Pre-war Era (1910s–1930s)
Japan's earliest international matches were at the 1917 Far Eastern Championship Games in Tokyo, where it was represented by a team from the Tokyo Higher Normal School. Although Japan made strong showings in swimming, baseball, and track and field, its football team suffered resounding defeats to the Republic of China and the Philippines. Nevertheless, the game was promoted in Japanese schools in the 1920s. The Japan Football Association was formed in 1921, and Japan joined FIFA in May 1929.
Japan's first "true" national team (as opposed to a university team chosen to represent the country) was fielded at the 1930 Far Eastern Championship Games, and drew with China for the championship title. Shigeyoshi Suzuki coached the national team to its first Olympic appearance at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Japan was an entrant for the 1938 FIFA World Cup qualification, but withdrew before its scheduled qualifying match against the Dutch East Indies.
After World War II began in earnest, Japan did not play in international competition, except for a handful of matches against Manchuria and other colonies. Its last prewar match for purposes of was a friendly against the Philippines in June 1940.
While Korea was under Japanese rule, several Koreans played in international competition for Japan, including Kim Yong-sik (1936–40), Kim Sung-gan (1940) and Lee Yoo-hyung (1940).
Post-war Era (1950s–1980s)
Japan's postwar debut was in the 1951 Asian Games in India. Japan re-joined FIFA in 1950 and played in qualifiers for the 1954 FIFA World Cup, but lost the AFC qualifying berth to after two matches, beginning an intense rivalry. Japan also joined the in 1954.
Dettmar Cramer joined the Japan national team as coach in 1960, and helped lead the team to the round of eight at the in Tokyo. Japan's first major achievement in international football came in the in Mexico City, where the team won the bronze medal. Although this result earned the sport increased recognition in Japan, the absence of a professional domestic league hindered its growth and Japan would not qualify for the FIFA World Cup until 30 years later.
Japan made its first appearance in the Asian Cup in 1988, where they were eliminated in the group stage following a draw with and losses to , the and .
The late 1980s saw concrete moves to professionalize the sport in Japan. JFA introduced a Special Licensed Player system in 1986, allowing a limited number of professional players to compete in the domestic semi-professional league. Action committees were held in 1988 and 1989 to discuss the introduction of a full professional league in Japan.
In 1991, the owners of the semi-professional Japan Soccer League agreed to disband the league and re-form as the professional J.League, partly to raise the sport's profile and to strengthen the national team program. The following year Japan hosted and won the Asian Cup in their second appearance, defeating 1–0 in the final. The J.League was officially launched in 1993, causing interest in football and the national team to grow.
However, in its first attempt to qualify with professional players, Japan narrowly missed a ticket to the 1994 World Cup after drawing with in the final match of the qualification round, remembered by fans as the "Agony of Doha". Japan's next tournament was a defence of their continental title at the 1996 Asian Cup. The team won all their games in the group stage but were eliminated in the quarter-finals after a 2–0 loss to .
The nation's first ever World Cup appearance was in 1998, where Japan lost all their games. The first two fixtures went 1–0 in favour of and , despite playing well in both matches. Their campaign ended with a 2–1 defeat to .
In the 2000 Asian Cup, Japan managed to reclaim their title after defeating Saudi Arabia in the final, becoming Asian Champions for the second time.
Two years later, Japan co-hosted the 2002 World Cup with South Korea. After a 2–2 draw with in their opening match, the Japanese team advanced to the second round with a 1–0 win over and a 2–0 victory against . However, they subsequently exited the tournament during the round of 16, after losing 1–0 to eventual third-place finishers .
On 8 June 2005, Japan qualified for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, its third consecutive World Cup, by beating 2–0 on neutral ground. However, Japan failed to advance to the Round of 16, losing to Australia 1–3, drawing Croatia 0–0 and losing to 1–4.
During the 2010 World Cup qualification, in the fourth round of the Asian Qualifiers, Japan became the first team other than the host to qualify after defeating 1–0 away. Japan was put in Group E along with the Netherlands, and . Japan won its opening match of the 2010 World Cup 1–0 against Cameroon, but subsequently lost to the Netherlands 0–1 before defeating Denmark 3–1 to advance to the next round against . In the first knockout round, Japan were eliminated from the competition following penalties after a 0–0 draw against Paraguay.
After the World Cup, head coach Takeshi Okada resigned. He was replaced by former Juventus and Milan coach Alberto Zaccheroni. In his first few matches, Japan recorded victories over (2–1) and Paraguay (1–0), as well as one of their best ever results, a 1–0 victory over Argentina.
At the start of 2011, Japan participated in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Qatar. On 29 January, they beat Australia 1–0 in the final after extra time, their fourth Asian Cup triumph and allowing them to qualify for the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup.
Japan then started their road to 2014 World Cup in Brazil with numerous qualifiers. Throughout, they suffered only two losses to Uzbekistan and , and drawing against Australia. Afterwards, on 12 October, Japan earned a historic 1–0 victory over , a team they had never before defeated. After a 1–1 draw with Australia they qualified for the 2014 World Cup, becoming the first nation (outside of Brazil, who hosted the tournament and qualified automatically) to qualify.
