The which means of Smile Japan has developed because it was first coined in February 2013, by a Canadian within the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia.
Carla MacLeod, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was a member of Japan’s teaching workers through the 2014 Olympic qualifying event in Poprad. The Japanese group had simply completed breakfast earlier than its opening recreation in opposition to Norway when MacLeod felt a nervous power permeating the room. MacLeod watched as a thick, fluffy snow fell and ordered the group to placed on their outerwear. Exterior, MacLeod engaged the complete group in a snowball combat, melting away their nerves.
“I may see the Norwegian gamers standing at their home windows taking a look at us like, ‘What’s going on there?’” MacLeod mentioned. “I pulled them in and mentioned: ‘That is how now we have to play. As a result of while you play with a smile, you play your finest hockey.’ Then earlier than each recreation, after I fist-pumped them, I mentioned, ‘smile’ and they might smile again at me.”
From that second, the idea of Smile Japan grew to become a rallying cry for Japanese ladies’s hockey. The group’s emblem is now a purple round face — just like the solar discovered on Japan’s nationwide flag — with a hockey stick forming a smile.
Nearly each Japanese nationwide group has a nickname. Japan’s baseball group is Samurai Japan. The ladies’s soccer group is Nadeshiko Japan, named after a flower that symbolizes magnificence.
However some gamers on the ladies’s hockey group frightened Smile Japan introduced the flawed message to audiences who didn’t perceive its which means and solely related the title with the photographs from the Olympics.
After Japan scored its first objective of the 2014 event, the group’s celebration of forming a circle and bowing immediately grew to become an animated GIF. Canadian newspapers ran articles with headlines like “Japan’s team is just adorbs” with polls asking “How cute is Japan’s Olympic ladies’s hockey group?” The gamers have been referred to as “a lovable underdog” and “kawaii” — the Japanese time period for cute — as in the event that they have been Howdy Kitty characters, not world-class athletes.
“It’s not simply we’re completely happy to be right here; we labored our butts off to be right here and we’re going to share this time with the individuals we received right here with,” mentioned MacLeod, who was not retained after the 2014 Olympics. “The Smile Japan moniker, the title is extremely highly effective to me and what it stands for. It wasn’t as a result of they have been these small petite ladies who have been completely happy go fortunate.”
MacLeod famous that even Canada, which has received the final 4 Olympic tournaments, takes images on the ice throughout practices.
Aina Takeuchi, a defender on the 2014 Olympic group who performed within the Canadian Ladies’s Hockey League after the Sochi Olympics, mentioned she was motivated to alter the notion of Japanese gamers.
“I went to Calgary for 3 years so I’ve to indicate them whilst a Japanese participant, I can do it,” she mentioned. “After Sochi, every of us discovered so many issues, so now now we have to indicate in Pyeongchang we aren’t the group that’s at all times smiling.”
As Japan makes an attempt to shed labels, win its first Olympic recreation and qualify for the medal spherical, the group concurrently feels stress to develop ladies’s hockey at dwelling. South Korea and China are investing closely within the sport, strengthening the competitors in Asia. After the Sochi Video games, curiosity in Smile Japan sharply declined. When Japanese sports activities papers did cowl the group, the protection usually consisted of solely images of gamers, notably goaltender Nana Fujimoto.
On the ice, Fujimoto received the Greatest Goaltender award on the Worldwide Ice Hockey Federation world championships in 2015, and later that yr she performed within the inaugural season of the Nationwide Ladies’s Hockey League, the place she was named an All-Star.
“Hockey in Japan is a very minor sport,” Fujimoto mentioned. “What now we have to do, initially, now we have to get outcome. Then the media goes to deal with us to get extra protection. The Olympic Video games is the perfect place for us to attraction, once we get the medal.”
One benefit for Japan this time will probably be expertise. In 2014, just one participant had competed within the Olympics. Nearly two-thirds of this yr’s group will probably be carry-overs from Sochi.
One first-timer is Shoko Ono, 36, who performed in three Olympic qualifying tournaments with the nationwide group, falling quick every time. She retired after 2010, resigned that Japan couldn’t compete on the extent of Olympic groups. Watching her former teammates qualify for the 2014 Video games, although, reignited Ono’s ardour for hockey. She rejoined the nationwide group in 2015, the place she was quickly competing alongside 16-year-olds.
“I noticed my teammates’ smiles,” Ono mentioned, “and I assumed I need to return and smile once more.”