JAPAN lost a place in this summer's World Cup soccer finals by conceding a last-minute goal in the final qualifying match. It was a tearful moment for the nation. But the achievement was nonetheless one of the most phenomenal in the history of the sport. As commentators, particularly those from established soccer-playing countries, were flabbergasted to note, the professional soccer tournament, the J-League, had only been running for two years. The relative inexperience made the World Cup achievement all the more spectacular. Soccer has surpassed baseball, in popularity. 'I was also astonished at first,' Tokyo commentator Masayuki Tamaki said, referring to the game's popularity. 'Now, deep inside, I think I understand the reason for the phenomenon.' He said, the J-League 'fits in perfectly with other trends occurring in Japanese society'. To name but a few of these trends, he pointed cryptically to the end of the Liberal Democratic Party's control of central government, the collapse of the 'bubble' economy and a boom in interest for both opera and the novelist Natsume Soseki. But, what could be the connection? Mr Tamaki's pet theory has evolved from Japanese history. He said recently, that until the 20th century, Japan had no tradition of 'collective warfare'. Instead, wars would be settled by a sword-wielding samurai . 'It was an individual form of warfare,' Mr Tamaki said. 'So, when various sports were introduced from abroad, it was only natural that the one easiest for Japanese to understand was baseball - a game in which the focus is on the individual who steps forward to do battle. 'In baseball, if a batter whacks a home run, the runs scored become the runs of his team. The thinking is very similar to the concept of Japan's warrior society - of devoting oneself to one's lord in return for the lord's favour. 'In contrast, in sports such as soccer and rugby, individual skill and team play are inseparably combined. As a result, it was difficult for the Japanese to understand.' Another point he made was that the Japanese had never known pure 'sport' before. Sport is to this day called taiiku, or physical education. And no 'sport' was more closely identified with physical education within the school and university system than baseball. Even professional baseball teams and their managers were portrayed as models for how companies should handle personnel or corporate management. Many teams are virtually promotional tools of corporations. 'In other words, until recently, as far as sports in Japan and especially baseball were concerned, when people discussed sports they were really discussing sports in terms of education, or in terms of something else,' Mr Tamaki said. 'What the J-League has done is to speak of sports in terms of sports.' This was precisely the point made by J-League chairman Saburo Kawabuchi when a journalist once asked him: 'What use is soccer to society?' Mr Kawabuchi said: 'Soccer is fun.' And that was that. 'The J-League is the first case in the history of Japanese sports in which a sports organisation is playing a game just for the sake of the pure pleasure it offers,' Mr Tamaki said. Japan adapted to soccer overnight. The national team's celebrated former soccer coach, Dutchman Marius Johan Ooft, remembered a telling anecdote about his early days with Japanese players. 'The first thing that struck me was the fact that Japan is a vertical society,' he said. 'Vertical relationships are important and this became evident, even on the playing field. When I started coaching there, players were often reluctant to pass the ball to younger players, out of deference to the older ones. 'The attitude led to disastrous consequences. For example, while hesitating to pass to a younger player, the player with the ball would have it taken away from him by an opponent.' He believed Japan had been taking its first unsteady steps into the culture of the game. 'The Japanese have great team work, yet individual players are still developing the ability to form a realistic mental picture of the entire flow of the game,' he said. Ooft, who now coaches the J-League team, Jubilo Iwata, was confident that Japanese players would continue to improve as their depth of understanding of the game became greater. 'It is exciting to think how Japanese soccer will grow in the days to come,' he said. 'Club teams comparable to those of Europe are appearing one after another. There is no denying that soccer is significantly changing the overall character of Japan's sports world.' Perhaps even a uniquely Japanese soccer 'style' will emerge.