The Samurai Blue were the only Asian team to make it out of the group stage. Their reward was a match against Belgium, ranked third in the world.
But it was Japan who opened the scoring in the 48th minute. Genki Haraguchi finished neatly after getting behind the Belgian defense. And just four minutes later, Takashi Inui doubled the lead. Belgium were on the ropes.
But they were given a lifeline in the 69th minute. Jan Vertonghen seemed to be looking to find a teammate but his header somehow ended up in the back of the net. Marouane Fellaini completed the comeback in the 74th minute.
And then, with only seconds remaining in second half stoppage time, Nacer Chadli finished off a counter-attack to win the game. It finished 3-2.
Nishino: "Devastated with result"
Head coach Akira Nishino said he was devastated with the result. He said that Japan had Belgium in the corner but couldn't finish them off.
The coach said his players were confident, but were just a little deficient going forward. He said the team has to address this small difference.
Nishino also said he told the team to make Belgium play their best, to fight them head on. But he said their opponents upped their play in the last half hour and Japan was unable to match them. He admitted that he didn't expect this kind of defeat.
Haraguchi: "I made the most of my strength"
Haraguchi said he had few shooting opportunities, and was determined to go for goal when he got the chance. He said he "made the most of his strength."
The midfielder said he felt like the team got stronger as the tournament progressed. But he said that personally he still has a long way to go. He added he wanted to play on the left of the field, his favored side.
Haraguchi said Japan is still behind the best teams, but he wants to face them again at the next World Cup.
Inui: "Disappointed to lose"
On his goal, Inui said he didn't mean to strike the ball so it didn't spin, but the moment he swung his foot, he knew the ball would hit the back of the net.
He commented on the changing of coach, which took place in April. He admitted he probably wouldn't have been in the squad if Vahid Halilhodzic were still the manager. He said the fact that he had been trusted as a starter made the loss all the more difficult to swallow.
Honda: "My last World Cup"
Talismanic midfielder Keisuke Honda spoke to NHK after the loss and revealed he would not play at the next World Cup.
He said he gave the team his best and had no regrets. He said he hopes younger players will take over his dream of winning the World Cup.
Team showed world how Japanese soccer should be played
Daisuke Ichikawa, member of the 2002 team, praised the quality of the two goals. He said no keeper would have been able to save Haraguchi's shot.
Ichikawa said Inui's no-spin technique gave the ball an unpredictable trajectory, and that it was a great goal. He praised Japan for playing aggressively, taking every chance to get to loose balls, and not being defensive. But he said this allowed Belgium to get back in the game.
He said it was a difficult tournament, as the team had changed coaches just a few months before the opening match. But he praised their improvement, saying they grew stronger with every match.
Ichikawa also said the team played to its strengths instead of trying to react to the other team. He said they showed the world how Japanese soccer should be played. He said he hoped the team would learn from this tournament and use the experience. He praised the performance, saying it paved the way for the future of Japanese soccer.
CNN USA said Japan defied expectations by taking the lead. The report called the match "remarkable" and praised keeper Eiji Kawashima.
The BBC named Takashi Inui as the man of the match, and said the result was unfortunate for Japan.
The next four years
The Japan Football Association's technical committee plans to meet after the World Cup, and is considering handing Nishino a contract extension.
The coach was given a contract through the World Cup following Halilhodzic's dismissal in April.
His tenure did not get off to a good start, as Japan played poorly in pre-World Cup friendlies. But they shocked the world by winning their opening match against Colombia, ranked 16th in the world. Their second match, against Senegal, ended in a draw, but the team impressed with their attacking play. They were disappointing in a 1-0 loss against Poland, but the result was enough to secure progress into the knockout phase for the first time since 2010.
Despite the loss to Belgium, the JFA's technical committee was impressed with how Nishino led the team in the short-term.
The committee is expected to consider factors such as the ability to maximize the characteristics of Japanese players when discussing the appointment of the next head coach.
Hajime Moriyasu was a name that was proposed at a meeting before the World Cup. He is currently the under-23 coach and is preparing for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. He is expected to be in the running for the top job again.
As for the team, Japan will being preparations for next January's Asian Cup with friendlies this fall.