Croatia broke Japanese hearts with a 3-1 win on penalties following a 1-1 deadlock at the end of extra time in the World Cup round of 16 on Monday, ending the Samurai Blue's bid to reach the quarterfinals of the tournament for the first time.
Saved penalties from Takumi Minamino and Kaoru Mitoma put Japan in a hole to start the shootout, with a further futile attempt by captain Maya Yoshida sinking their hopes of advancing.
Croatia's quest for the trophy continues while Japan's wait for a maiden last-eight berth will go on for at least four more years, though they depart the Middle East having shown their potential for deep runs in future tournaments.
Daizen Maeda put Japan into the lead in front of 42,523 people at Al Janoub Stadium near Doha with a poacher's goal in the dying minutes of the first half before a powerful Ivan Perisic header leveled the game.
The teams could not be separated after extra time but Dominik Livakovic came to Croatia's rescue with three saves in the shootout.
Zlatko Dalic's Croatia advance to a quarterfinal showdown with tournament favorites Brazil, who cruised past South Korea 4-1 in their last-16 clash. The Japanese players, meanwhile, will return to their clubs having impressed on the sport's biggest stage.
World No. 24 Japan beat the No. 7 ranked team in Spain, as well as No. 11 Germany, but No. 12 Croatia proved a hurdle too high.
Winger Ritsu Doan, who starred for Japan with goals off the bench against Germany and Spain, said the Samurai Blue should have finished off Croatia before the contest went to penalties, but had not been ruthless enough.
"It's hard to find words. We could have created more chances from midway through the second half and we can't blame anyone for penalties," Doan said. "Our play that couldn't finish the game off was the problem."
Japan had the first good chance of the game in the second minute when Shogo Taniguchi headed wide from close range. Croatia soon after could have been in front when a Perisic shot was saved by Shuichi Gonda, only for Andrej Kramaric to fail to get the ball cleanly through a tangle of Japanese legs.
Junya Ito terrorized the Croatian defense from the right side throughout the first 20 minutes. He fired several dangerous crosses that lacked only a teammate's boot to meet them.
Daichi Kamada wasted a great chance for Japan in the 40th minute when he latched onto a superb through ball from Wataru Endo but lifted his shot high and wide.
Japan made no mistake three minutes later, however, when the Croatian defense failed to deal with a Doan cross, allowing Maeda to smash home his first goal of the tournament.
"Lots of people helped me and enabled me to stand here and I want to thank them for that," Celtic forward Maeda said. "This was the tournament to pay them back and it's really frustrating not managing to advance to the next stage."
Perisic evened the ledger in the 55th minute when he found space between Ito and Takehiro Tomiyasu. Dejan Lovren put the ball onto the head of the Tottenham Hotspur attacker who powered it in.
Endo nearly answered back immediately with a pretty strike from outside the box that forced Livakovic to tip the ball over the bar.
Japan manager Hajime Moriyasu went to the bench that has given him so much in the 64th minute, bringing the hard-running Takuma Asano and Mitoma into the fray.
Brighton & Hove Albion's Mitoma almost put Japan ahead near the end of the first extra period when he went on one of his trademark gallops from inside his own half and fired a hard shot from distance. Livakovic had to punch the dipping shot into the air but Croatia got the ball to safety.
But when the shootout came, Japan could not answer the bell.
Minamino and Mitoma got the team off to a horror start from which they could not recover, sending their shots skidding into the gloves of Livakovic. Asano found the net, but Yoshida's unthreatening strike was also easily gathered by the keeper.
Croatia's experienced campaigners, meanwhile, proved their penalty prowess under the bright lights once again. Nikola Vlasic, Marcelo Brozovic and Mario Pasalic buried their attempts for the Balkan side, who remain unbeaten in shootouts after twice winning on spot kicks en route to the World Cup final four years ago.
Moriyasu was full of praise for his players despite falling agonizingly short of their goal of a quarterfinal berth.
"The players and staff worked really hard. I want to thank all the teammates, the footballing family and our people for taking us to this stage," Moriyasu said.
"We couldn't clear the hurdle of the last 16, but the players showed a new era," he added.