Yurie Adachi laughed at the photograph, as if she was revisiting an embarrassing high school yearbook portrait. The photo, taken during a practice at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, showed her on her stomach, posing with her hands on her cheeks, her skates kicking up in the air.
It seemed fun at the time. Instead of performing drills that day, Adachi and her teammates on the Japanese women’s national hockey team had been allowed to frolic on the ice and soak in the moment. Many observers at the time perceived Japan as just being happy to have qualified after a 16-year Olympic absence.
The team — known as “Smile Japan” — quickly became fan favorites for their projected carefree attitudes. But amid the newfound attention, the Japanese women lost all their games and left Sochi disappointed with their performance.
“Even though we were Smile Japan, we couldn’t smile with victory,” Adachi said. “We felt really bitter. This bitterness, we held it for four years. The next Olympic Games we want to get a good result and enjoy it, so we really are smiling.”
Entering the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Japan’s players say they are driven to prove that their team can challenge for a medal. At the same time, the players want to shed the idea that they relish being cute underdogs. Japan, now ranked ninth in the world, opens the Olympic women’s hockey tournament with a game against Sweden on Saturday.
The meaning of Smile Japan has evolved since it was first coined in February 2013, by a Canadian in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia.
Carla MacLeod, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was a member of Japan’s coaching staff during the 2014 Olympic qualifying tournament in Poprad. The Japanese team had just finished breakfast before its opening game against Norway when MacLeod felt a nervous energy permeating the room.
MacLeod watched as a thick, fluffy snow fell and ordered the team to put on their outerwear. Outside, MacLeod engaged the entire team in a snowball fight, melting away their nerves.
“I could see the Norwegian players standing at their windows looking at us like, ‘What is going on there?'” MacLeod said. “I pulled them in and said: ‘This is how we have to play. Because when you play with a smile, you play your best hockey.’ Then before every game, when I fist-pumped them, I said, ‘smile’ and they would smile back at me.”
From that moment, the concept of Smile Japan became a rallying cry for Japanese women’s hockey. The team’s logo is now a red circular face — similar to the sun found on Japan’s national flag — with a hockey stick forming a smile.
Almost every Japanese national team has a nickname. Japan’s baseball team is Samurai Japan. The women’s soccer team is Nadeshiko Japan, named after a flower that symbolizes beauty.
But some players on the women’s hockey team worried Smile Japan presented the wrong message to audiences who did not understand its meaning and only associated the name with the images from the Olympics.
After Japan scored its first goal of the 2014 tournament, the team’s celebration of forming a circle and bowing instantly became 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 women’s hockey team?” The players were called “a lovable underdog” and “kawaii” — the Japanese term for cute — as if they were Hello Kitty characters, not world-class athletes.
“It’s not just we’re happy to be here; we worked our butts off to be here and we’re going to share this time with the people we got here with,” said MacLeod, who was not retained after the 2014 Olympics. “The Smile Japan moniker, the name is incredibly powerful to me and what it stands for. It wasn’t because they were these small petite women who were happy go lucky.”
MacLeod noted that even Canada, which has won the last four Olympic tournaments, takes photos on the ice during practices for keepsakes.
Aina Takeuchi, a defender on the 2014 Olympic team who played in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League after the Sochi Olympics, said she was motivated to change the perception of Japanese players.
“I went to Calgary for three years so I have to show them even as a Japanese player, I can do it,” she said. “After Sochi, each of us learned so many things, so now we have to show in Pyeongchang we are not the team that is always smiling.”
As Japan attempts to shed labels, win its first Olympic game and qualify for the medal round, the team simultaneously feels pressure to grow women’s hockey at home. South Korea and China are investing heavily in the sport, strengthening the competition in Asia.
After the Sochi Games, interest in Smile Japan sharply declined. When Japanese sports papers did cover the team, the coverage often consisted of only photos of players, notably goaltender Nana Fujimoto.
On the ice, Fujimoto won the Best Goaltender award at the International Ice Hockey Federation world championships in 2015, and later that year she played in the inaugural season of the National Women’s Hockey League, where she was named an All-Star.
“Hockey in Japan is a really minor sport,” Fujimoto said. “What we have to do, first of all, we have to get a good result. Then the media is going to treat us to get more coverage. The Olympic Games is the best place for us to appeal, when we get the medal.”
One advantage for Japan this time will be experience. In 2014, only one player had competed in the Olympics. Almost two-thirds of this year’s team will be carry-overs from Sochi.
One first-timer is Shoko Ono, 36, who played in three Olympic qualifying tournaments with the national team, falling short each time. She retired after 2010, resigned that Japan could not compete on the level of Olympic teams.
Watching her former teammates qualify for the 2014 Games, though, reignited Ono’s passion for hockey. She rejoined the national team in 2015, where she was soon competing alongside 16-year-olds.
“I saw my teammates’ smiles,” Ono said, “and I thought I want to go back and smile again.”