Like Canada in 2010, Japan had high hopes of owning future podiums after it won five golds and five other medals at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.
Since then, Japan has almost disappeared from victory ceremonies.
They garnered only one medal in 2006, when Shizuka Arakawa won a questionable gold in figure skating. They have no golds in Vancouver, and only four medals in total, despite coming with a large group of athletes, press and fans.
Pursing her lips on the podium, silver medalist Mao Asada couldn’t hide her chagrin after mistakes in Thursday’s free skate. “I am glad that I was able to land two triple axels but I had mistakes in other areas,” Asada said after losing to long-time rival Kim Yu-Na of South Korea. “I am not at all satisfied with my performance.”
Afraid of scandals, Japanese athletes are rarely ever seen having fun or drinking, which could make headlines in Japan. Japanese Olympic Committee officials barred the dreadlocked Kazuhiro Kokubo, 21, from the opening ceremonies for not tucking in his shirt at the Narita and Vancouver airports.
Even Kokubo’s own Tokai University stopped publicly supporting him, and he finished 8th in the men’s halfpipe. For his part, Kokubo dismissed the Olympics as “nothing special” and “just another snowboarding event.”
Afraid of failure, shy Japanese athletes often speak in hushed tones, and almost never boast or guarantee victory. Joji Kato, a former 500-metre speed skating world record holder who captured bronze in Richmond, often answers reporters questions with no more words than “hai, hai, hai” – which means “yes, yes, yes.”
“They are not enjoying the sport, they are not comfortable,” says Manto Nakamura, an illustrator and freelance sportswriter who moved from Japan to Vancouver 18 years ago, and teaches indoor soccer at Coal Harbour community centre downtown.
“There’s too much pressure. It makes them crazy. They are trying to be perfect in order to win.”
After settling for bronze in men’s figure skating, Daisuke Takahashi apologized by saying, “I went for it because my goal for this Olympics was to skate a perfect program. But I flubbed the quad and there were other little mistakes.”
Sports writers in Japan say that Japanese athletes, unlike counterparts in China or South Korea, are company employees not driven by obsessive parents, national glory, or the lure of endorsements. Japanese Olympians often seem more interested in making friends with famous athletes than beating them.
Figure skater Fumie Suguri, who narrowly missed medals in 2002 and 2006, wrote in the Asahi Shimbun this week about her fondest Olympic memory: lending her tights to American skater Sasha Cohen and becoming friends.
“Ironically, it’s probably closer to the Olympic ideal than any other country. It’s more about showing up and participating,” says Fred Varcoe, who has been covering Japanese sports for Tokyo media for nearly 30 years.
“The Japanese psyche does not tell athletes to stomp on the opposition. As a result, you get mediocrity because most athletes just don’t have that critical edge. Some rise to the top because they are just too good not to, but most are given a pat on the back if they did their best.
Japanese coaches are also losing patience.
“The Olympics is all about winning medals,” Yoshiri Ito, head of Japan’s Ski Association, told reporters in Vancouver after winning nothing in skiing. “Just getting a place among the top eight finishers doesn’t cut it here.”