Laura Bassett scored an own goal in added-time as England Women were denied a place in the World Cup final in the cruellest fashion.
Their last-four clash with holders Japan was poised at 1-1 when the clock ticked into an extra three minutes.
Saori Ariyoshi sent a right-sided cross into the Lionesses' box which Bassett tried to poke clear.
FIFA Women's World Cup 2015
Thursday 2 July
Commonwealth Stadium, Edmonton
But she could only prod the ball up into the air, beyond the helpless Karen Bardsley and in off to crossbar to consign Mark Sampson’s side to a heartbreaking defeat.
Fara Williams had scored a 40th-minute penalty to cancel out Aya Miyama’s earlier spot-kick.
At no stage were England outclassed by their much-heralded opponents, and they hit the crossbar twice, through Toni Duggan and Claire Rafferty.
Sampson's side got stronger as the game went on and created decent chances in the second half. But it wasn't to be, and when the referee called a halt to proceedings England's players sank to their knees.
There was one change to the England side that defeated Canada in the quarter-final, with Duggan replacing Karen Carney.
Another forward player, Jodie Taylor opened the scoring in that historic win over the host nation after 11 minutes – and she came mightily close to bettering that against Japan.
With just 30 seconds on the clock, the Portland Thorns striker pounced when Saki Kumagai misjudged the flight of the ball 25 yards from her own goal. Taylor latched on to it and hit a half-volley first time which flashed just wide of Ayumi Kaihori’s right-hand upright.
It would have been a stunning start to what Steph Houghton called her side’s biggest-ever game.
That was the only real chance in a cagey opening 20 minutes as both sides cancelled each other out, with England refusing to let the world champions get into the passing rhythm for which they are renowned.
Duggan blazed a couple of efforts over the top and Aya Sameshima followed suit, but neither side were able to create any clear-cut opportunities.
And then the penalty drama began.
Japan took the lead after Rafferty was punished for a slight push Ariyoshi. Television replays showed that contact was made outside the box, but Anna-Marie Keighley pointed to the spot.
Japan captain Miyama converted the kick, sending 50-cap Bardsley the wrong way after a deliberately slow run-up.
But the spot-kick count was evened up just minutes later when Houghton was tripped by Ogimi following Williams’s corner.
England’s most-capped player of all time took the penalty and planted it to Kaihori’s right, the same place she put her kick against Colombia in the group stage.
After another cagey spell at the start of the second half, Sampson made a straight switch on the hour mark, replacing Taylor with Ellen White, who scored in England’s 2-0 win over Japan at Germany 2011.
The substitution lifted the Lionesses.
Duggan hit the bar with a volley from the edge of the box, White forced Kaihori to tip a 20-yard curler behind and Jill Scott headed Williams’s subsequent corner wide.
With England on top, Japan offered little after the break, but proved they were still a threat when Mana Iwabuchi, on for Ohno, jinked into her opponent's box only to pull a shot wide of the near post.
Sampson was forced into a second substitution when right-back Lucy Bronze, who scored in the wins over Norway and Canada, hobbled off with a quarter of an hour remaining. The vastly-experienced Alex Scott came on in her place.
As the game ticked into extra-time, the goalmouth action dried up somewhat – though England appeals for a late penalty, when White was felled by Kumagai, were waved away.
Extra-time looked a certainty. But there was to be one, agonising, twist before the whistle sounded.
England will now take on Germany in Saturday’s third/fourth-place play-off, while Japan will face USA in the final.
Japan: 18 Ayumi Kaihori, 3 Azusa Iwashimizu, 4 Saki Kumagai, 5 Aya Sameshima, 6 Mizuho Sakaguchi, 8 Aya Miyama (C), 9 Nahomi Kawasumi, 11 Shinobu Ohno, 13 Rumi Utsugi, 17 Yuki Ogimi, 19 Saori Ariyoshi.
Substitutes: 16 Mana Iwabuchi for Ohno 71
Substitutes not used: 1 Miho Fukumoto, 2 Yukari Kinga, 10 Homare Sawa, 12 Mequmi Kamionobe, 14 Asuna Tanaka, 15 Yuika Sugasawa, 20 Yuri Sugasawa, 21 Erina Yamane, 22 Asano Nagasato, 23 Kana Kitahara
Goals: Miyama 33pen, Bassett 90og
Bookings: Ogimi 90
Head coach: Norio Sasaki
England (4-2-3-1): 1 Karen Bardsley (Manchester City); 12 Lucy Bronze (Manchester City), 5 Steph Houghton (captain; Manchester City), 6 Laura Bassett (Notts County), 3 Claire Rafferty (Chelsea); 11 Jade Moore (Birmingham City), 4 Fara Williams (Liverpool); 8 Jill Scott (Manchester City), 16 Katie Chapman (Chelsea), 18 Toni Duggan (Manchester City); 19 Jodie Taylor (Portland Thorns).
Substitutes: 23 Ellen White (Notts County) for Taylor 60, 2 Alex Scott (Arsenal) for Bronze 75, 10 Karen Carney (Birmingham City) for Williams 86
Substitutes not used: 7 Jordan Nobbs (Arsenal), 9 Eniola Aluko (Chelsea), 13 Siobhan Chamberlain (Arsenal), 14 Alex Greenwood (Notts County), 15 Casey Stoney (Arsenal), 17 Jo Potter (Birmingham City), 20 Lianne Sanderson (Arsenal), 21 Carly Telford (Notts County), 22 Fran Kirby (Reading).
Goal: Williams 40pen
Booking: Rafferty 31
Head coach: Mark Sampson
Referee: Anna-Marie Keighley
– but the sailors praise the new boats