Symbols are not static. By analogy, the vessel remains the same, but the contents change with the winds of time. In short, during the American Civil War, the Confederate flag came to symbolize racism and the defense of black slavery. Hip-hop musician Kanye West once tried to subvert its connotations for black people by adopting it as a fashion statement, but it didn’t work out. Instead, Kanye himself became a believer in Trumpism (the public fascination with the extreme claims of former U.S. President Donald Trump) and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, so it’s a case of the symbol being eaten by the symbol.
‘Nadeshiko’ saved the Japanese women’s soccer team
Pepe the Frog was a different story. Created by cartoonist Matt Fury, the character became a meme in Anglo-American online communities, where she was a favorite of the alt-right. The desperate artist tried to save Pepe from this unfortunate fate by organizing his own funeral, but it didn’t work out. Instead, the tables were turned in the summer of 2019 when Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters came out in droves and used Pepe as a symbol. Thanks to this, Pepe was rehabilitated from a symbol of discrimination and hatred to a symbol of democracy and resistance.
We can add “nadeshiko” (なでしこ) to this list. Nadeshiko is the Japanese word for lily of the valley, and “Yamato Nadeshiko” specifically refers to a species native to Japan, with the ancient Japanese national symbol “Yamato” (大和). The Japanese used this word to describe an idealized image of a woman who is steadfast and true, and in modern times, the word has become synonymous with devotion and sacrifice. For example, there is an activist group called Nadeshiko Action that denies the history of the forced recruitment of “comfort women. It is a troubling name for both Korean and Japanese citizens.
Nadeshiko was saved by Nadeshiko Japan, the Japanese women’s national soccer team. In 2004, a rebranding project was launched to revitalize women’s soccer, and through a public contest, the team was given the name Nadeshiko Japan. After that, the fate of this proper noun changed forever.
The year is 2011. The Japanese national team won the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany, defeating the reigning champions, the United States, in the final. Prior to that game, Japan had played the United States 25 times and had never won (3 draws and 22 losses). Forward Maruyama Garina remembered watching the last time Japan lost 0-9 as a child (1999) and thinking, “We’re lucky it was only nine goals,” while midfielder Miyama Aya said, “Japan was weak. The seniors looked talented, and I wondered what kind of world it was that they couldn’t win.”
After years of knocking on the door and challenging the hegemony of the mighty, they eventually changed the course of world soccer. They conceded an early goal (24 minutes into the second half), came back (36 minutes into the second half), conceded again (14 minutes into the first overtime), and came back again (two minutes into the second overtime). In the penalty shootout, three American kickers missed in quick succession, and Japan’s second-youngest kicker, Saki Kumagai, converted the fourth penalty kick to complete the fairytale. “Japan’s victory is one of the greatest stories in all of sports,” acknowledged her opponent, Megan Ruffino of the United States.
The endless comparisons…a national team battling the “future” over an immediate enemy
Nadeshiko’s story lifted the spirits of a nation devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake just nine months earlier and transformed the international profile of Japanese women’s soccer, but the “hwa-yang softening” was short-lived. The Japan Football Association (JFA) got carried away by the immediate popularity and failed to establish a long-term development blueprint, and without a solid system in place, women’s soccer, which relies solely on national team performance, gradually lost momentum and stagnated. Just as there was a post-loss period for the losing team, there was a post-win period for the winning team.
Four years later, Japan’s winning squad made its second consecutive final appearance in Canada in 2015, but this time they lost to the United States (2-5). They failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics the following year, reached the round of 16 at the 2019 World Cup in France, and lost in the quarterfinals at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. As their performance declined, so did their presence. Empty stadiums became the norm in the WE League, which turned professional in 2021, and the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand went unsold until just before kickoff. On social media, one fan wrote
“The current Nadeshiko is weak.”
This was the reality for Nadeshiko Japan in 2023. The legacy of the champions seemed to be the shackles of constant comparisons to the 2011 team, and the name Nadeshiko was now attached to a mission to revitalize women’s soccer in Japan. Kumagai, who was the final kicker in the 2011 final penalty shootout, is the last member of the winning team to have been in the middle of Nadeshiko’s downward spiral over the years. “I felt like I was fighting for the future of women’s soccer,” she said of the tournament after taking over the captain’s armband.
Japan ended the 2023 World Cup in the quarterfinals. When summarized like this, it sounds like a disappointing end to the tournament, but there’s more to it than that. Japan stole the hearts of soccer fans around the world with one of the most flawless performances of the tournament, handing eventual champions Spain their only loss, a 0-4 thrashing that included a dazzling group stage win (11 goals scored and no goals conceded). It’s also interesting to note that after just five matches, she is the second highest scoring Japanese player in World Cup history (Miyazawa Hinata – 5 goals).
Nadeshiko’s time to shake off the pressure
Under the guidance of coach Futoshi Ikeda, who has worked his way up from the age-group squads, the team has undergone a successful generational change (average age 24.9) and has been thrust into the spotlight of a country that has been in the doldrums. The 3-1 win over Norway in the Round of 16 was watched by 6.72 million viewers, the highest in the team’s history, according to FIFA. “It’s true that we made an impact (on the world) and it’s true that we didn’t win (the title) and were eliminated in the quarterfinals,” Ikeda said on his return home. He added, “I would like to continue this next time.” The Asahi Shimbun’s commentary on the plan was as follows.토토사이트
“If we don’t keep winning, there won’t be any female players who want to play soccer, and that’s what Nadeshiko Japan has always felt. I would like to see the players focus purely on the game, and I think the WE League and the Japan Football Association have a lot of responsibility for that.”