none of the games will be broadcast on television during school hours, my schools have asked me to prepare special lessons for this month focused on the World Cup and some of the countries playing in it. When I think about it, it really is a great teachable moment — especially for elementary school students. When else are countries like Senegal, Panama and Saudi Arabia likely to come up in Japanese classroom conversations?

For example, I’ve prepared a special Power Point quiz for my students. Rather than ask questions about the footballers or the teams themselves, I think that (especially for younger learners) it’s better to focus on the countries.

Here are a couple of sample questions that I use when talking about the World Cup in the classroom:

  1. Which of these World Cup countries is not in Africa?
    1. Nigeria B. Panama C. Senegal D. Egypt
  2. What country has won the most World Cups?
    1. Germany B. Argentina C. Brazil D. Italy

For a lot of these students, watching the World Cup will be the first time they have seen people from some of the more lesser known countries. I like to think that when they see people around the world singing, dancing and cheering their team with just as much passion as they cheer for Japan, they will realize the similarities we share far outweigh the differences.

What are the chances for Japan?

Unfortunately, competing in Group H against Colombia, Poland and Senegal, it will take a supreme effort from the Japanese side to make it into the last 16 this time.

Japan’s first match is versus Colombia and will take place at 9 p.m. on June 19. In all honesty, Colombia should cruise this group. In James Rodriguez, they have one of the most potent goal scorers currently playing the game. If Japan can take anything from this game, then it will be an outstanding achievement.

Far more important for Japan will be their second game, against Senegal, at midnight on June 25.  Although still dangerous, this Senegal team is nothing like the team that stunned France in the opening game on their way to the last eight in the FIFA 2002 World Cup held jointly here and in South Korea. Sadio Mané, who plays for Liverpool F.C. in the English Premier League, is the standout on an undoubtedly talented, but disjointed, squad.

Japan will need at least a draw in this game to have any chance of going through to the next round. They have the capability to get the win, but as 2014 showed in painful detail, Japan struggles when up against physically bigger, more powerful sides.

I believe their chances of progress will rest on their final group game against Poland at 11 p.m. on June 25. Poland is a strong side. Although not in the same class as the likes of Germany or France, they try to play a similar style of dynamic, attacking football that could present problems for the less physical, passing-focused style of the Japanese. Don’t write Japan off just yet — they could well win this match and sneak through in second place.

Recent team and player statistics suggest Colombia should be able to comfortably see off both Poland and Japan. I believe both Poland and Japan, however, have enough about them to overcome Senegal. Assuming things pan out this way, we are looking at a straightforward shootout for second place in the group.

Where to watch

So, where and when can football fans — no matter what team they’re cheering for —  take in the games this summer?

… when they see people around the world singing, dancing and cheering their team with just as much passion as they cheer for Japan, they will realize the similarities we share far outweigh the differences.

The tournament itself will get underway in the early hours of Friday, June 15 with the hosts, Russia, kicking off against Saudi Arabia at midnight, Japan time. From there, the group stages will play out over the following two weeks with three games per day kicking off at 9 p.m., midnight and 3 a.m. Be sure to check the local TV schedules and guides here for the confirmed kick-off times. Thankfully, for us viewers in Japan, we have been spared any 3 a.m. kick offs for games involving the Samurai Blue — at least in round one.

Last time, I had the pleasure of watching Japan qualify for the World Cup at the Hub. Hub is a nationwide British-themed pub chain that goes at least some way to replicating the atmosphere of a traditional British “boozer.” Truth be told, I only chose to drink there when I saw the massive Celtic F.C. poster on the wall of their Osaka Kyobashi branch, but I was actually quite impressed by what they had on offer.

The atmosphere at Hub during Japan national team games is as close as I have come to a match-day atmosphere outside a stadium in Japan. Hundreds of fans — replete with replica shirts, painted faces, flags, banners, the full works — give the venue a tremendous vibe. They may not have the heritage of European soccer fans, but they sing, cheer and cry with every bit as much passion and love for their team.

If you’re planning to watch a game at Hub, or another English-themed pub, I would advise you to get there as early as possible. Also, it may be a good idea to check out the place a few days ahead of schedule, as they may actually sell tickets for the Japan games if the branch is busy enough. I recommend avoiding the city center bars if you can, as these often get much too crowded. Suburbs are best. Besides, if Japan wins you can be sure plenty of people will be ready to party, wherever you are!

For those in or near Tokyo, another good venue to watch the World Cup is Estadio. This bar and restaurant, located about 10-minute walk from Shibuya station is actually owned by Kamo, a popular soccer equipment retailer. There’s even a  Kamo store in in the building if you want to get kitted out before you see the game. Though if you’re a larger person like me, it’s probably better to order the kit online instead!

Along similar lines to Hub, 82 Ale House (which shares the same parent company), is another chain of British pub clones that screens events at their locations across Japan. The exact capacity and availability varies from place to place, so it’s best to call your local ahead of time to make arrangements.

For Japan games specifically, almost every bar that has a TV and is still open at that time of night will be showing the live match. So wherever you are, you probably won’t be too far away from the action. Just listen for the cheers!

Other options

A number of local city governments across Japan will organize viewing events for their local communities. It would be a good idea to check your local city ward office and ask if they have any live screening events planned. In Tokyo, venues like Tokyo Tower and the Tokyo Skytree may have live screenings for the Japan matches, but these usually sell out months in advance. Nevertheless, if you check online you may find some tickets available through unofficial channels. They also tend to light up in the colors of Samurai Blue at points during the tournament, making them great destinations to visit if you find yourself in the area around a game night.

Of course, if you live in a more rural area like me, then getting out to see the games live may not always be an option. Don’t worry though: the World Cup is one of the few sporting events that still has full live coverage on terrestrial television.

National broadcaster NHK has a World Cup homepage (Japanese) with a full breakdown of live game and highlight scheduling throughout the tournament. For other stations, and for NHK listings in English, the Live Soccer TV website is an excellence resource that  provides dates, times and channels for terrestrial TV coverage across many countries.

Japan’s first match with Colombia will be screened live on NHK as will their other first round matches. The rest of the tournament is also being screened live with the broadcast rights divided between NHK, Fuji TV, TV Asahi and their various regional affiliates.

As for me, I intend on having some friends over for a few viewing parties. Luckily, my home is detached, so hopefully, our cheers when Japan wins won’t be too troublesome for my neighbors.

I may be a dreamer, but somewhere in my heart there still lingers a hope that today’s Japan squad could shock the footballing world. I predict they will reach round 2, but I hope they will go further.

I guess there’s only one thing left to say: Ganbare nippon (Do your best Japan)!

How do you feel about the Japan team’s chances this year? Where will you watch the World Cup in Japan? Feel free to let others know some good spots in your area in the comments!

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