Substitute breaks Socceroos' hearts
Often bested for much of the contest Japan had goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima to thank for a string of saves while Australia's Harry Kewell will curse his luck for missing a host of chances in a tense final in Qatar.
Australia named an unchanged side from the one that hammered Uzbekistan in the semi-final while the biggest change for Japan was the inclusion of Jungo Fujimoto for the injured Shinji Kagawa.
The Socceroos began the brighter and had a dream chance to open the scoring in the early stages through Matt McKay, who had time and space, but proceeded to slice his close range effort wide.
Japan had a decent shout for a penalty just moments later when Carl Valeri appeared to drag Keisuke Honda to the ground forcing Mark Schwarzer into a low save. Referee Ravshan Irmatov waved play on but did later book Valeri for a trip in the first half.
In an tight opening period it was Australia who looked the more threatening in the final third. David Carney whipped in several inviting balls as the Australians looked to capitalise on the aerial threat of Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell.
The duo combined to fine effect in the first half forcing Eiji Kawashima into an instinctive save from Kewell's close range header after a neat Cahill flick-on. Kewell also went close with a volley after more excellent link up play with the Everton man.
Japanese opportunities were limited in the opening 45 minutes as Australia demonstrated the mean defence which had only leaked one goal prior to the final. Ryoichi Maeda blazed a half-chance over the bar from inside the box late in the first half.
Scoreless at the break Australia tried to press home their advantage in the second half. The travelling support from Oceania were screaming for a goal just after half-time as Luke Wilkshire's dipping ball caused Kawashima a heart stopping moment as the ball appeared at first glance to cross the line when Tim Cahill tried to bundle the ball in.
Appeals for a goal were waved away and replays indicated the officials got it right. Australia were on top and continued to press with Kewell in particular their primary threat up front.
It took until the hour mark for Japan to assert themselves again in the match. Jungo Fujimoto was withdrawn for Daiki Iwamasa after failing to make much of an impression.
For all Australia's dominance it was Japan who created one of best chances of the game as Yuto Nagatomo showed off his quick feet and crossed in a delicious ball for Shinji Okazaki who failed to get his header on target and looked on in despair as the Samurai Blue's opportunity rolled by the post.
Japan were beginning to look they were feeling the effects of the epic semi-final with South Korea. Their opponents could smell the win and should have taken the lead through Harry Kewell with just 20 minutes to go, when the ex-Liverpool man was clean through on goal, only to fire his drive straight at Kawashima who gobbled up the effort.
The Asian Cup's joint leading goalscorers of the tournament were both unable to create a winner and the match drifted towards extra-time.
A tense 30 minutes followed as two tired teams attempted to find a breakthrough. Both made substitutions up front as Tadanari Lee replaced Ryoichi Maeda and Robbie Kruse came on for Harry Kewell. Kruse almost made the difference with a bullet header seconds after coming on the pitch which was superbly stopped by Kawashima and moments later Keisuke Honda bent a drive wide of the Australian post.
Only a moment of magic was going to settle the contest and it duly arrived from Tadanari Lee who opened his international goalscoring account in spectacular fashion. Lee smashed home a sensational first time volley after excellent work from Nagatomo down the flank found the unmarked forward in the box who executed the goal like a veteran.
After being second best for most of the contest Japan had somehow snatched victory in the closing stages sealing a record fourth Asian Cup.