Japan’s Rise
by Andrew Podnieks|09 APR 2023
Yuji Iizuka's extended tenure behind Japan's bench has added to the stability of Japan's women's program.
photo: Matt Zambonin / IIHF
Although Japan has been part of the IIHF’s women’s program since the beginning, 1990, it has had uneven and inconsistent results. They are now playing in their 11th top level World Women’s tournament, but they’ve also played eight times in Division I-A. But they are now playing in their sixth straight top event, including the 2018 and 2022 Olympics, their greatest stretch of success ever, and by playing in Group A they are guaranteed to be back for a 7th time next year. They also finished 6th in 2021 and 5th last year, their two best results ever.

This success can be attributed to a combination of factors—the coaching of Yuji Iizuka; the improvement of the Japanese women’s program within the country; and, the emergence of several star players.

“We’re getting better every year, and now we are not thinking about being demoted; we are thinking about winning a medal,” Iizuka said the other day after a modestly impressive 5-0 loss to Canada, their best result ever against the defending champions. “That’s our goal, and that’s what we tell the players.”

Iizuka first coached the team at the 2014 Olympics, but after an 8th-place finish he stepped back and Yoshifumi Fujisawa took over. Iizuka returned in 2019 and has been behind the bench ever since. Throughout all these years the captain of the team was Chiho Osawa (2013-21) but when she retired at age 30, Shiori Koike inherited the “C”.
Japan's Rise
JPN 15 APR 2023
To compare the team’s lineup at the 2022 Olympics in Beijing to the one that August at the Women’s Worlds is to see the dawn of a new era. Beijing marked the last tournament for several veteran stars, leaving Iizuka with no choice but to re-build. What he found, however, was a new generation of talent that was faster and, more important, physically stronger. The Japanese are the smallest team in Brampton, but make no mistake—they are not pushovers.

The rise of the program can be seen more readily in wins and losses. Consider that the team didn’t win a single game in its first 14 WW games between 1990 and 2004. And of their 14 wins all time, eight have come in the last three tournaments. They qualified for Group A this year thanks to an unexpected 1-0 shootout win against Finland last year. 

More specifically, the team’s goal differential has also improved dramatically, the result of better goaltending and play in their own end and a little more firepower on offence (although scoring goals is still their Achilles heel). In 1990, they were a -36 but in the most recent three years they were -3, -8, and -26 last year (after allowing 28 goals to Canada, United States, Finland). It’s not perfect, but it is better.

“The federation, the structure, everything about the program has improved over the last several years and has helped us develop better players,” Iizuka continued. “We still don’t have the number of players playing the game that we need to have, and we don’t have many players overseas, so we have to develop all of our talent in Japan, and that starts with having good results at the tournaments we play in, which will encourage younger players to take up the game.”

That being said, three of Iizuka’s players play abroad. Chihiro Suzuki plays at Guelph University in southern Ontario, and Ayaka Hitosato and Haruka Toko play in Sweden with Linkoping. New stars on the roster include 21-year-old goaltender Miyuu Masuhara and the Shiga sisters, Aoi (23) and Akane (22). Defender Kohane Sato is only 17 but was part of last year’s success story in Herning. In all, Iizuka has 14 players at this year’s tournament born in the 2000s. 

The team is in a good spot today, but the future portends even greater success.