The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Over the years, Japan has been competitive in a variety of sports on the international stage, from dominant gymnasts in the 1980s to the phenomenal success of baseball players such as Hideo Nomo in the 1990s. Then there’s Ichiro Suzuki; who can argue that his career seems eternal as he continues to wow fans around the world?

More recently, Japan has seen summer success with the women’s national soccer team, Nadeshiko Japan, having won the 2011 women’s World Cup and finished second in the 2015 cup.

In winter sports, the figure skating of Mao Asada and the recent record-breaking achievements of Yuzuru Hanyu show that Japan can more than hold its own on the ice.

Nana Fujimoto, a 26-year-old goalie for the Japanese women’s national ice hockey team, Smile Japan, is the latest to break onto the international scene in the inaugural season of the United States-based National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL).

Small wonder
Although introduced to Japan in 1915, men’s hockey didn’t really take off until the country hosted the 1972 Sapporo Olympic Winter Games. But the sport truly blossomed in the country in 1998, with the first-ever participation by women in Olympics hockey at the Nagano Winter Games.

Despite a lack of mainstream support and coverage, Smile Japan has seen success over the years, and is currently ranked eighth in the world by the International Ice Hockey Federation—ahead of more likely hockey powers such as the Czech Republic, Denmark, and Norway.

The team has made just two Olympic appearances and, despite failing to record a win at either, has improved markedly. Smile Japan was outscored 45-2 at the ’98 Games, but kept the difference to 7-1 at Sochi, where they lost by just a single goal against powerhouses Sweden and Russia.

The team’s performance at Sochi can, at least partially, be credited to the rock-solid goaltending by the diminutive Fujimoto.

A Sapporo native who started playing hockey at age six and goalie at age 11, Fujimoto has contributed much to Smile Japan’s success. At the 2015 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships, Fujimoto was named best goaltender of the tournament.

Only US goalie Alex Rigby, who faced 99 fewer shots on goal in the tournament, posted a better goals-against-average than Fujimoto.

Nana Fujimoto at the ready, playing for the NY Riveters

Nana Fujimoto at the ready, playing for the NY Riveters

Although Smile Japan finished second in the five Asian Winter Games in which they have participated, falling to China twice and Kazakhstan the last three times, they have good reason to be confident ahead of the 2017 Asian Games in Sapporo, and the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

NWHL: New opportunity
In 2015, Dani Rylan, currently the league commissioner and general manager of the New York Riveters team, formed the NWHL. In addition to the Riveters, the league currently has three teams, one each based in Buffalo, Boston, and Stamford, Connecticut.

Japanese hockey was thrust into the spotlight when Fujimoto joined the Riveters for their first season.

Rylan hopes the advent of the NWHL will encourage more young women to take up the sport.

“It’s part of our business model to get more girls into the game, not only becoming fans, but growing into our next crop of players. One of my favorite memories of this year was seeing a young girl at one of our games holding a ‘2027 First-Round Draft Pick’ sign, showing me that we are not only affecting the current generation of women, but the future ones as well,” Rylan told The Journal.

The NWHL is working to extend its reach globally as it looks to attract the best players possible.

“This past summer we held an international training camp where the goal was to bring in as many players as possible from around the globe. We want to be the most elite league, and that requires finding the best players from everywhere. Even though we’re based in the Northeastern US, we don’t want to have borders hold us back,” she said.

Japan versus the world
The New York Riveters visited Japan in mid-December for a three-game exhibition series against Smile Japan in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture.

When asked about the differences between the Japanese game and that of North America, Riveters Captain Ashley Johnston said that the larger ice surface in Japan creates a different style of play.

“The wider ice in Japan makes for a more tactical game and the Japanese team really uses that to their advantage. There are more set plays, whereas on the smaller rinks, there’s a lot more reacting on your toes,” Johnston said.

The Canadian captain had high praise for Japanese players, saying, “Any one of the Japanese players could very comfortably fit within a Canadian or American university.”

Fujimoto also noted that Japanese players currently play in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, as well as in several leagues in Europe. “There are a lot of good players in Japan and quite a few who could play in the top leagues,” she said.

Fujimoto echoed Johnston’s comments on the differing size of playing surfaces in Japan and the United States, saying: “Because of the smaller surface, I had to adjust my positioning, as the difference in the size made a big difference in how I set up. The smaller rink made for a faster game, while the different crease size and lack of space behind the net also meant a lot of adjustments for me.”

While Johnston and Fujimoto praised the Japanese team’s technical skills, they also had some suggestions for how they could improve.

“They could be a bit more creative in adjusting set plays from the plan to the actual situation as it unfolds. Shooting the puck more would also help, but they are a solid and very respectable team . . . doing a lot of things very well,” Johnston said.

“Although the Japanese have the speed and skating skills,” Fujimoto added, “there needs to be a reliable finish. To see better results, we need to work on our positioning in front of the opposing team’s net, while finding a good balance between our offense and defense.”

Riveters coach Chad Wiseman noted that other than differences in physical stature, the Japanese players can more than hold their own internationally.

“They skate really well and move the puck well, especially on the larger ice surface, and I see a lot of them that would do fine in the NWHL . . . [Their’s is] very structured play.”

Nana Fujimoto played an exhibition game for Smile Japan in Nikko in December.

Nana Fujimoto played an exhibition game for Smile Japan in Nikko in December.

Future of women’s hockey
Fujimoto’s rise to prominence could not come at a better time, as athletes such as Serena Williams and mixed-martial-artist Ronda Rousey have become international brands and role models for young women.

Her elevation to the highest stage of the game also comes at a critical time for the Japanese government, as it tries to increase women’s participation in the workforce and on the global stage.

As the number of Japanese girls choosing to play ice hockey has been decreasing in recent years, one can hope that Fujimoto’s participation in the NWHL will inspire an increasing number of young women to realize that there is more than just ballet and piano lessons available to them, and that they can grow into strong, independent, and powerful women through sport.

Long-term Tokyo resident Jason Wik, a father of two girls who play hockey in Japan, hopes to see Smile Japan’s success translate into new grass-roots youth hockey programs, especially for girls.

Nana Fujimoto gives an autograph to a young fan.

Nana Fujimoto gives an autograph to a young fan.

“More encouragement is needed to get more young women out to the rink. Coaching should focus not only on the technical side of the game, but on the educational and social aspects of organized sport,” he said.

When asked about her feelings on playing in the NWHL and what it means for women’s hockey, Fujimoto said: “I’m honored to have the opportunity to play in such a high-caliber league. I hope my being here will popularize the sport among women and inspire more young girls to take it up.”

James Souilliere has been living, writing, and editing in Japan for 25 years. He currently works in the editorial department at The Japan Times.
Coaching should focus . . . on the educational and social aspects of organized sport.