Nadeshiko Japan resumes play in U.S. friendlies

Saturday night at Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, Nadeshiko Japan, the Japanese women's national team, took the pitch to compete together for the first time since the March earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northeastern part of their homeland. It was the first of back-to-back friendlies with the U.S., who earned a 2-0 win behind a goal and an assist from striker Abby Wambach.

Ranked fourth in the world, the Japanese team, under head coach Norio Sasaki, must prepare for the 2011 World Cup while half a world away friends and family are picking up the pieces after one of the worst natural disasters in recent history. For centuries, the Japanese have praised stoicism through even the greatest adversity, but Sasaki admitted that toughness in the face of so much suffering has been hard.

"Usually I'm talking to the players just about soccer," he told me Saturday through a translator. "And always they do their best and their behavior [and attitude] is always the same. But after the disaster sometimes I also talked to them about playing for [the people of Japan], to encourage them."

Midfielder Aya Sameshima agreed that it's been hard to live up to cultural standards. She plays for Japanese Club TEPCO Mareeze, based in J-Village, a sports complex near Fukushima, one of the hardest hit areas. The TEPCO company, which owns the team, operates the nuclear power plants damaged in the quake, and Sameshima and her teammates even worked at the plants to earn their income while playing.

The TEPCO Mareeze players were away in Southern Japan attending training camp when the earthquake hit, but the damage to the Fukushima area forced the club to pull out of league play for the remainder of the season.

Sameshima says her place on the national team is all the more important now, when so many of her club teammates saw their season cut short. "I want to play well for the people of Fukushima and for my teammates [from TEPCO Mareeze] who cannot play soccer [anymore]," she told me. "I want to play from my heart."

Japan will face the U.S. team again on Wednesday night in Cary, N.C., then return home for a short period before heading to Germany. The 2011 World Cup will be the fifth for Homare Sawa, the long-time captain and star of the Japanese team. She hopes success on the world's biggest stage can inspire those watching from Japan.

"In Japan, I -- and we -- try to show our attitude of 'Never give up,'" she explained. "Maybe we can send [a message] to the people hit by the tsunami that they can survive if they can also never give up."

U.S. keeper Hope Solo, who was masterful in goal Saturday night, said she believes the Japanese team will thrive despite adversity, just as she's done in the past. "I've been through a lot of hardships and those times, personally for me, helped me gain strength and find motivation to either win for my country, or my family. I can only hope and pray that that is exactly what all these players are doing.

"They play such beautiful soccer and they fight -- they're fighters. I just hope they can fight on the field in Germany and bring back so much pride to their country."

The Japanese team was assigned the nickname "Nadeshiko Japan" in a 2004 contest open to the public. The name stems from the phrase "Yamato-nadeshiko" which is both the name of a pink dianthus flower and also a common phrase meaning "ideal Japanese woman."

Coach Sasaki says the nickname is even more fitting now, as his players seek to prove their toughness and their strength both on the pitch and in dealing with the tragedies at home.

"[Nadeshiko Japan] is a symbol of the traditional female, but the pink flower [itself] is actually very tough, so it's a good nickname for this team."

Japan's uniforms are white with blue stripes down the arms and a pink square in the center of the neckline, a nod to the flower that lends them its name. The little square, not far from their hearts, will be a constant reminder to be tough, to be "ideal," as they play to inspire the men and women back home in Japan.

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