Japan started their 2013 Confederations Cup campaign with a 3–0 loss to Brazil. They were then eliminated from the competition after losing to 3–4 in a hard-fought match but received praise for their style of play in the match. They lost their final match 1–2 against and finished in fourth place in Group A. One month later, in the EAFF East Asian Cup, they started out with a 3–3 draw to . They then beat Australia 3–2 and beat South Korea 2–1 in the third and final match in the 2013 EAFF East Asian Cup to claim the title. The road to Brazil looked bright as Japan managed a 2–2 draw with the Netherlands and a 2–3 victory over Belgium. This was followed by three straight wins against , and .
Japan was placed into Group C at the 2014 World Cup alongside the , and . They fell in their first match to Ivory Coast 2–1 despite initially taking the lead, allowing two goals in a two-minute span. They drew their second game to Greece 0–0. To qualify for the second round, they needed a victory against Colombia and needed Greece to beat Ivory Coast. Greece beat Ivory Coast 2–1, but Japan could not perform well against Colombia and were beaten 4–1, eliminating them from the World Cup. Alberto Zaccheroni resigned as head coach after the World Cup. In July 2014, former Mexico and Espanyol manager Javier Aguirre took over and Japan lost 0–2 to in the first game he managed.
Aguirre would begin a strong revamp of the team, switching out Zaccheroni's long-used 4–2–3–1 formation for his own 4–3–3 and applied this with a roster of the J.League's finest, dropping many regulars. A 2–2 draw against was followed by a 1–0 victory over . However, they lost their following match to Brazil 4–0, with Neymar scoring all four goals. Japan's sights turned to January and their title defense at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup.
Japan won its opening match at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Group D against Asian Cup debutantes 4–0, with goals from Yasuhito Endō, Shinji Okazaki, Keisuke Honda via a penalty and Maya Yoshida. Okazaki was named man of the match. They then faced Iraq and Jordan in their next group matches, which they won 1–0 and 2–0 respectively. They qualified to knockout stage as Group D winner with nine points, seven goals scored and no goals conceded. In the quarter-finals, Japan lost to the United Arab Emirates in a penalty shootout after a 1–1 draw, as Honda and Shinji Kagawa missed their penalty kicks. Japan's elimination marked their worst performance in the tournament in 19 years.
After the Asian Cup, Aguirre was sacked following allegations of corruption during a prior tenure. He was replaced by Vahid Halilhodžić in March 2015. Japan started on a rough note during qualification, losing to the UAE 1-2 at home. They then picked up the pace in their other qualifier games against Iraq, Australia, and Thailand, picking up 5 wins and 2 draws. Then, on 31 August 2017, Japan defeated Australia 2–0 at home thus qualifying them for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, making it their sixth successive World Cup. However, the Japan Football Association decided to sack Halilhodžić on 9 April 2018, only ten weeks before the World Cup finals, citing reasons of a breakdown in relationship between coach and player, and poor recent friendly results, and appoint the Technical Director, Japanese coach , who had managed the Japanese Under-23 team at the , as the new manager.
Japan made history in the 2018 FIFA World Cup by defeating 2–1, their first ever victory by any AFC team against a CONMEBOL team in an official tournament, as well as Japan's first ever victory at the FIFA World Cup finals in UEFA nations. Their second match ended in a draw against , with one goal scored by Takashi Inui and the other by Keisuke Honda. Japan were defeated in their last group game in the Group H against Poland 0–1, leaving Japan and Senegal tied for second with an identical record, however, as Japan had received two fewer yellow cards, Japan advanced to the knockout stage on the Fair Play Points tiebreaker, the first team to do so. The match with Poland caused controversy; as Japan were made aware of their advantage over Senegal with ten minutes left and decided to play an extremely conservative game, passing the ball around to one another and keeping it in their own box, seeking to avoid any bookings and didn't attempt to take any serious shots on goal, despite losing 0–1, with some fans booing the players. The match received comparison to the 1982 World Cup Disgrace of Gijón, in which a similar game was played. Japan were the only AFC team to have qualified to the knockout stage. In the Round of 16 against , Japan took a surprising 2–0 lead with a goal in the 48th minute by Genki Haraguchi and another in the 52nd by Takashi Inui, but yielded 3 goals afterwards, including the winner by Nacer Chadli on the counter attack in the 94th minute. This was Japan's third time having reached the last 16, equaling their best result at a World Cup. Japan's defeat to eventual third-place finishers Belgium was the first time a nation had lost a knockout match at the World Cup after taking a two-goal advantage since England lost to 2–3 in extra-time in the quarter-final of the 1970 edition. However, Japan's impressive performance was praised by fans, pundits and medias for their fighting spirits, as demonstrated by Japan's win over Colombia, a draw to Senegal and a strong counter offensive against heavyweight Belgium.
Japan were invited to the 2019 Copa America, their second appearance at the tournament. They were in Group C with Uruguay, Chile and Ecuador. They lost their opening match, 4-0 to Chile.