Can Japan finally break through?
by Adam Steiss|20 JAN 2020
Japan has the skill and the ability to challenge for gold at the 2020 Youth Olympics. 
photo: Vedran Galijas
At the 2020 Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne, a group of young women will put on the Rising Sun jersey and take to the ice against Slovakia in the semi-final.

A win against the Slovaks, and Team Japan will find itself in a position it has never been: playing for a gold medal in an Olympic competition.

Along the way, this group of U16 players have so far dominated the competition, easily winning Group B with victories over the Czech Republic and Switzerland. But the team is far from satisfied, despite soundly beating countries that compete one division above them at the IIHF Women’s U18 level and scoring nine goals in the process while allowing just two.

“I’m happy, but our target is a gold medal,” said team captain Minami Kamada.

Kamada’s comment is indicative of this Japan team as a whole: a team with skill, discipline, but also with purpose. Leading the way on offence is 15-year-old Makoto Ito, who has a tournament leading 6 points and +5 rating through two games. Three of the tournament’s top five scorers are also Japanese, with Ito joined by Kamada and Hina Shimomukai.

“I hope (winning a medal) at this YOG can make Japanese people to know women’s ice hockey and we hope that everybody is inspired by what we do here,” said Ito. “Because in Japan ice hockey is still a growing sport so we hope that people will get to know about us.”
The team had a strong preliminary round beating the higher-seeded Czechs and Swiss. 
photo: Vedran Galijas
People attending the games at Vaudoise Arena in Lausanne are certainly getting to know Team Japan. Playing against the hometown Swiss, the Japanese were applauded for their play despite ruining the party for the home crowd. They even caught the attention of some of the players from the men’s tournament.

“I think Japan is a great team,” said Team USA captain Jimmy Snuggerud, who watched the game along with the rest of the men’s Youth Olympics team. “The team worked really well together, I don’t know what they do over there in Japan but I bet it’s working well for them.”

“It’s impressive how hard they battle, how hard they skate, it’s a good team,” said Switzerland women’s team head coach Tatjana Diener. “It’s great, it’s refreshing, they have their own style.”

The question is, can Japan’s success be part of something bigger? This Sunday, the Japanese Ice Hockey Federation will mark its 90th year as an IIHF member. But despite its longevity and position as the top ice hockey nation in Asian, success in international competition has been hard to achieve and sustain.

In women’s ice hockey the arrow is definitely pointing up, thanks to two consecutive successful Olympic qualifications for the senior’s team in Sochi 2014 and PyeongChang 2018. However, maintaining success at that level could very well depend on the group of girls competing in Lausanne, who are the future of the sport in the country.
Physical play and a nose for the net has set the YOG group apart from past Japanese teams. 
photo: Vedran Galijas
The year didn’t start positively for some of them. A tight loss against Germany in the deciding game of the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship Division I Group A ruined what would have been a dream start to the new decade for the Japanese. The team had won all its regulation games up to that point, and tied 1-1 in the third period gave up a late goal to miss out on promotion, despite outshooting the Germans 34-15.

Four of the players from that team are in Lausanne including Kamada, who went back to Japan for a few days before flying back to Europe for the Youth Olympics.

“It’s been difficult to refocus, but we had some good practices and made ourselves build teamwork quickly,” said Kamada. “Like the team we had in Germany, this one is very unified.”

Something feels different about this particular group of Japanese players. The team competing at the Youth Olympics is playing with confidence, but the players have also been exceptional in limiting good scoring chances and playing with a physical presence on the ice.

“I’m very happy about the girls’ work,” said head coach Arto Sieppi, currently in his second season with the Japanese women’s program. “It’s basically what we expected, they are hard workers and their basic skills like skating, stick-handing and passing are on a very good level.”

Prior to taking on the Japan job, Sieppi worked closely for years with the Finnish women’s program, serving as GM of multiple Olympic and Women’s World Championship teams. In considering the position, Sieppi cited one main factor with deciding to work on the Japanese women’s program.

“I think it was the history,” said Sieppi. “20 years with Finnish high performance we’ve known Japanese hockey and we’ve had good cooperation with Japanese teams for the past few years. So I knew that they had potential. Because they don’t have the most number but still have a decent number of players, and they are highlight motivated in high performance sports.”

Japan’s ice hockey reputation is of a team that is indeed athletic, can skate hard, and has some skill with the puck. But a lack of a physical edge has doomed both men’s and women’s team in the past.

“We still need to learn how to compete in front of the net, not only in the offensive zone but also in the defensive zone,” said SIeppi. “How to play box-out, how to really break into the rebounds, and break in to make the screens.”

“Japanese players are so polite, we’re not trying to teach them to be arrogant or aggressive but maybe to make them understand that it’s a battle situation, and within the rules you need to battle.”

And they seem to be getting the message. Makoto Ito’s game-winning goal against Switzerland came on the power play, with Reina Sato, who competed in the 3-on-3 tournament a few days ago, setting up a perfect screen on the Swiss goalie.

“Plays like that you can’t coach a player to do in a tournament, they have to become habits.”
Head coach Arto SIeppi has been with the program for two years. 
photo: Vedran Galijas
Another fresh aspect of Japan’s play has been an aptitude for getting in the skating and passing lanes of their opponents and restricting the amount of scoring chances. This has especially been important to goaltender Yuzuyu Fujii who was initially the backup but who has been thrust into the starting position due to an illness to Nao Fukuda. So far, through two games Fujii has only had to face 20 shots on goal.

Of course, best way to ensure continued improvement is to win, and winning tournaments has not been a hallmark of the Japanese program. But with a potential gold medal in sight, and an Olympic one at that, it can mean big things for the program.

“The value for the Olympics, in certain countries, it’s big,” said Sieppi. “And Japanese players, delegations, everyone is highly motivated about the Olympics.”

The team’s performance has drawn attention from their countrymen. After their victory over Switzerland to win Group B, the girls were visited by a delegation from the Japanese National Olympic Committee, which included NOC President and former Olympic gold medalist in judo Yasuhiro Yamashita.

“Japanese ice hockey is at the top level among the Asian countries,” said Yamashita. “We can expect a good future for this program. They played very well and it was very good to see so many people cheering on the Japanese and the Swiss teams.”

“There are many Japanese media covering the Youth Olympic games and they are talking about this team a lot. If these young athletes who are competing today at the Youth Olympic Games can win on such an international stage it can help to promote the game a lot and expand ice hockey. It’s very important to promote this sport.”

But right now, an important semi-final game against Slovakia is in front of them. For Japan’s young women, this is another step in reaching an achievement that could impact their careers from Lausanne 2020 all through to the seniors Olympics in Milan 2026, where Sieppi’s vision sees the team competing for a medal.

“I feel that ice hockey is growing in our country, and I am happy to be a part of it,” said forward Kyoka Tsutsumi.
The Japanese team with a traditional bow to fans after each game. 
photo: Vedran Galijas