Japan is a fascinating team. They have a ton of veteran depth but also some up and coming youngsters from the U18 squad who should be super interesting. It’s not entirely unusual for their under 18 players to play on both at the same time too.
NWHL, CWHL, and SDHL fans will see some familiar faces in goaltender Nana Fujimoto, forward Haruka Toko, Chiho Osawa, and defender Sena Suzuki to name a few.
The 2019 tournament found Japan back in the top division for the first time since 2015 after winning promotion in 2017.
Group play saw them go 2-2. Their two losses came to Germany - on a late goal after tying the game in the third period - and to the Czech Republic - who ran the table in Group B. They beat France, and in what was probably the biggest shock, former powerhouse Sweden. The loss to Germany was especially tough as it meant they would finish third as the points tiebreaker between the two was head-to-head matchup. They moved on to the quarterfinals where they lost to the US, placing 8th.
It wasn’t their best finish - that would be 7th in 2015 and 2008 - but beating Sweden and hanging with Germany was a solid showing.
Goaltenders: Nana Fujimoto, Mei Sato, Akane Konishi
Defenders: Shiori Koike, Ali Shiga, Ayaka Toko, Fumika Sasano, Sena Suzuki, Yukiko Kawashima, Akane Hosoyamada, Shiori Yamashita
Forwards: Haruna Yoneyama, Mei Miura, Chiho Osawa, Moeko Fujimoto, Haruka Toko, Rui Ukita, Akane Shiga, Suzuka Taka, China Otaki, Hanae Kuba, Miho Shishiuchi, Hikaru Yamashita, Makoto Ito, Remi Koyama
Story to Watch | How they match up
This is a big season for the Japanese National Team. They enter ranked sixth in the world, meaning they’ve already in the 2022 Olympics along with the five Group A teams. This is the first time they’ve prequalified. In 1998 they were in as the host nation and, in 2014 and 2018, they won a spot through the qualification tournament.
They also won’t have to worry about being relegated this tournament, as no teams are being moved down a division (because none of the lower division tournaments were played so no one can be promoted to their spot). Japan is in an ideal spot here to use the tournament as a benchmark to see where they stack up and what they need to work on before February.
Making it farther than last year - I mean 2019 - to the semifinals would be a huge confidence boost.
Key Player | Haruka Toko
The obvious answer to this is Hanae Kubo, Team Japan’s career leader in points. But let’s go with 24-year-old forward Toko. She played with Linköping in the SDHL in 2019-20 where she netted 17 points with seven goals and 10 assists, good for third on the team.
Toko has played with the National Team stretch back to the U18 squad in 2012 and has solidly improved and help the team qualify in both 2014 and 2018. In 2019 she had two assists in their five games.
I know its not exactly the makings of a key player per say. But here me out, Toko has all the makings to be the next Kubo - an extremely long term veteran who is a key offensive component. If Toko can turn up the offense this tournament, Japan will be in a great spot.
Key Youngster | Makoto Ito
Ito is only 17, yes you read that correctly, 17. As in, she still qualifies for the U18 tournament. Let that one sink in for a second. She’s played in the last two U18 tournaments. In 2018 she led the team in the points and goals though they were relegated. In 2019, she scored two in the U18 Division IA tournament.
Obviously the senior tournament is vastly different. But as Japan’s veterans start to retire, getting the next generation some solid experience at this level will only help their National Team continue to rise.