Ellen White came off the bench to fire England to SheBelieves Cup victory over Japan in New Jersey.
The holders had to wait until the 82nd minute at the Red Bull Arena to make the breakthrough after Lauren Hemp and Bethany England had passed up glorious first-half chances, but White was not found wanting when her moment arrived.
A 1-0 victory will have come as a relief to England boss Phil Neville, who went into the game with his side having lost six of their previous nine matches, including a 2-0 defeat by world champions the United States in their opening fixture, to leave him under a degree of pressure.
They will now head into Wednesday's clash with Spain hoping to build upon a positive result, but aware that there is considerable room for improvement.
Neville had suggested in advance that he would make changes, and he was as good as his word as White, Jill Scott, Nikita Parris, Alex Greenwood, Leah Williamson and Carly Telford all made way.
After a sloppy start, England were handed a gilt-edged opportunity to take a third-minute lead when Hemp held off full-back Risa Shimizu but saw her left-foot strike turned away by keeper Sakiko Ikeda.
Japan midfielder Hina Sugita tested England keeper Ellie Roebuck from distance with 10 minutes gone, but her side should have been behind within three minutes when Chloe Kelly played England through, but she fired straight at Ikeda.
England were enjoying the greater share of possession, but repeatedly fell foul of the offside rule as they attempted to puncture a high-sitting Japanese rearguard.
However, it took an important block by skipper Steph Houghton to deny striker Mina Tanaka after she had worked her way into a promising position with 28 minutes gone.
England forced a solid 32nd-minute save from Ikeda with a first-time shot after Jordan Nobbs had picked out her run, but Tanaka called upon Roebuck from a tight angle after out-stripping Millie Bright.
Nevertheless, the first half ended goalless and both teams returned knowing they would have to be significantly better to come away with victory.
England headed a 58th-minute Kelly cross straight at Ikeda from a rare second-half opening with the game becoming increasingly congested, and Neville made his move on the hour when he sent on Toni Duggan, Williamson and Paris for Keira Walsh, Hemp and Kelly, and White and Lucy Staniforth soon followed.
Substitute Riko Ueki fired wide after running at the back-pedalling England defence with 67 minutes gone and at the other end, White could not make meaningful contact as she slid in in an attempt to convert Nobbs' cross with 10 minutes remaining.
However, she did just that two minutes later, steering the ball deftly past Ikeda after Duggan had robbed Shiori Miyake and crossed from the right to win it.