Belgium come back from the dead to cut down the 'Blue Samurai'
An entrataining but ultimately goalless first half offered no suggestions as to the drama that the game would bring after the interval as Japan became the first side to lose a World Cup knockout stage match having held a two-goal lead since England in 1970.
The minnows started well, but started to be penned back for long spells around the 20-minute mark as the Belgians' superior technical ability threatened to expose them.
However, despite all their possession and the host of stars in their team, Belgium were unable to create any real gilt-edged chances as Kevin De Bruyne, Axel Witsel, Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens all tried their luck from outside the box without success.
It looked very much like a one-goal game at the interval, only for Japan to burst into life after the break.
Just two minutes after the restart they were ahead as Genki Haraguchi fired low across Thibaut Courtois and into the far corner after being sent racing clear by Gaku Shibasaki.
Hazard rattled the post almost immediatley from the kick-off and Japan had barely had chance to breathe a sigh of relief before they were 2-0 up, with Takashi Inui stunning Rostov with a powerful low drive form 25 yards that Courtois never looked like getting close to.
The Japanese appeared to smell blood as they hunted their opponents down high up the pitch looking to force mistakes and more chances for themselves.
- Belgium fightback -
However, Belgium knew now that they needed to raise their game and after Romelu Lukaku somehow headed Thomas Meunier's inviting ball in from the right wide when unmarked, Roberto Martinez turned to his bench to bring on Nacer Chadli and Marouane Fellaini, something which would turn out to be an inspired decision.
Much was made of the height difference between the two sides before the game and it proved to be significant as Belgium exploited the high ball to get back into the game. First, Jan Vertonghen bizzarely looped a header over the unconvincing Eiji Kawashima in the Japan goal from the narrowest of angles and into the far corner to reduce the arrears with just 21 minutes to play, before Fellaini rose highest to head home Hazard's centre just five minutes later as Japan's lead was wiped out.
There were chances for both sides as the game entered the final 10 minutes, with chadli and Lukaku both being denied by Kawashima and Keisuke Honda seeing a well-struck 35-yard free-kick kept out by Courtois at the other end.
However, Japan's kamikaze approach would prove their undoing deep in added time as they threw men forward to attack a corner.
The hulking frame of Courtois gathered the cross and released De Bruyne on the counter as the Belgians cut their opponents to ribbons. De Bruyne fed Hazard down the right and his low ball into the box was intelligently stepped over by Lukaku, leaving Chadli with the simple task of rolling the ball home at the far post to set up an encounter with Brazil in the quarter-finals.
Despite being on the losing side, the Japanese deserved enormous credit for their performance, but in the end their attacking outlook was their undoing. Having lived by the sword, they died by it too.