Although British sailors had introduced the sport to Japan in 1873 as the country opened its doors to the West, the Japan Football Association (JFA) was not formed until 1921 - a date that also saw the birth of the Emperor's Cup, the islands' oldest competition. The land, known by locals as Nihon Koku, had hosted the Far East Games four years previously but the Asian nation had to wait another eight years, 1929, before it became a full member of FIFA.
There were early signs then that Japan would be a force to reckoned with, but the onset of the Second World War (1939-45) and its aftermath, notably the reconstruction under American influence, meant football, a form of which (Kemari) had been part of Japanese culture associated with the Shinto religion, became rather overshadowed by baseball and the more traditional sumo.
In fact Japan did not make a significant mark in the game until they captured the AFC Asian Cup in 1992. Since then, helped by the professional championship J.League that was introduced a year later, the Far East nation has won three of the past four editions of Asia's showpiece tournament and been catapulted into the upper echelons of world football.
Associated with a unique, short-passing, technically adept style - far removed from that of many other of their continental cousins - Japan reached their first FIFA World Cup in 1998, made it to the final of the FIFA Confederations Cup in 2001 and, in a tournament they also co-hosted with Korea Republic, impressed at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™, making the Round of 16.
Initial growth in club football took place following Japan's surprise bronze medal success at the Mexico Olympics in 1968. The Japan Soccer League (JSL), made up of teams linked to universities or sponsored by companies, had been formed four years earlier but it was not until the 1980s that advertisers, amazed by the numbers watching European football, realised there was huge support for football.
Pre-dating the J.League, the Toyota Cup - pitting the best side from Europe and South America in a one-off match played in Japan from 1981 - further whetted the appetite of the Japanese public. Sensing a change, the JFA were not slow to seize the moment. They set up specific programmes with a strong commitment to youth, which bore fruit when they finished runners-up at the FIFA World Youth Championship Nigeria 1999.
To improve standards, quality foreign players were invited to perform in the J-League. Former national coach Zico was one of many Brazilians to have left a deep impression on the style of the Japanese game. Significant too in Japan football's amazing rise has been the success of players in Europe's top leagues. Since Hidetoshi Nakata broke the mould when he moved to Perugia a decade ago, the likes of Shinji Ono (Feyenoord, Holland), Shunsuke Nakamura (Reggina, Italy), Yoshito Okubo (Real Mallorca, Spain) and, more recently, Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund, Germany) have followed in his trailblazing steps.
Success has brought with it enormous popularity and today, both through fans and journalists, Japan is one of the best supported national teams in the world.
By the 9th Century, the Samurai, a warrior class, had begun to threaten the hegemony of the emperors' rule in Japan. Their military leaders, shoguns, effectively took over the country's government from Kamakura (later Tokyo), while the emperor, shorn of much power, remained in Kyoto. Rejecting foreign influence, trade and Christianity in preference for the traditional Shinto religion, this feudal society persisted until the late 19th Century. In 1868 the last shogun, Yoshinobu Tokugawa, was replaced by the emperor Meiji, and westernisation began.
Occupied by the Allies until 1952, the Japanese economy, helped by sizeable western investment, recovered at a phenomenal rate from the Second World War. By the 1980s, the Asian nation - now a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary government - had become the world's most successful export economy, looking towards the future and specialising in electronics, robotics, computing, banking and car manufacturing. Recession burst the bubble in the 1990s and growth slowed dramatically, producing a succession of government changes.
While raw materials and fuel are scarce, the country's subsidised agricultural production is among the most high yielding in the world. Behind USA and China, Japan is the world's third largest economy. The country was dealt a heavy blow on 11 March 2011 with a devastating earthquake and tsunami that killed tens of thousands and left many thousands more injured and displaced. Infrastructure was also badly damaged, but Japan is currently rebuilding in typically determined fashion, its people once again amazing the world with their courage and togetherness.
Geography and facts
Japan is situated in East Asia between the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean. It is composed of four main islands: Hokkaido to the north, Kyushu and Shikoku to the south with the central Honshu housing most of the nation's 127 million population. A mountainous country composed of 47 prefectures, Japan possesses an aging population (19 per cent over 65), 99 per cent of whom are of Japanese ethnicity. Twelve million people live in the capital Tokyo, with Yokohama, Osaka, Nagoya and Kyoto among the other main cities.