By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor
The crowd that mostly filled the Oiwake restaurant in Little Tokyo was prepared for the U.S.-Japan Women’s World Cup final match, complete with painted faces, banners and even a blow horn.
Gardena resident and Little Tokyo Service Center staff member Amy Phillips wanted to ensure the gathering was well attended, posting reminders on Facebook and taking it upon herself to bring the face paint.
“I grew up playing soccer. That was my game when most of my Japanese American friends were all about basketball,” said Phillips, who was on teams in high school and at Swarthmore College. “I think people have become so interested because many of these games have been so dramatic, and the Japanese players have really endeared themselves to the fans.
“As Japanese Americans, it’s hard to pick one side, but my heart always goes out to the underdog. For Japan to get this far is amazing, they’re really trying to do a great service for their country.”
Junko Goda has a personal connection to the Japanese team. She was a tutor and interpreter for Aya Miyama, when the midfielder was a member of the short-lived Los Angeles Sol pro soccer club in 2009.
“This is a real boost for national morale, and Japan can really use it,” Goda said shortly after the match got under way. “Win or lose, just getting to the final is meaningful.”
Goda has been closely following the tournament and accurately predicted the final would end in a shootout.
Also joining the boisterous fans at Oiwake was Mike Okamoto of South Pasadena, who has volunteered as an interpreter for FIFA at men’s and women’s World Cup tournaments. He said he’s a fan of Miyama’s, but also wanted the U.S. women to play well.
“I’ve been finding it difficult to choose sides, but I’m glad I’m here to share this event with all these people,” said Okamoto, who moved to California from Tokyo more than 30 years ago.
As the game progress and Japan’s women doggedly rebounded after twice falling behind, the excitement – and the tension – grew among the Oiwake gathering, with groans at Japan’s missed shots and elation when they scored. When Saki Kumagai lifted the final penalty shot past American goalkeeper Hope Solo, the room erupted in screams.
Japanese expatriate Art Nakane took a break from performing his one-man band in the Japanese Village Plaza to climb the stairs and watch the end of the heart-stopping match at Oiwake. He too said he had to evaluate his allegiances.
“I was kind of torn between both sides,” said Nakane after Japan’s victory. “But Japan have been tough and they kept fighting, so I’m glad to see them win.”
Rehana Shaw made the trip from Playa Vista to Oiwake, planning to enjoy lunch while watching the game, but the drama of it all left most of her food untouched.
“It’s hard to eat or drink when I watch this,” she said. “I just ended up screaming most of the time.”