The team will be coached again by Yuji Iizuka, who played at the 1993 World Juniors as a teen and after retiring has coached women’s hockey extensively. He led the nation’s U18 women’s team on four occasions (2009, 2010, 2011, 2019) and also coached at the 2014 Olympics. He returned to the senior level in 2019.
Japan won three of four games in the preliminary round in Calgary last year, and veteran goalie Nana Fujimoto allowed only six goals, playing every minute along the way. Fujimoto played at the 2008 WW, then didn’t play in the top pool again until the Sochi Olympics. She has been the dominant presence in goal ever since. The 32-year-old will be playing in her third Olympics next month to go with five WW appearances. She reached a new level of consistency at last year’s WW, and her team will need more of that in Beijing in they hope to make it to the playoff round again.
Her backup will be Akane Konishi, whose only action last year came during the team’s one bad game, a 10-2 loss to the U.S. in the quarter-finals. The third goalie is 20-year-old Miyuu Masuhara, who is one of seven members of the league team Do-ro Kensetsu (DK) Peregrine on this Olympic team and isn’t likely to see much action. She replaces Mei Sato in that role.
The defence will feature a mix of old and new, and every player from the 2021 Women’s Worlds will be back with the exception of Fumika Sasano. Five of the seven defenders were also at the 2018 Olympics when the team also finished sixth, matching its best ever OG result as well (1998). Ayaka Toko and Shiori Koike both played at the 2010 and 2011 WW18 events and have been with the senior team in the top pool since 2014. They will be relied upon for their experience, while at the other end is Shiori Yamashita, the 19-year-old from Osaka who played at the 2019 WW18 and senior WW later that year, as well as last year in Calgary. Aoi Shiga led all players with more than 24 minutes of ice time at the 2021 WW, and at 22 she has the stamina to be a force on the blue line.
Up front, there are only two players from 2021 WW who won’t be in Beijing – Moeko Fujimoto and 17-year-old Makoto Ito. However, the team will be led by Chiho Osawa, who has been the team’s captain since 2013 and has been a fixture with the team since 2009. Akane Shiga, one of the top scorers at last year’s Women’s Worlds, will also be back. She scored four goals in Calgary, including both in that 10-2 loss to the Americans, and at only 20 years of age the Japanese are hoping she can continue to do what the team needs most – produce offence.
Another young star is 24-year-old Haruka Toko, who led the team with four assists, including two in the team’s critical 4-1 win over Hungary in the preliminary round. And then there is the ageless wonder, Hanae Kubo. The 39-year-old played at her first Women’s Worlds way back in 2000, took a 10-year break between 2004 and 2014, and has been with the team ever since. And she’s not there as inspiration or as a passenger. Last year she scored three goals, including the game winner against Germany in another key, 2-1, win.
The youth movement up front is a promising development in recent years to the Japanese program. Other top forwards to pay attention to include 21-year-old Hikaru Yamashita, who scored the only goal in the team’s 1-0 win over Denmark last year. Despite being only 25, Rui Ukita seems to have been around the team forever. She was a rare example of a player appearing at both the WW18 and Olympics in the same year (2014), and she has been with the senior team since then. Miho Shishiuchi played at the 2010 WW18 and also made the top team at Sochi, and she, too, has been a constant with the offense. In all, the 12 forwards named to the Olympic team have an average age of just 25.8.
All in all, there is plenty to be optimistic about as Japan gets ready for Beijing. There are a bevvy of young stars on a team that is scoring like never before. They have excellent goaltending and plenty of experience to help calm the team during big moments, and they have the results of recent success from which they can build confidence. They might not be favourites for a medal, but the message to their opponents is a simple one – take them lightly at your peril.
Nana Fujimoto, Farjestad Karlstad (SWE)
Akane Konishi, Seibu Princess Rabbits
Miyuu Masuhara, DK Peregrine
Akane Hosoyamada, DK Peregrine
Yukiko Kawashima, DK Peregrine
Shiori Koike, DK Peregrine
Aoi Shiga, Toyota Cygnus
Sena Suzuki, Seibu Princess Rabbits
Ayaka Toko (Hitosato), Seibu Princess Rabbits
Shiori Yamashita, Seibu Princess Rabbits
Moeko Fujimoto, Toyota Cygnus
Remi Koyama, Seibu Princess Rabbits
Hanae Kubo, Seibu Princess Rabbits
Mei Miura, Toyota Cygnus
Chiho Osawa, Lulea HF (SWE)
Chika Otaki, DK Peregrine
Akane Shiga, Toyota Cygnus
Miho Shishiuchi, Toyota Cygnus
Suzuka Taka, DK Peregrine
Haruka Toko, Seibu Princess Rabbits
Rui Ukita, Daishin
Hikaru Yamashita, Seibu Princess Rabbits
Haruna Yoneyama, DK Peregrine