BEIJING -- About 30 soccer fans gathered around a big-screen television at a sports bar here during the wee hours of July 3 to watch the World Cup round of 16 game between Japan and Belgium.
A shot in the second minute by Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa drew disappointed sighs as it bounced wide of the goal, followed by cries of alarm when Belgium went on the attack.
Caught up in the excitement, this reporter briefly forgot being in Beijing, rather than Tokyo, and that most of the people here at 2 a.m. were Chinese. Any doubts that the spectators came to support the Samurai Blue were dispelled with the cheers that greeted each Japanese pass.
After the scoreless first half, a group of six customers in their 20s acknowledged they were rooting for Japan.
"That's right," one replied with a grin. "They're the only Asian team that made it to the knockout stage. They're a shining beacon of Asia."
Another man said he had bet on Japan -- as an expression of Asian soccer friendship, not because of the odds, he clarified. A woman sitting nearby, apparently his girlfriend, said she supported the Japanese team as well.
This bar sits in Beijing's popular Sanlitun district with many bars and stores that attract young people interested in foreign cultures. The customers here are the sort who can afford to drop 50 yuan ($7.56) on a draft beer -- a small share of this country's 1.4 billion people.
Yet even the ruling Chinese Communist Party showered Japan's national soccer team with praise. Japan may have lost, but the players can return home with their heads held high, the official People's Daily newspaper wrote in its Wednesday edition, lauding the teamwork, technique and mental fortitude that let them go toe-to-toe with Belgium.
State-run China Central Television praised manager Akira Nishino's ability to get the most out of his players. It talked about the "Miracle of Miami," when Nishino coached the Japanese team to victory over Brazil in the 1996 Olympics.
Nishino had taken flak from many in the media over Japan's last group-stage game, against Poland, in which the players simply passed the ball around in the final minutes despite being down a goal in order to squeak through to the knockout stage on the team's superior disciplinary record. But even then, the People's Daily said Japan had kept Asia's hopes alive.
President Xi Jinping, a fan of the sport, has poured resources into improving Chinese soccer. Yet the country failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2014 and 2018.
China's desire to assemble a team strong enough to reach the World Cup seems to spur this support for a fellow Asian squad. Warmer ties with Japan also may have eased the way for Chinese fans to cheer on their neighbor, while state media might be encouraging the trend to improve public sentiment.
But Japanese fans show little interest in China's sporting achievements. In table tennis, Japan sees its dominant neighbor more as an obstacle blocking its own players. Chinese runner Su Bingtian has garnered little attention for his achievements in the men's 100-meter dash -- where Asian countries are usually weak -- despite recently breaking the 10-second mark in two consecutive competitions.
What it would take for Japan to reciprocate China's support for the Samurai Blue remains unclear.