Japanese who have shared in mourning for months boisterously cheered a Women's World Cup victory that briefly put aside the long and uncertain recovery from the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.
Fans decked out in the national team's dark blue uniforms hugged and sang in Tokyo as they watched their team lift the winner's trophy on live broadcasts from Frankfurt, Germany.
"This is a chance to forget the nuclear disaster and everything else, to just to unite and celebrate," said Toru Komatsu, 22.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan called the victory the "greatest gift" to the nation, especially to the residents of the northeast coast most devastated by the March 11 disaster. The earthquake and tsunami left nearly 23,000 people dead or missing and caused partial meltdowns at a nuclear power plant.
"(The team) gave courage for everyone by showing a diehard match even when they were on the back foot," Kan said in the statement.
Japan became the first Asian nation to win the Women's World Cup, beating the U.S., 3-1, in a shoot-out Sunday after a 2-2 draw. The team, tiny in stature compared with the Americans, fell behind twice but battled back both times, its final tying goal coming with three minutes left in extra time.
Japan's players used the disasters as motivation, looking at pictures of the devastation from their homeland before some matches. The team displayed a banner reading "To our Friends Around the World -- Thank You for Your Support" before the final.
Kan noted the team carried the thoughts of the Japanese people in the banner. "As the prime minister, and as one Japanese citizen, I will express my heartfelt gratitude," he said.
The team returns home today and is scheduled to meet with Kan.
Bars and restaurants that showed the game in Tokyo were packed for the kickoff at 3:45 a.m. local time Monday -- a national holiday. At some venues, dozens of fans stood outside and peered in through the windows.
Afterward, some chanting fans spilled into the streets. Police kept a small group of celebrants from wandering into traffic in Shibuya, a neighborhood known for its youth pop culture.
Japan's national newspapers printed special editions that were handed out Monday morning, while game highlights replayed constantly on TV.
The women's team, long an afterthought to the men's squad, increasingly received attention from as it progressed through the tournament, making up for its size with pinpoint passing and a gritty defense.
The women's team goes by the name "Nadeshiko," after a mountain flower thought to be a symbol of femininity in traditional Japanese culture.
The victory came against a backdrop of concern about the crippled nuclear power plant run by Tokyo Electric Power Co., which has leaked radiation into the sea and surrounding areas.
Several team members played for the former professional team sponsored by TEPCP and at least one worked at the plant before the disaster.
But the football triumph provided at least a brief respite Monday morning.
"It has been so scary with the earthquake and everything," said 22-year-old Miaki Tomiyama. "The team has given us happiness."