Japan's goalie Yutaka Fukufuji at the 2017 IIHF World Championship Division IB in Belfast. Photo: Ian Offers, GBSC.
Fukufuji wants bright future in Japan
With Korea and China making big strides in their hockey programs, Japan's goalie Yutaka Fukufuji is determined to make sure that his country is not left behind.
With the next two Winter Olympic Games taking place in Asia – Korea in 2018, China in 2022 – the spotlight on hockey in the region is brighter than ever. For Japan, long accustomed to being the region’s top hockey power, there’s a danger that these ‘noisy neighbours’ could become the new forces in the Far East, leaving a country that has featured in nine Olympics (including two as host) and nine top-tier World Championships languishing some way behind.
There are concerns that the traditional roots of the Japanese game are withering, as funding falls away. A strong college system continues to produce junior players, but with only a handful of clubs competing in the Asia League, prospects for that talent to mature are limited.
For Yutaka Fukufuji, Japan’s vastly experienced goaltender, it’s difficult to watch the progress made by Japan’s local rivals. “If you look at Korea right now they are doing really well in Division IA and have a great chance of reaching the Elite pool,” he said in Belfast during his Division IB campaign. “China is definitely doing a lot at the moment, linking up with the KHL and the NHL to develop their game. And at the same time in Japan things are kind of going down. It’s sad. I really hope we can attract some more investment into our game.”
Results in Belfast show some promise though. A confident 6-1 dismissal of the Netherlands on the opening day was followed by a solid 4-2 success against Croatia, with Fukufuji himself in impressive form to make 49 saves across the two games. Game three saw Estonia defeated 6-2, with another 28 stops from the one-time LA Kings prospect. The team’s pace and its commitment to forcing turnovers make it a tough opponent and there is a real belief that it should be playing at a higher level.
“It’s a pretty big deal for Japan to get back to Division IA,” Fukufuji said. “We are already looking ahead four years for the 2022 Olympics and we need to get back up the rankings as soon as possible before we start that qualifying cycle.”
An impressive start means promotion is firmly on the agenda, but standards are high in the Far East, and the team expects even more to come as the group shapes up for a winner-takes-all showdown against host nation Great Britain on Saturday.
“I think our team is still building up to its best. We have a couple of young guys here and they are learning every time,” Fukufuji warned Japan’s rivals. “Each game, each win, is very important for us and I’m sure we have more to come as the week goes on.”
While winning gold in Belfast would start Japan on a road to recovery, there is still some way to go before the men can match the country’s women’s team as it heads to its second successive Olympics in PyeongChang next year. While the competition in the women’s game may not be as intense as among the men, it’s still an important reminder that Japan has top-level hockey tradition.
“I guess there are maybe more chances for the women to compete; there aren’t so many strong nations for them,” Fukufuji admitted. “But it’s great to see a Japanese team up there in hockey. It shows that we can have a place among the best and now the men’s team needs to do everything it can to follow them.”