Japan has threatened a major upset then goals from Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui secured a two-goal advantage with under 25 minutes left to play.
But two goals in four minutes brought Belgium back from the brink through the form of Jan Vertonghen and Marouane Fellaini, which set the platform for substitute Nacer Chadli to score a dramatic winner with the penultimate kick of the game.
Crestfallen, the Japanese players crumbled to the turf in despair while many of the thousands of fans who had travelled to Russia failed to hold back the tears inside the Rostov Arena.
But despite the heartache and the sadness at their World Cup elimination, the fans remained true to the morals and cleared up the stands before leaving – as they have done at each of their four games in Russia.
Yet there was no stopping the tears among those watching.
"When we took the lead I thought we were going to win," said 21-year-old university student Nao Okada, who burst into tears at a Tokyo sports bar as the final whistle sounded.
She added: "It hurts but it was a really good game and I feel moved. I want Japan to keep playing hard next time.”
The 61st-ranked Japanese were given little chance of making an impact at the tournament, but their gritty group stage display and last-16 match versus Belgium won over the fans.
"This was a really good team, their passing and scoring and teamwork," said 39-year-old hairdresser Kenichi Okegami.
"At 2-2 I thought we were heading for a penalty shootout... it's crushing," he said.
Belgium became the first side to win a World Cup knockout game from two goals down since 1970, making the loss all the more gut-wrenching for Japan and their supporters.
"Just a little bit more... it was a harsh result," said Kenta Saito, 61, a former school soccer coach and a qualified referee.
"They had chances at the end but they couldn't grab them," he said.
The goodwill nature of the Japanese contingent in Russia even spread to the team, who despite being eliminated from the World Cup in the most dramatic of circumstances ensured they cleaned the changing room to perfection and left a note that read “Спасибо” – Russian for thank you.
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