Japan’s long Olympic dream
by Martin Merk|09 FEB 2020
Kimigayo: The Japanese players listen to their national anthem and hope to make it three wins in three games today.
photo: Drago Cvetanovic
Japan belongs to one of the older IIHF members with the men’s national team having joined the World Championship in 1930 and played its first Olympics in 1936.

The Japanese men took part in all Olympic Winter Games between 1960 to 1980 – since then they have never qualified for a top-level event the usual way. They were in Nagano 1998 as the hosts and they played in the top-level IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship from 1998 to 2004 when a place was reserved for a Far East team – and Japan won the qualification event against China and Korea each time.

However, that status is history and so is Japan’s top-level participation. The Japanese men have played at the Division I level ever since without being close to earning promotion.

The Olympic Qualification gives the Japanese men’s national team another opportunity to qualify for a big event. Ranked 23rd in the world, the Japanese compete in the last preliminary round where they had an impressive start against Croatia (9-0) and Lithuania (4-0) and will now challenge host Slovenia on Sunday evening (19:00 local time, 3:00am Japan Standard Time, live stream on IIHF.com and Olympic Channel).

Slovenia is the host in Jesenice and aims at qualifying for the third consecutive time (see our Slovenian feature).

“I watched them a bit. They are fast skating as always. They have a good system too. It will be an interesting game,” Slovenian forward Rok Ticar said about their opponent.

“We go into the game same as in the first two games. We have to be sharp from the first minute, control the puck and have a lot of shots and then we can be successful.”

There is definitely potential in Japan. With 18,837 registered ice hockey players, Japan is one of the bigger members at the IIHF. Japanese can play ice hockey at high schools and college, and there are professional teams, nowadays competing in the Asia League with clubs from Korea and the Russian Pacific island of Sakhalin. Ice hockey is in particular popular in the colder climate of the northern island of Hokkaido but is as well played on the biggest island of Honshu. Attendances in Asia League games in Japan can be compared to the national leagues in Denmark, Poland or the two Slovenian clubs in the Alps Hockey League.
“My target to become a professional player was because we have a professional team in my hometown,” said Shogo Nakajima, who hails from Kushiro on Hokkaido and leads the Japanese in scoring with five points – all assists. “That’s why it was my target to become a professional player and the next target is to make the Olympic Games.”

“The Olympic Games is our biggest dream. If we can participate in Beijing 2022, close to Japan, many fans and friends can easily come to watch the games. It would be so exciting.”

The Japanese men’s national team missed out on going to Olympics close to home two years ago in PyeongChang 2018 in Korea and wants to use their new chance and inspire a new generation of kids. Most of the players on the ice in Jesenice watched the men’s national team play at the Olympics on way or the other on home ice in Nagano 1998.

“I watched the Olympics in the arena. I have special memories. When I watched the games I hoped to participate in the Olympic Games myself and it is still my dream,” said Hiroki Ueno, who was born in Nagano but as a teenager moved north to Hokkaido. “I want to give kids and junior players a dream too like I got it.”

Japan has of course not completely been without Olympic ice hockey. The women’s team qualified for Sochi 2014 and PyeongChang 2018. Being ranked a record-high sixth in the IIHF Women’s World Ranking, chances are good they can make it three in a row. But the men want to be back in the Olympic spotlight as well.

“The Japanese expect the women’s team to go to the Olympic Games but we want to show the men’s team play at the Olympics too,” Ueno said.

Goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji has similar feelings.

“They keep getting better and made the Olympics the last two times. They have the better chance but I think we can do the same thing. This is maybe my last chance but I just focus on this tournament and see what happens,” Fukufuji said.
The 37-year-old is the oldest player on the team and a legend in his own right in Japan. The goaltender became the first Japanese-trained player to play in the NHL, being in the net for four regular-season games with the Los Angeles Kings in 2006/2007. Since 2010 he has mostly been in the net of the Asia League’s Nikko Ice Bucks and the Japanese national team. And he doesn’t have plans to hang up his skates yet.

Switch back to 1998 and a junior-age Fukufuji sat in front of the TV in his hometown of Kushiro to watch ice hockey at the Olympics on home ice.

“I was in high school and watched it on TV. It was pretty awesome, I was excited about it,” he said. “I hope we can make it [to Beijing 2022], that’s why we are here. It would be special. It’s the dream of most athletes.

“We won the first two games. It will be a good game against Slovenia. They have a top team at this tournament. We have to be ready and do our best and see what happens.”

Before going to North America, Fukufuji experienced one top-level World Championship in 2004 but later also the struggle of getting back to that level. Since 2017 the Japanese play in the third-tier Division I Group B where they finished twice in second and last season in third place.

What is Japan lacking to get closer to the top-16 teams?

“Hard to say. We’ve been looking for that the last ten years or so but nothing happened,” Fukufuji said. “But now we have 10, 15 guys playing outside of Japan like NCAA hockey and we hope those guys will improve the national team and show us how to do better.”
While in the past the national team players were supposed to stay at home, this roster in Jesenice includes two players who tried their luck abroad. 24-year-old forward Yushiroh Hirano has been second in scoring both this and last season with the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers and scored two goals in two games in the Olympic Qualification.

23-year-old forward Kohei Sato is in his third year with the University of New Hampshire playing at NCAA Division 1 level. Due to illness he hasn’t been able to play in this tournament yet.

Recently the U20 national team won the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group A in Lithuania with a mix of talent from high-school and college teams in Japan and a handful of players who left for North America. Players from both sides of the Pacific Ocean played well. Overseas players included Yu Sato, who played junior hockey in Russia and Finland before joining the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts this season, and Chikara Hanzawa, who after a year in Sweden moved to the U.S.  where he’s with the NAHL’s Minnesota Wilderness.

The Japanese men’s national team can make a first big step by reaching the Final Olympic Qualification but with Slovenia they have a strong opponent in their way tonight. Between 1976 and 1991 the Japanese used to be better ranked than their opponents, at that time part of Yugoslavia, but that has changed in recent years and it will require a big effort to beat the Slovenes on their own ice.

Watch live tonight on IIHF.com as the three Olympic Pre-Qualification Round 3 groups end tonight. Slovenia-Japan in Jesenice, Kazakhstan-Poland in Nur-Sultan and Great Britain vs. Hungary in Nottingham will be the deciding games for group win and a ticket to the Final Olympic Qualification round end of August in Slovakia, Latvia and Norway.