Women's World Cup: How Japan went from tragedy to triumph

Scotland's next world cup opponents know what it's like to go from underdogs to winners. But before Japan's 2011 victory came tragedy of an unimaginable kind.

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Media captionKozue Ando: "When I was growing up, people would look at me and say 'you're a girl playing football, that can't be right."

"I hear it's very cold in Scotland - but I also hear the women's team are getting very good."

In the impressive, air conditioned foyer of the Urawa Reds training ground, just north of Tokyo, 36-year-old Kozue Ando is clipping on her microphone with an ease suggesting she's no stranger to interviews. With 126 caps for her country, it's easy to see why.

Injury means the striker will miss out on this year's World Cup in France. The frustration and sadness that falls over an otherwise warm and welcoming face at my mention of this, will return for other, more tragic, reasons during our chat.

Ando's interest in Scottish football has been triggered by the fact Japan and Scotland will face off in Rennes during this year's competition. England and Argentina are the other two teams who make up an intriguing Group I.

She mentions Kim Little and Jennie Beattie but is typically coy when I mention that the Japanese will go into that particular match as favourites.

"I have played Scotland before and I know they have improved greatly. They are very physical and that will make it difficult for Japan," she says.

There's sincerity when she talks about why the women's game has grown so much in recent years. It's very much a story of triumph and tragedy - but also one that has become as much a part of Japanese culture as neon lights and karaoke.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The current team are competing at the world cup in the same group as Scotland

If you turn the clock back to March 2011 the world saw scenes of devastation created by the earthquake and resulting tsunami. The country was literally turned upside down just months before the team were due to fly off for the World Cup in Germany.

For many in the country, it's still a painful story to tell.

"We got to a place where we wondered if we were even allowed to play football," said Ando.

Shown video of people suffering

But not only did they play, against all the odds, they won - beating hosts and favourites USA. It wasn't supposed to be that way - in fact most people in Japan were unaware the tournament was even taking place.

"The emotions were very complex but by winning, we felt we were able to offer bravery and support to those who were affected.

"Right before the final against the USA, we were shown a video of all the people suffering back home - we felt we had a duty to unite the country," added Ando.

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Media captionThe quake hit at 1446 local time (0546 GMT) and this is how the disaster unfolded

After leaving economy class, the squad flew back first class and were welcomed home by a waiting media pack of 3,000. Shortly afterwards the team went to areas affected by the tsunami - that was something the country would never forget.

"What hit me most was the children who were so upbeat and so happy to see us," Ando said.

"Seeing the devastation was awful but it was those children I remember most."

'Moment of happiness in a terrible year'

The timing and manner of the victory, fed a nation exactly what it needed, and it was a story that created an environment where the seeds could be sown for the game to flourish thereafter.

Andrew McKirdy from the Japan Times told me: "It sounds like a cheesy cliche' but it really is true - it really did do something special for the country.

"People had no idea what was going on until they started winning games and then the country really started getting it.

"It was a moment of real happiness in an otherwise terrible year for the country," he added.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption An earthquake devastated Japan in 2011, just as the nation's women's football team were preparing for the world cup

The success propelled the game on and Japan reached the final in 2015. They now go in search of the accolade of becoming the first side to reach three consecutive finals. The Japanese FA say participation levels increased dramatically after 2011, as did attendances at women's matches.

Ando has reached the end of her international journey but she is confident that what she and her teammates achieved eight years ago, will make it easier for young girls in her country to emulate that success.

"When I was growing up, people would look at me and say 'you're a girl playing football, that can't be right.'

"Now I hear that parents are actively encouraging their daughters to play the game and see a future in it - that makes me extremely happy."

Japan go into this year's tournament quietly confident of once again upsetting the odds - but they are odds that have significantly reduced over the years thanks to a country's ability to turn national tragedy into sporting triumph.

Women's World Cup: Japan v Scotland

  • Venue: Roazhon Park, Rennes Date: Friday, 14 June Kick-off: 14:00 BST
  • Coverage: Watch on BBC One Scotland & BBC Alba, listen on BBC Radio Scotland, live text commentary on the BBC Sport website & app.

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