Feature: Japan, a thriving curling nation

  • Curling is growing considerably fast in Japan Photo: WCF/Richard Gray
If we take our minds back to 1998 when Nagano hosted the Olympic Winter Games, it’s clear that this was the year when Japan embraced winter sports. The host nation bagged ten medals including five golds, giving them more in Nagano than any other Olympic Winter Games prior to 1998.
The Japanese used those Games to field athletes in all disciplines – except bobsleigh – and they performed exceptionally well in events such as speed skating and ski Jumping.

Their dominance in those events helped ignite Japan's love affair with winter sports.

Curling, which has been described as ‘the fastest-growing winter sport’, was relatively unknown in Japan before they hosted the Olympics, just like soccer was a ‘minority’ sport before USA held the World Cup in 1994.

The Nagano Games marked curling’s return to the Olympic programme for the first time since the Olympic Winter Games in Chamonix, France, in 1924.

Japan finished in fifth place in both the men and women’s competition. The men lost a tie-breaker to USA in the last end, narrowly missing the semi-finals, and breaking the hearts of the home crowd.
Since then, Japanese curling has grown considerably, especially on the northern island of Hokkaido.
According to Masayuki Namioka, Executive Director of Japanese Curling Association, there are over 10,000 curlers in Japan with more than 2,500 regularly competing.

“In Japan, we’ve created an environment where it’s easy to enjoy curling in a variety of situations. For example with your school or company or with your friends and co-workers” he said. He continued: “There has been an increase in the number of curling halls in Japan over the past ten years too.”

Mr Namioka started curling after the Nagano Games and has since introduced his five children to the sport.

He believes the sport is suited to the Japanese people and has looked to improve the standard.
He explained: “Presently, we have foreign coaches training our teams, but it’s also important to develop excellent Japanese coaches too.”

One of those foreign coaches is JD Lind, a Canadian currently living in Sapporo who coaches for the Japanese women’s curling academy, understood to be the only curling academy for women in the world.

However, at the Women’s World Championships, his role is national coach, which involves looking after the Japanese team, who are national celebrities in Japan.

“This team has a big following especially in Hokkaido, where curling is taken very seriously” said Lind.
Japan Team Coach Fuji Miki and National Coach JD Lind Photo: WCF/Richard Gray
The team of Ayumi Ogasawara, Sayaka Yoshimura, Kaho Onodera and Anna Ohmiya have enjoyed relatively good success recently - much to the delight of Japanese fans - and Lind thinks that their media coverage can help develop the sport.

“The better the team do, the more popular curling becomes in Japan” he explains. He added: “They really embrace it because they know by doing it, they will get more people to follow the sport.”

And what a time to get people involved? Aside from a thriving women’s team, the women’s curling academy is doing well.

“The idea is to help the main teams, but try to build a base of decent curlers. So trying to bring the overall level up, but the main role is to try to get more curlers at a high level. Hopefully that will trickle down to the more recreational curlers,” said Lind.
Out with the curling academy, there are other ways to get people into curling. The Association's Talent Identification programme (TID) helps to decide which sport is best for children around 11 or 12.
Despite the TID having nothing to do with Lind, he is intrigued by it, but also encouraged by it. He said:

“I know that Japan have modelled their TID on what Britain did (for example tests to find potential rowers). They had a few tests and picked the kids who were the top performers. So a few of them had curling experience and some of them had never seen it before – it’s a really interesting concept. I’m intrigued to see how that looks ten years from now.”
The Japanese teams, including Team Ogasawara, have been performing consistently on the world stage
Photo: WCF/Richard Gray

The other Canadian who is looking after the Japanese team in Sapporo is team coach Fuji Miki.
His experience has helped the team become serious international competitors - and in turn it’s enabled him to witness at first hand just how far curling has come in the last 15 years.

He said: “The other day I was sitting at the rink in Sapporo and there’s a lot of 12, 13, 14 year old kids that are really skilled – just like Canada. But in Japan, the kids don’t play in many leagues, they practise their fundamentals and that’s where they increase their ability to play.”

When it comes to youth, it is evident they are highly involved in curling, but the same cannot be said for male adults, which Miki thinks is about culture. He said: “When men finish university and find employment, they stop playing. At nine o’clock they’ll start work and by ten o’clock at night they’re still working.”
Japan men finished in fifth place at the 2014 World Men's Championship, narrowly missing out on the play-offs Photo: WCF/Celine Stucki
He does point out that despite their work commitments, many men still find time for curling at the weekends, showing that it is still enjoyed in leisure time.

When asked about the future, Miki’s eyes widened. He said: “These are very exciting times. I’m glad there’s someone like JD here running the academy. I think that in the next five to ten years you’re going to find the level of curling rise dramatically.”

It’s hard not to believe him when you witness first hand the exceptional quality of development being delivered to all ages and all levels of curlers across Japan.
Japan has warmed to the sport of curling since the Olympic Winter Games in Nagano in 1998
Photo: WCF/Richard Gray