Sreshth Shah is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
"Will Japan win the World Cup?"
That was the first question posed to team coach Dhugal Bedingfield by the Japanese media when news first broke that the team had qualified for the 2020 Under-19 World Cup. It says one of two things: either the Japanese media know very little about world cricket, or they aren't afraid to dream.
Cricket in Japan began in unusual circumstances. The first recorded game was played on June 25, 1863, when a group of British merchants invited the Royal Navy to play a match in Yokohama. The cricket that day, though, was incidental. There had been rumours floating around among the British expats in the weeks before that on June 25, Japanese samurai - on the order of the Shogun - would launch an attack on them to flush them out of the country.
And so, to protect themselves on that day, the merchants chose to link up with the well-armed Royal Navy personnel. James Campbell Fraser, one of the better cricketers in that match, is supposed to have batted with a revolver on his person.
It took another 121 years, and far more sober circumstances, for cricket to be formalised as a sport in Japan. In the early 1980s, Kenny Matsamura, a well-travelled Japanese student, watched the sport while abroad and, when he returned, created a league for university students in 1984. It still exists. Soon, he registered the Japan Cricket Association (JCA) and became the organisation's first president. Thirty-five years on, Matsamura is in South Africa to watch Japan's Under-19s play the World Cup.
The Under-19 team's success can be attributed to the JCA's decision to create four five-year plans (which run up to 2032) to turn the country into a cricketing powerhouse. Starting with the Cricket Blast programme - for Under-12s - the organisation began picking out players who could take the step towards representing the national side. Between 2012 and now, over 4000 cricketers across all age groups have signed up.
But the sport was still in its infancy in 2012, and Japan had to wait until 2019 to take part in their first-ever World Cup qualifiers in eight years, having finally met the eligibility criteria to participate. Victories over Samoa, Vanuatu and Fiji followed, and after Papua New Guinea conceded their last game, Japan secured qualification to the 2020 Under-19 World Cup.
Sixteen-year-old Ben Stokes fan Shu Noguchi, who opens for Japan's Under-19s, was one of the earliest members of Cricket Blast. His parents had seen a pamphlet from the JCA in his school in Sano around ten years ago, and asked him to give cricket a shot. The JCA had been visiting schools to spread the word, and he thought of "trying something new". Now, his name is embedded in the record books as the first Japan player to hit a boundary in a World Cup. Left-arm seamer Sora Ichiki, who idolises Mitchell Starc, and Kazumasa Takahashi have similar stories too.
One of the reasons why Japan has taken to cricket is because of how the sport is positioned in the country. In schools, sport is often considered a chore. Then there's the bhukatsu (after-school) programme that asks children to choose one sport and stick with it through their school careers, irrespective of how good or bad they are. Cricket, instead, wants to remain fun.
Neel Date, the team's No. 3, explains: "Plenty of people here love sport, but don't love the culture associated with taking up a sport in Japan. There is a reputation of players being pushed very hard. So cricket is popular with children whose thoughts align in the opposite way and look at cricket as an alternate opportunity to play sport passionately. The similarity to baseball also helps."
But it's not to say that cricket's growth hasn't been met with cynicism in some quarters. At first, friends of Alan Curr, currently head of operations at JCA, used to be surprised to hear he had a full-time job in cricket.
"People would be shocked when I said, 'yes, I work full-time in cricket'," Curr says. "When I tell them that there are many people involved, and not just me, they are surprised. But pleasantly surprised. That, though, is now asked less and less. The more common response is 'wow'. With media attention, people are getting more aware."
Noguchi adds: "There was some excitement around me taking up cricket, but that's not to say some gave me weird looks, asking, what am I doing. But that scepticism has now turned to curiosity with us doing well."
Then there are the doubters, who raise eyebrows over whether some of the players - those with English, Indian or Australian heritage, including the captain Marcus Thurgate - are Japanese at all. Curr's response is simple.
