Women's curling has captured the imagination of the Japanese public in recent years, thanks to the exploits of four women from Aomori. With the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics fast approaching, however, there's still a chance that Japan could fail to qualify for those Games.
Japan's fate rests with a corporate team sponsored by Chubu Electric Power Co., which will represent Japan at the Pan Pacific Games in China in November. The Karuizawa-based team, which won the 2011 All-Japan Championships in February in just its second year of existence, will be facing its first major international competition.
Just how was this rapidly growing team formed in the first place?
"As a company, we contribute to the community through sports," explains Chubu Electric Power curling team manager Hiroaki Wada, who is a former volleyball player with no experience in curling. "If we're going to do it, we may as well aim for the Olympics. There is potential."
Wada decided to focus on curling instead of volleyball because he says it's difficult to qualify for the Olympics in volleyball, a highly competitive sport played in many countries. It's also hard to find potential players in Japan that have the height required to compete with foreign rivals in volleyball.
Curling, on the other hand, is deeply rooted in Karuizawa, because the 1998 Nagano Olympics curling event was held there. Local players were already available. But more than that, Wada liked the fact that in curling, existing teams are selected to represent the nation rather than individual players being selected from different teams to form a national team.
Chubu Electric Power began thinking about forming a corporate curling team about five years ago. It first recruited three local players, including Miyo Ichikawa, 22.
"I watched (curling during) the Nagano Olympics with my family when I was 8, and took an interest in the sport," recalls Ichikawa.
Miyuki Sato, 21, and Emi Shimizu, 20, joined Ichikawa on the team. Wada then recruited Satsuki Fujisawa, 20, who hails from Kitami, Hokkaido, and has twice competed at the World Junior Championships, to round out the four-member team.
This spring, the Chubu Electric Power curling team finally found itself in an environment where it could practice on ice all year long. Another player, Chiaki Matsumura, 18, joined the team, sparking a friendly rivalry between the teammates who now have to fight for a regular spot on the team.
The team's average age is 20.2 years and none of the players have experience competing at the Olympics. The advantage of a corporate team, however, is that it has financial support from the company. That's why the team has been given opportunities to compete overseas and gain international experience.
Typically in sports like soccer, volleyball and basketball, individual players are selected from various teams to form a national team. But in curling, an existing team is selected to represent Japan because the four members must work so closely together.
At the Pan Pacific Championships to be held in November--in which six nations or regions, including host China and South Korea, are competing--Japan must place in the top two to secure a spot in the World Championships to be held in Canada in March 2012. The results in the 2012 and 2013 World Championships will determine a nation's eligibility to compete at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. If Japan doesn't make it to next year's World Championships, its Olympic berth will be at risk.
The road won't be easy, either. At last year's Pan Pacific Championships, Team Aomori, which represented Japan, came third and missed out on a trip to the World Championships. Japan faces many obstacles. China won a bronze medal at the Vancouver Olympics, while South Korea has been beefing up its curling team since Pyeongchang was chosen to host the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Suddenly faced with the responsibility of representing Japan, captain Ichikawa, who is also the oldest member of the team, says: "There's a lot of pressure to win, but we can use that pressure to boost our energy and focus. I hope we can turn this responsibility to our advantage."
In a competition in New Zealand in August, which served as a run-up to the Pan Pacific Championships, Japan placed third behind South Korea and China.
What does Japan need to do to beat these two nations? Coach Hatomi Nagaoka, who has long instructed men's curling teams, urges the women's team to be more aggressive.
"When you think of global trends, women's teams can't just wait for their opponent to make mistakes," says Nagaoka. "They have to take risks like the men do, or else Japan can't compete with China or South Korea."
The Chubu Electric Power team left for Canada in late September for a monthlong stay to tune up with some quality competition. Now that they have three international matches under their belt, the team "will make some last-minute adjustments," according to Wada.
The women's curling scene is really heating up in Japan. Team Aomori, which represented Japan at the Turin and Vancouver Olympic Games and won the All-Japans for five consecutive years until last year, still boasts three members of the Vancouver Olympic team, including Anna Omiya.
Team Aomori former member Mari Motohashi formed a new team called LocoSolare Kitami in Hokkaido. Another major force is Sapporo International University, whose curling team consists of members who came second at the All-Japan Championships when they were students at Tokoro High School in Hokkaido.
Other teams with potential include Fortius, assisted by Hokkaido Bank. Fortius was born when Ayumi Ogasawara (maiden name Onodera, a former Team Aomori skip), who competed in two Olympics, and Yumie Funayama (maiden name Hayashi, also a former member of Team Aomori) came out of retirement. Another team with potential is Yamanashi-based Team Fujiyama, which is assisted by Fuji Kyuko Co. and led by TV commentator Hiroshi Kobayashi.
Each team is focusing its energies on the February 2012 All-Japan Championships because the winning team will be given the right to compete at the World Championships.
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