The host nation took the tournament by storm after winning all its group stage games but was overpowered by a physical South African side in Sunday’s quarterfinal clash.
“We got two runaway tries, I think this was more of a five or six-point game,” said South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus. “The margin we got at the end wasn’t a true reflection.
“We want to try and go all the way. Now we’ve got Wales. They are ranked higher than us … we’ll start tomorrow on them.”
A fourth-minute try from Makazole Mapimpi gave the Springboks an early lead after the winger shrugged off Yu Tamura’s tackle to run in from 25 meters.
Japan came back strongly, however, and began to move the ball with trademark speed and skill that has worked so effectively in the tournament so far.
A try proved elusive, but Tamura did cut the deficit to two points with a penalty midway through the first half, nine minutes after Tendai Mtawarira was yellow carded for a dangerous tackle.
Damian De Allende was denied a score on the stroke of half time when he was deemed to have got back to his feet having been tackled, meaning the scores remained 5-3 at the break — the lowest-scoring first 40 of the World Cup so far.
From then on, South Africa began to take control of proceedings.
Three penalties from Handre Pollard saw the Springboks extend their lead as their big forward pack began to assert physical supremacy. Japan, on the other hand, continued to try and play with flair and ambition but was hampered by misfiring lineouts and under-powered scrums.
Faf de Klerk got his first and South Africa’s second try after a rolling maul had surged deep into the Japanese half. The game was all but out of sight for the home side, Mapimpi grabbed another late on when he finished off a break from Pollard and Willie Le Roux.
“I’m just so proud of my team. The courage, the tenacity, certainly the determination in those last two tackles really just show what a tight group we are. I have to take my hat off to the team,” said Japan’s coach Jamie Joseph.
“Secondly, I’d really like to thank the fans. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have the support of the whole country. It’s been absolutely marvelous.”
Japan’s progress throughout the tournament has gripped the home nation, with record numbers tuning in to follow the team’s progress through the group stages.
Victories over Ireland and Scotland lifted the Brave Blossoms to an all-time high of sixth in the world rankings, but this South African side, which goes in search of a record-equaling third World Cup title, proved a bridge too far.