Sasakawa USA 2017 Journalism Fellow: The story behind ‘Japan’s Women’s Hockey Team Wants to Be Known for Wins, Not Smiles’

Seth Berkman
February 8, 2018

2017 Sasakawa USA Journalism Fellow Seth Berkman took a reporting trip to Japan in late 2017. Here, he shares the back story for the reporting process behind his third article “Japan’s Women’s Hockey Team Wants to Be Known for Wins, Not Smiles,” published in the New York Times on February 6.

Tomakomai in Hokkaido, Japan, is known as something of a hockey haven. It is home to many of Japan’s top players and the Oji Eagles men’s professional team. Even the manhole covers on the streets of Tomakomai feature the image of a hockey player. For years, the Japanese women’s national team has trained out of Tomakomai to prepare for the Olympics. But it is hard to notice them even in a hockey-crazed town.

When I first met Japanese goaltender Nana Fujimoto in early 2016, we discussed the rise of the women’s hockey team and how they had become fan-favorites at the 2014 Sochi Games. After the games, that interest had quickly dissipated. In Japan, the media did not cover the team outside of major tournaments. Internationally, the team had become known more for their “Smile Japan” nickname and a perceived happy-go-lucky, carefree attitude that warmed audiences not familiar with their background.

Fujimoto had mentioned she wanted to change the perception around her team, both at home and abroad. Many of her Japanese teammates shared her desire. With this in mind, I went to Tomakomai last November to attend one of the team’s training camps.

In 1998, at the Nagano Winter Games, Japan was granted an automatic berth in the women’s hockey tournament as the host nation. Clearly outmatched by their European and North American competition, they lost all of their games. It took 16 years for Japan’s women’s hockey team to make their second Olympic appearance. During that drought, Shoko Ono attempted to qualify for the Games with her teammates three times, only to come up short. Ono was so distressed that she retired from the sport.

The players on Japan’s team who did stick around, toiled through years of sacrifice and finally broke through in 2013, qualifying for the 2014 Olympics. They had lifted themselves up from the lowest levels to once again compete on the sport’s grandest stage. This was often ignored by western media outlets coverage of the team, which focused on images of the team having fun on the ice and taking their own photographs with each other at Japan’s Olympic practices.

The players on Japan’s team who did stick around, toiled through years of sacrifice and finally broke through in 2013, qualifying for the 2014 Olympics.

As Carla MacLeod, an assistant coach with the 2014 team told me, it is not uncommon for teams to take a break from drills to soak in the moment. But with Japan’s team, their practice photos quickly became their defining characteristic.

The players embrace the Smile Japan name, but to them it is nuanced. It is a source of strength to lift them from the valleys of training that are sure to occur during a four-year preparation for the Olympics. “This team is especially influenced by the atmosphere of the moment,” Ono said.

An important professional goal for me is to portray more accurate descriptions of Asian and Asian-American athletes in sports. Earlier during my fellowship trip sponsored by Sasakawa USA, I examined the perception of Shohei Ohtani in America and how U.S. audiences had created this aura around him that didn’t really exist in Japan. I thought this story was somewhat similar.

The Japanese women’s national hockey team has improved greatly over the last four years and much of their roster from 2014 returns for the upcoming Olympics. They are steadily rising, buoyed by their mantra of Smile Japan, which to them is more than just laughing and having fun on the ice.

“I think all our members are playing ice hockey because we love this,” said Tomomi Iwahara. “Something that one loves to do, the smiles naturally comes out. Also, we want to be a beloved team by the people, so that’s why we want to show our smile and also show that we enjoy it. There are several meanings.”

 

Seth Berkman has been a contributing reporter at the New York Times since 2012. His work often focuses on sports, with a particular interest in examining the perception of Asian athletes in the United States; profile subjects include Japanese basketball players Ramu Tokashiki and Yuta Watanabe, and Japanese hockey goalie Nana Fujimoto.

Prior to working for the Times, Berkman worked at the Jewish Daily Forward and earned a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. He has been awarded various fellowships that have led to reporting work abroad in Japan, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Canada. He was born in Seoul, South Korea, raised in New Jersey, and currently lives in New York City.

Berkman was the second recipient of the Sasakawa USA Journalism Fellowship and was sponsored by Sasakawa USA to take a 19-day reporting trip to Japan in late 2017. Sasakawa USA partnered with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) to administer the fellowship as part of ICFS’s “Illuminating Today’s Japan for American Audiences” program.

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