"It's probably harder for an expat to play for the Japan team than in any other country in the world," he says. "Our selection policy is that you must have a passport, been born in the country or played two full years of junior cricket to be eligible. For the men's team, you have to be a passport-holder or born in Japan. For us, the important thing is for boys who play for the country to have played cricket within the country. If you want to play for Japan, you have to be Japanese. We reject players every three-four days. We don't want people coming to the country for a few years, play cricket, and then leave.
"To give you an idea of how strict our policies are, Kendel Fleming, our assistant coach here who plays first-grade cricket in Brisbane, was born in Japan to a Japanese mother but was not previously eligible since he didn't play junior cricket here."
Date, who was born in Pune to Indian parents, chips in. "As we see it, within the team, all of us are native Japanese players. There are certainly inputs from our heritage, but that is there in any country. I was only three months old when my family moved to Japan, so I see myself as much of a Japanese as any of my team-mates."
And it's not just the players who the JCA is focused on. The association is teaching cricket's nuances even to those not playing the sport. During league match days, the JCA teaches parents how scoring works, or about the rules of the game. Such has been JCA's success in spreading word about cricket within communities that it is now an optional primary-school sport in Sano, and compulsory in Akishima, which means a significant number of children in the 6-12 age group in those two cities are picking up a bat at least once a year.
Apart from those two cities, Sanmu and Yokohama have also been developed as "cricket hubs". Training has begun in Hokkaido, Hokushin'etsu, Kinki, Kyushu, Tohoku and Tokai to develop full teams to participate in the domestic T20 Cup, and the board has worked extensively with neighbouring countries to create the East Asia Cup. The JCA's aim, which it truly believes can be achieved, is to have over 20,000 registered players by 2032, across 12 cities in Japan.
The main challenge that remains is retaining players as they grow older. It's quite hard to watch cricket in the country, and exposure for the players is limited to highlights on YouTube. Then there's the glamour of playing Japan's other popular sports.
And so the JCA rewards players for sticking around in cricket, and making the country proud - not monetarily, but with unmatched experiences around the world. Before their trip to South Africa, the players watched two Big Bash League games while training in Brisbane, the first time any of them - including those with Indian heritage - had watched a professional game. Between matches at the World Cup, they will also get to watch the opening day of the Johannesburg Test between England and South Africa.
That Japan are one of the teams playing the World Cup is also a reflection of the ICC's progressive policies towards growing the game at the junior level. The qualification pathways at the Under-19 level allows lesser-known national teams to make their mark, like Nigeria and Japan have done at this tournament.
"People who may criticise us, saying 'what is Japan doing at an Under-19 World Cup', are also the same people who criticise ICC for having a ten-team senior men's World Cup," Curr says. "We feel qualification for the World Cup should be how it is for Under-19s.
"Cricket's not just about India, England, Australia and South Africa. When people say ICC should grow the game, the ICC are actually doing great at the Under-19 level. And this actually boosts cricket across countries where it's not so big. More than you can imagine."
For the players, the experience of being at the World Cup might be once in a lifetime, but they hope to give back to the sport once they return home. Date doesn't know how long he'll play full-time, but wants to be involved as a coach in the future. Congratulatory messages from Kevin O'Brien and Sheldon Cottrell have boosted the team's morale, making their journey "worth it".
"Honestly, this experience has far exceeded what we thought the event would be," Date and Noguchi say. "We knew it would be bigger than what we had earlier experienced, but the scale has blown us away. To have a security cordon around us is unusual. We did feel that a lot was being done to look after our welfare, and seeing the support and importance we are given, it's weird, but in a good way.
"But against New Zealand in our first game, when that Vangelis theme started playing, that's when it really hit us. We took a step back and thought about where we are. We took a moment to absorb all those feelings within us. Of representing that flag on our badge. Simply can't put it to words."
Despite Japan being knocked out of playoff contention already, the players say they have already won. They might have been bowled out for 41 while losing to India, and may even finish the tournament without a win, but don't take them lightly in the future, coach Bedingfield warns.
And he might have a point. In their Rugby World Cup match in 1995, against New Zealand, Japan lost 145-17. But within the next 24 years, they became a force to reckon with, and finished as quarter-finalists in last year's World Cup. You can see where we are going with this. Keep an eye out for Japan's cricketers in decades to come.